Wooed by wild edibles

Whether the dandelion is a noxious weed or a tasty salad green is entirely a matter of perspective.

This is what Martha Webber, an award-winning Ottawa-based educator and naturalist, teaches aspiring foragers every spring with her wild edibles course.

From the base of her farm property just west of Kanata, she leads groups into the nearby forests and fields to discover the staggering variety of edible plants growing wild in our region.

One evening in late April, I joined about 20 other students for the start of this year’s course, which ran for six consecutive Wednesdays. Some were already well-versed in the topic and could identify a dozen or more edible wild plants. Others were beginners who had only tasted popular ones like the wild leek, fiddlehead or morel mushroom.

The first evening, we gathered around Webber, a slight woman in her middle 80s, as she led us around the sprawling weed fields surrounding her farm house, pointing out the garlic mustard, Jerusalem artichoke, stinging nettle, plantain, and sedum — all edible.

“I once had a student who said he wanted to learn to be completely self-sufficient, to get all the food he needed from the wild,” Webber recounted as she encouraged us to nibble the leaves of each plant we were shown. “But by the fourth week of the class, it turned out he hadn’t tasted any of the plants. Now I make sure that everyone at least takes a taste.”

She has been teaching about wild edibles in Ottawa since the 1970s. Having studied botany and geology, she has a fascination with nature and a drive to teach that have proven to be lifelong passions.

“I try to get three things across in all classes,” she says. “Positive identification — there are lookalikes for most wild edibles. Conservation — leave enough of the plants to survive your harvest. And, pick with permission from property owners and in a clean environment.”

In addition to the wild edibles course, Webber runs a summer camp, guiding children in explorations of the flora, fauna and geology of natural areas in Ottawa. She also leads family nature walks at the Carp Ridge EcoWellness Centre and volunteers to take groups into the South March Highlands for guided forest walks.

In 2007, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club gave Webber the Mary Stuart Education Award for her outstanding work in the field of natural history education in the Ottawa Region.

The wild edibles course was a pleasant mix of foraging in the forests or fields and gathering together in Webber’s rustic farm house to sample snacks made from wild foods.

She served us Jerusalem artichokes, one of the first spring crops, sliced thin and marinated along with wild leek in vinegar. She had us pick and nibble the leaves of sedum, dandelion, garlic mustard and waterleaf, which we then mixed into a salad with basswood buds, young day lily shoots and wild leeks. A simple vinaigrette helped mellow the bite of the more bitter greens.

Every week, the fields and woods revealed a new food source to us. The ostrich fern leaves emerged as a cluster of tightly furled fiddleheads. Within just a few days, each fiddlehead opened into a ferny leaf that’s better beheld than eaten.

One evening in mid-May, we were drenched by a rainstorm while searching for morels and other tasty fungi in the forest. We didn’t find any that week, but we did find crinkle root, a three-leaved plant that tastes very much like horseradish, and spring beauty, with its dainty pinkish flowers and tiny potato-like bulbs buried at the ends of its roots.

Feral might be a better adjective than wild for many of the free-roaming edible plants we examined on our walks. Many weed species, battled furiously by gardeners and groundskeepers, are not native to North America, but were rather imported by early European settlers who valued them for their culinary, medicinal, or ornamental uses.

“Wherever Europeans settled, they always brought along their favourite plants,” says Webber.

Dandelion is one of her favourites. The leaves she eats raw in salads, or steams. The roots she dries, grinds and then brews with hot water for a coffee-like drink. She flowers she tosses into salads, uses for her famous dandelion jam or, for a decadent dessert, dips in batter, deep-fries and sprinkles with cinnamon sugar.

It wasn’t just edible plants that Webber acquainted us with as we tromped through the leaf-littered woods and fields. She also showed us soapwort (once used to make soap), tansy (a natural bug repellent), bloodroot, squirrel corn and countless other plants. For her, there is immense value in knowing the plants, edible and otherwise, of one’s local region.

