Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Fiddleheads blend with nettles, pike for meal in the wild
But there are ways to get a jump on the garden by harvesting edible plants in spring. You will get that first taste of spring without having to work at all. In fact, you can create whole meals of spring greens and mushrooms gathered while taking walks through the beautiful countryside.
Last week, good friend Ted Poyser dropped in for a few days of fishing and some rural R & R. Our first foray was to a nearby lake where we caught some chunky prairie pike. On the way home, I suggested we get some greens to go along with the fish.
One of the finest spring foods is the fiddlehead, the new shoots of the fern species known as the ostrich fern. Sold at great cost in Manitoba's gourmet stores, few Manitobans know wild fiddleheads abound here.
Fiddleheads are young ferns, so named because of their curly stalks that look remarkably like the head of a violin. Ferns grow very quickly so fiddlehead time is short. But if you hit it right, you can fill up a cooler.
Ted and I gathered all we needed from a patch near home. We only took those that were tightly curled and avoided any that were starting to stretch out.
"How about some 'spinach'?" I asked Ted.
In answer to his puzzled look, I walked to a patch of newly emergent stinging nettles. We have all fought this tenacious imported weed in our yards, but the young shoots make a great addition to an omelette or as a companion green to steamed fiddleheads.
My fingers tingled as I picked the ends of these prickly plants, but that soon went away in anticipation of the meal to come.
To add to our bounty I had earlier picked some morel mushrooms, the epitome of wild foods.
Like beautiful buttery brown ghosts, they one day appear on the forest floor in spring. Capricious and mysterious, their abundance changes dramatically from year-to-year, depending on rainfall.
Mushroom picking is an important part of Manitoba's heritage, especially in the community. Known as "smorzie" in Ukrainian, mushroom picking is an important rite of spring in my area.
While people talk freely about the pails and pails of morels they have picked, don't even bother asking them for picking locations. Such information is jealously guarded and handed down from generation to generation.
Morel habitat is hard to describe. They often are found in open aspen forest with a bit of grass, on somewhat moist soils. Morel habitat has a certain feel to it that you will recognize as your experience grows. Lightly grazed wooded pastures are good places to start.
Back to supper.
Now that we had gathered all of the ingredients it was time to prepare our wild meal. My wife Caroline sautéed the mushrooms in butter -- on other occasions we've added onions and sour cream to the mix.
The fiddleheads and nettles were steamed and sprinkled with sesame seeds and a red wine vinaigrette. I prepared the "blackened" pike, Cajun-style.
There are a number of good books on wild plant identification.
The mushroom hunters bible is J. Walton Groves's Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of Canada published in 1979 by Agriculture Canada.
Morels are one of the few spring mushrooms out there, so you are quite safe picking them, although you will want to be able to distinguish the edible kind from its inedible and mildly toxic cousin, the false morel. Groves has good photos of both.
For other plants, I like Gerald Mulligan's Common Weeds of Canada (1976) and the somewhat technical A.C. Budd and K.F. Best book, Wild Plants of the Canadian Prairies (1969). Both books are published by Agriculture Canada.
Learn your plants, get out the cookbooks and enjoy.
* * *
Congratulations to all of the young hunters and their mentors who took part in the first mentored youth wild-turkey hunt in Manitoba. Judging by the reports of successful hunts from young Nathan Sims of MacGregor and nephew Mark Sopuck of Winnipeg, turkey hunting soon will become a Manitoba tradition.
Congratulations also are due to the Manitoba Wildlife Federation for another extremely successful Becoming An Outdoorswoman event.
The first annual fund-raising dinner for the Wild Gobblers Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation will be at the Delta Winnipeg on June 14. Call John Krupinski at 667-8500 for details.
(Robert D. Sopuck is a vice-president with the Delta Waterfowl Foundation (www.deltawaterfowl.org), a member of the Wildlife Information Network of Manitoba.)
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage
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