Foraging First Foods On The West Coast
I love foraging, (I'm sure you can see by all my posts on wild mushrooms) but there are so many more wild foods to forage in spring. The First Nations people called these First Foods for obvious reasons. This is important knowledge to have if you might find yourself lost while hiking but it's also useful information to teach our children. It's a great family friendly activity that gets you outside-a true treasure hunt!
Wild Foods That Taste Good
The list of wild food sources is almost endless but I have chosen to focus on the foods that actually taste good and add important vitamins to our diet. I have also added in how to prepare, cook and use these delicious wild food gifts. And of course, don't eat anything you can't identify with 100% certainty.
Seafood Is Easy With No Special Equipment Needed!
Yep, you don't need a fishing rod or trap, find out online at BC Fisheries (or google your fisheries dept if elsewhere) what local areas are open for clams, oysters, mussels and more! (Search around the site, you'll see other interesting seafood you can harvest too!) You need a fishing license but you can find it online right here and kids under 16 get theirs free.
Sometimes called a clam gun, a shovel is all you need to dig for clams. You may think you need a sandy beach but they can be found on rocky beaches too, just move the big rocks and dig under. Generally clams will be found 6 inches and deeper, often at around 1 foot depth. Different clams have different rules on size and amount you can keep so check out your local fisheries guidelines.
Oysters are found laying on beaches, you might like to take a sturdy screwdriver to pry them off rocks if they are strongly attached. Mussels are found in clumps on rocks and either your shovel or screwdriver can loosen them and sometimes they can just be pulled off by hand. Shellfish should only be gathered when there is no risk of red tide, generally the cooler months but again, bookmark the fisheries page and check it out before you go.
Steaming these shellfish is about the easiest way to enjoy them as they will gently open on their own as they steam. Alternatively you can pan fry them, make fritters, top a salad or pasta or make some delicious chowder.
Try these Miso Baked Oysters. I first steamed them just til open, then added in some delicious ingredients for a Japanese riff on Oysters Rockefeller.
Or these scrumptious and Super Crispy Pan Fried Oysters.
Go Catch Some Crabs
Crabs are also available though since they move pretty quick in water they can be more challenging. The idea is that you wear tall boots or hip waders and carry a long stick and bucket as you wade through shallow water (sandy and flat tends to be best). When you see a crab, you try to agitate it enough to pinch your stick, then up into your bucket it goes. I'll admit it's a little easier said than done but it is a fun activity for kids and can be done year round. If successful, who doesn't love a delicious crab cake?!? Steam or boil your crab in salty water for 10 minutes, then cool and shell to eat plain with melted butter or lemon or in your favourite recipe.
Or try my low carb, Gluten Free Crab Cakes developed for my dad.
Wildly Delicious Salad Greens
If you have your own yard, you may find chickweed, miners lettuce, dandelion greens and plantain right in front of you. To harvest, I simply take the strainer out of my salad spinner and fill it up. Once back inside, I put it back into the spinner, fill with water and clean the greens. Easy.
Chickweed and miners lettuce are both soft and mild in early spring (the best time to eat these). Chickweed is different from any look alikes in that it is green on it's underside and doesn't have any milky sap. Chickweed is best raw and used within a day or two of picking.
Miners lettuce (aka Claytonia) has rounded leaves (see below) and is fairly low growing and as it matures, it will have little pink or white flowers at the base of the leaf. Depending on conditions, it can have small leaves close to an inch or get up to 6 inch diameter leaves! Soft leaves are full of vitamin C and are mild and tasty, good used raw or cook it like spinach. These two pictures were taken this week (Mid-March) in neglected areas of my yard. Have a good look around your own yard, I bet you'll find some!
Dandelion is in the daisy family but closely related to chicory and can be treated as such. The green parts can be bitter to some but young tender leaves are great in a salad or steam them and use them in soup or pasta. The bright yellow flowers are sweeter and can be used raw or made into fritters, wine or vegan honey! Steep the flowers in a simple syrup and then reduce to the consistency of honey.
Plantain is another common "weed". It has a nutty and almost mushroom flavour and is best eaten while young and tender. I first ate this ubiquitous "weed" in a fancy restaurant in Italy! It was served over tartar with shaved truffles and I was so impressed! Definitely worth trying or adding to a mixed green salad. Leaves can vary from narrow (pictured) to wide with ridges that run vertically. They sprout from a tap root and each leave begins at the base of the plant. The flowers that come later are tall and spiky. In addition to eating, plantain can give almost instant relief to a bee sting. Simple chew it up to make a paste consistency and put on the sting.
Clover is also easily found in many lawns and the flowers make a sweet flavoured pretty addition.