What motivates her to keep teaching her course, year after year? “Awareness,” she says. “So many people aren’t aware of the plants around them. They drive around and just see a blur of green.”

I know what she means. With the green now less of a uniform blur to me, I find myself slowed as I walk my neighbourhood’s streets, every garden or patch of grass beckoning me to investigate.

Once I learned to recognize garlic mustard, I started noticing it everywhere. There it was in patches at the arboretum, there again growing along the edge of the cycling path. Walking by an elementary school in the Glebe one afternoon, I noticed a thicket of it so abundant that if I were to harvest and freeze the lot of it, I would probably still be eating it well into November.

For the potluck banquet held on the second-last week of Webber’s course, we feasted on such diverse delights as cooked milkweed shoots in a creamy sauce, sorrel soup, wild leek chutney on crackers, stuffed grape leaves, rhubarb lemonade, elderberry compote, and black walnut chocolate cheesecake.

I asked Webber how long she plans to keep teaching the wild edibles course. “As long as I am able to,” she said. This is a fortunate thing for Ottawa’s nature and food lovers alike.

Recommended reading for foragers

Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1985)

Wildflowers and Weeds, by Booth Courtenay and James H. Zimmerman (Simon & Schuster, 1992)

Checklist of Vascular Plants of the Ottawa-Hull Region, Canada, by John M. Gillet and David J. White (National Museum of Natural Sciences, 1978)

Garlic Mustard Pesto

2 cups (500 mL) garlic mustard leaves

1/4 cup (50 mL) almonds or pine nuts

1 tablespoon (15 mL). fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL). salt

1/4 cup (50 mL) olive oil

1. Wash garlic mustard leaves, drain, and dry using a salad spinner or kitchen towel.

2. Place leaves, nuts, lemon juice and salt in a food processor and blend well, periodically scraping down sides of processor with a spatula.

3. With food processor running, slowly drizzle in olive oil, until mixture becomes smooth and no large pieces of garlic mustard or nuts remain.

Wild Greens and Flower Salad

3 cups (750 mL) mixed wild greens, such as dandelion leaves, sedum, waterleaf, garlic mustard, wild leek

1/3 cup (75 mL) wild flowers, such as clover, violets, or dame’s rocket

Handful of young day lily shoots (optional, if in season)

1/4 cup (50 mL) apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup (50 mL) olive, nut, or vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) salt

1. Chop day lily shoots into 1/4-inch pieces and wash thoroughly, as you would a leek, then drain.

2. Wash, dry, and tear greens.

3. Combine lily shoots and greens in salad bowl along with flowers.

4. Whisk together vinegar, oil and salt, then pour over salad and toss to coat.

5. If using dandelion or garlic mustard leaves, allow salad to sit in vinaigrette for a half-hour or more before serving. This will soften the bitterness of the leaves.

Dandelion Flower Fritters

The pollen in dandelion flowers may cause allergic reactions in some people. Sufferers of asthma, ragweed, and hay fever are often advised to avoid eating them.

2 cups (500 mL) dandelion flowers, stems intact

1/3 cup (75 mL) all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon (3 mL) baking powder

1/2 tablespoon (7 mL) sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) salt 1/2 cup water or milk

1 tablespoon (15 mL) vegetable oil, plus enough to fill a skillet or pot 1-inch deep

1 tablespoon (15 mL) sugar (optional)

1 teaspoon (5 mL) cinnamon (optional)

1. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder and sugar.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together water or milk and 1 tablespoon (15 mL) vegetable oil.

Pour into centre of flour mixture, and stir until batter is evenly moistened.

3. Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet or pot at medium-high. Test the heat by flicking in a drop of batter; oil is ready when it sizzles.

4. Dip each dandelion flower in batter, then deep-fry in oil for a few minutes, laying the stems over the rim of the pot or skillet, until golden.

5. Drain on paper towels and, if desired, serve with sugar and cinnamon mixed in a small bowl on the side, for sprinkling.

