Wild things: Group goes foraging for edibles at nature center

Wild burdock sits on a table ready to be prepared and cooked at the class at the Ogden Nature...
(NICHOLAS DRANEY/Standard-Examiner)
Story by Amy Nicholson
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Tue, May 22, 2012
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In the best-selling “The Hunger Games” book series, main character Katniss is able to survive in the wilderness by foraging the aquatic plant she was named after. She also manages to kill off a foe by feeding her a poisonous berry.

Most folks won’t find themselves in a situation of life and death the way Katniss did, but foraging for food can be a fun pastime if you know which plants are edible and which ones pose a danger.

James Magruder, a volunteer naturalist for Weber Pathways, has made a hobby of learning about edible plants and leads half a dozen hikes throughout the year to share his knowledge.

On a recent Saturday, he took a group through the Ogden Nature Center grounds, pointing out edibles along the way.

His favorite wild asparagus grows in freezing cold water in the early spring. “The flavor is out of this world. It is the mildest asparagus you can get,” Magruder said. Later in the season, it becomes more fibrous and similar to the asparagus found at the grocery store.

Cattails are another excellent source of food when harvested early.

Young cattails have two parts like a linked sausage on top before the two parts merge into one and take on the appearance of a brown hot dog. While the two separate parts are still present, Magruder likes to slice the top of the plant into disks and sauté them in butter for a starchy meal.

“Making a meal off of just leafy greens is difficult. We crave the starches for energy,” he said of the plant’s exceptional value compared with the abundance of leafy greens that grow naturally.

Young cattails can also be ground fine like flour for “cattail flour pancakes.”

Sumac seeds

Magruder warns folks to stay away from sumac trees if they are allergic to cashews, since they come from the same family. But, for those without allergies, the red seeds that grow in bundles on the tree’s branches give off a lemony taste.

These are used as a spice in a popular sumac chicken dish, or they can be soaked in water for easy Indian Lemonade, a subtle lemon-flavored drink.

It’s important to soak the bundles in cool water, not hot, to keep them from turning bitter. Magruder sometimes throws in a few mint leaves for a more complex flavor.

The green parts of the branches near the seed pods are also suitable food, and taste like mild celery after the outer layer has been peeled away.

Greens

Burdock plants are weeds that grow in abundance in our area.

Sometimes Magruder will host a dinner party in which he and his guests dig the burdock roots for a delicious stir fry.

These roots are a popular food in Japan. “They take on the flavor of whatever they are cooked with,” Magruder said of their versatility.

Another of Magruder’s favorite plants is the dandelion. “There are a number of ways to eat it,” he said. Some shy away from the bitterness of dandelion greens, but Magruder has found a recipe that takes advantage of the flavor in the crowns, the white or pink part of the stems.

After frying the crowns in bacon grease, Magruder adds them to a hamburger with blue cheese for a distinctive flavor. “There is very little bitterness in the crowns,” he added.

The roots can be dried and roasted to make a coffee-like drink, and, of course, the greens make a good addition to a salad.

Magruder also enjoys curly dock, which is similar to burdock. “They are one of my favorite green edibles because they are everywhere. They make a super-good camp breakfast cooked with eggs,” he said.

Beware the dangers

Katie McVey, of Ogden, is a biologist who works at the bird refuge in Brigham City. She grew up popping berries, mint leaves and currants in her mouth while exploring the outdoors and attended Magruder’s presentation to learn more.

“The outdoors is something I seek out in my free time,” she said.

So, becoming more aware of her surroundings and the names and uses of the plants is interesting to her.

Cheyenne Herland, the Ogden Nature Center’s staff botanist, said she has spent 20 years studying plants, but is very careful when dealing with something she is not familiar with. She doesn’t consider a plant edible until she has triple referenced it, just to be safe, since some plants are dangerous or even deadly.

In fact, she advises staying away from mushrooms altogether.

She enjoys making herbal medicines and bath products from plants and taught her daughter, Emelia Church, 11, to recognize wild edibles since she was just 2 years old.

Church said she enjoys foraging food in their backyard and from the garden. Occasionally, she finds berries or blossoms on hikes, too.

“All of my birthday cakes have had some kind of edible flower on them,” Church said.

James Magruder’s next hike is 9 a.m. to noon June 16, leaving from Green Pond. Call 801-755-9274 or visit weberpathways.org for more information.

RECIPES

Recipes from James Magruder:

Braised Crowns With Blue Cheese and Bacon

  • 2-3 medium dandelion rosettes
  • 3-6 strips of bacon
  • 3 hamburger patties (beef or lamb)
  • 3 hamburger buns
  • Blue cheese to taste

Dig 2-3 medium-size dandelion rosettes. Wash and remove roots. (Reserve roots, if desired, to dry and roast for a coffee-like drink.) Remove greens, reserving for a salad, if desired. Separate crowns, pink and white parts of stem, for this recipe. Brown bacon in olive oil and remove from pan, reserving grease. Braise crowns in reserved grease (you may include a small amount of dandelion greens, if desired). Cover and steam for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, cook hamburger patties thoroughly. When crowns are soft, top with blue cheese and crumbled bacon and add to hamburger.

Wild Fruit Salad

  • 2 green pears, cored and diced
  • 2 red apples, cored and diced
  • 2 kiwi, peeled and sliced
  • 1-2 cups honey locust blossoms
  • 1 lime
  • 6-8 ounces lime-flavored yogurt

Place all fruits in a large bowl and squeeze the juice from the lime over the top. Add yogurt and stir to coat well. Add blossoms last and stir gently to incorporate.

Gobo Kinpira

  • 1/2 pound burdock root
  • 1/4 pound carrots
  • 2 tablespoons sake (rice wine)
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Dig 4-5 burdock roots from plants that have not yet shot up a flower stalk. Discard tops, wash roots well and peel. Place sake and vinegar in a bowl. Slice peeled burdock roots into thin ovals and drop slices into sake and vinegar mixture to prevent browning. Slice carrots in the same manner. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry burdock for 2-3 minutes before adding carrots. Stir-fry for 2-3 more minutes. Add sake and vinegar mixture, sugar and soy sauce.

Stir and cook over high heat until liquid is reduced and desired tenderness is achieved. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve hot.

Indian Lemonade

  • 2 large sumac seed bundles (bright red)
  • 1/2 cup mint leaves

Add seed bundles and mint leaves to cool water and allow to sit for several hours. Strain water and serve.

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