The next on this list is purslane. With it's lovely bright lemony taste it is a wonderful firm textured salad green.
In more wild areas, you may find watercress, which is peppery and delicious. Found usually in or near running water or in very wet soil, this is one way to help identify it. It has round-ish glossy green leaves and will sometimes have white flowers, the stems are hollow. Watercress pairs so well with goat cheese and a blackberry vinaigrette. You can also make a lovely classic French Watercress soup too!
The wildest of these salad greens are the nettles. Be sure to wear gloves and cook your nettles before eating. Cooking removes the sting and then these can be prepared in any way you'd use steamed spinach such as a soup, quiche, plain steamed with salt and olive oil or in a dip. I have not previously foraged for these (but it's on my to-do list) so check online or a book to properly identify this one.
A really great resource is Bill Jones Deerholme Farm Foraging guides. He is based here on Vancouver Island and if you are in the area, you can even get foraging lessons directly from him!
Foraging For Vegetables
Some wild foods are more hearty such as wild asparagus, found often in sandy soils and oh so good. Wild asparagus can be treated exactly like cultivated and looks pretty much the same, though often they are a little skinnier.
Ramps are lovely wild onions with tall green tops. They look like a cross between a green onion and a leak, and can be used as such. What about trying this warm, comforting soup recipe with them? A quick, vegan wonder that is so tasty, you'll be amazed at how few ingredients you need! If you come upon a patch of ramps, you can really get quite a few. Be sure to only harvest 10-20 % of the patch so that they will continue producing in years to come.
Fiddleheads are baby ostrich ferns that are still firmly coiled up. You will find them in damp and wet places. They need to be cooked for safety and are like a cross between broccoli and asparagus. Fiddleheads are one of my favourites. These are substantial and really tasty, definitely worth seeking out. I have 2 recipes for them, one in a delicious pizza and the other steamed and topped with garlic and ginger. Try one of my recipes below or top with a Japanese sesame dressing for a wild Gomae!
Salmonberry shoots can be cut and peeled and eaten raw when they are young, with a bright sweet-tart taste or gently steamed or stir fry them. Salmonberry shoots are a traditional First Food and as the berry bushes mature, they are one of the first berries to ripen as well.
Sea Asparagus in another fun vegetable. It may be a little later in spring but once it starts, it's easy to find a LOT of it. Very salty, this is best soaked for a day or two in cold water in your fridge. Then enjoy raw, steamed, fried or even pickled. Have a look at the picture below and you'll find it easy to recognize next time you see it at the beach.
Mushrooms Equal Forest Gold
Ok, ok, I admit I am biased but yum! I really love mushrooms! They are a great textural substitute to meat, have wonderful flavour and in the store they can be prohibitively expensive so it feels like a gold mine when you find a good patch. Oyster mushrooms are a good spring mushroom that you will find growing off a tree, stump or fallen log in clumps. Morels are a classic spring mushroom that can be elusive but look where there has been a forest fire in the past for your best luck. These are easy to identify with a good mushroom book and don't have any close lookalikes. (Be sure to wash them carefully and if they are old, make sure there are not bugs in them.) Both of these types of mushrooms can be used in virtually any recipe using mushrooms but I am partial to sauteing them with butter and garlic and eating them on toast, this delicious Wild Mushroom Risotto recipe or a creamy, luxurious gratin casserole recipe.
Bolete mushrooms can also sometimes be found in the spring, use your guide to identify these. (I am not a pro at identifying these). These are often larger, firm and meaty mushroom and are great in the Mushroom Lentil Stew.
Some delicious wild food finds are a bit strong to be eaten plain but are wonderful for flavouring such as spruce and fir tips. These fresh bright green tree tips are delicious (but strongly flavoured) with a tart resinous flavour. In a good way, I promise! Choose tips that are just emerging from their brown husks and still fairly tight and only take a few from each tree. The picture below is a little past ideal but I test them by taking a bite and if they are still soft enough for me, I pick them. I did enjoy the fir tips below in tea after rinsing well. Spruce or Fir tea needs a longer steeping time than black tea. You can store them by blending to a fine powder with salt or sugar and drying.
Spruce and Fir Tips are also great used in moderation in salad or stir fry. They make a very aromatic garnish for a stiff drink and I like to use the flavoured sugar in an Old Fashioned cocktail and in baking for an unusual but very appealing flavour. The intensity of these is similar to using rosemary.
I hope I've offered some inspiration of wild foods to forage in spring, print this out and go on the Ultimate Nature Treasure Hunt! Let me know below what you end up finding! Happy foraging my friends, stay well.