In this recipe adapted from passionatepastry.blogspot.ca, the foraged ingredients include the black walnuts and the wild grapes. If wild grapes are not available, substitute store-bought grape jelly in the glaze.

Makes: one 8-inch diameter cake

For the crust:

1/2 cup (125 mL) all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons (25 mL)unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon (2.5 mL) kosher salt

1/4 cup (50 mL) black walnuts, chopped medium fine

3 tablespoons (40 mL) brown sugar

3 tablespoons (40 mL) unsalted butter, melted

1/4 cup (50 mL) best quality semisweet (58-per-cent) chocolate, grated

For the cheesecake:

8 ounces (240 g) best-quality bittersweet (64- to 68-per-cent) chocolate, coarsely chopped

3/4 cup (175 mL) whipping cream

1 tablespoon (15 mL) plus 1 teaspoon (10 mL) unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

2 tablespoons (25 mL) instant coffee granules

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) kosher salt

1 pound (two 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature

3/4 cup (175 mL) sugar

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon (15 mL) rum

For the glaze:

1/4 cup (50 mL) wild grape jelly (recipe below)

1 tablespoon (15 mL) water

Before You Start:

Position a rack in the centre of your oven. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Turn an 8-inch springform pan upside down and cover the bottom and sides with aluminum foil. The foil should come up at least halfway on all sides, so that the water from the water bath will not leak through. Line the inside bottom of the springform pan with parchment paper cut to fit exactly. Using a nonstick vegetable cooking spray, spray the inside papered bottom and sides of the pan.

To Make The Crust:

1. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, sugar, and black walnuts. Stir in the melted butter.

2. Press the mixture onto the bottom and 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately scatter the grated chocolate chips evenly over the crust to melt. Set aside to cool.

To Make the Cheesecake:

1. Reduce the oven to 300 F.

2. In the top of a double boiler set over simmering, not boiling water, melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Keep warm.

3. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, whisk together the whipping cream, cocoa powder, instant coffee, and salt until the mixture comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

4. In the bowl, cream together the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Pour in the melted chocolate and mix until smooth, scraping the bottom of the bowl to make sure the chocolate is incorporated. Add the cream mixture and mix well.

5. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until just combined. Add the rum and beat until combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared crust and spin to level the batter. Cover the top of the springform pan with aluminum foil.

7. Place the springform pan inside a roasting pan large enough to hold it. Fill the roasting pan with hot water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 1 hour. Turn down the oven to 250 F. and bake for an additional 45 minutes, or until the centre is just set. Turn off the oven, remove the foil from the top of the cheesecake, and let the cheesecake stand in the oven for 1 more hour.

8. Remove the pan from the water and place on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate uncovered for 3 hours to overnight before unmolding. To unmold, slide a knife along the edges of the cheesecake and release the springform pan.

9. For the glaze: In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the jelly with water, stirring using a whisk until bubbling.

10. Pour the glaze over the chilled cheesecake and spread gently with a spatula. Before serving, refrigerate for approximately 10 minutes until the jam is set.

11. Garnish with mint, chocolate mint or candied violets, if desired.

Wild Grape Jelly

3 pounds (1.4 kg) wild grapes, stemmed

3 cups (750 mL) water

4 1/2 cups (1.125 L) sugar

1 (85 ml) package liquid pectin

1. In large saucepan, crush grapes with potato masher.

2. Pour in water and bring to boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until fruit is very soft.

4. Transfer to jelly bag or colander lined with a double thickness of fine cheesecloth and let drip overnight.

5. Measure juice (you should have 3 cups/750 ml) into a large heavy saucepan.

6. Stir in sugar.

7. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly.

8. Stir in pectin.

9. Return to full boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly.

10. Remove from heat and skim off foam with a metal spoon.

11. Pour into sterilized jars, leaving 1/8-inch headspace.

Connect with Lori Theresa Waller |author@ottawastyle.com