Where the wild foods are

  • By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, May 3, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Jennifer Hahn sees more than the forest for the trees. She sees dinner.

From ferns come fiddleheads. From trees, sap for syrup or blossoms for a fritter. From the forest floor, delicate mushrooms and lemon-flavored wood sorrel.

Where some see weeds, Hahn sees possibilities.

She

can transform the lowly dandelion into a triumvirate of culinary treats. The flower creates a sweet syrup. The leaves are a fine addition to a salad. And from the mighty tap root — roasted and pulverized — a complex ice cream with hints of chocolate, coffee, molasses and caramel.

“It’s the most overlooked green weed,” Hahn, 52, said.

At a time when many people are looking to eat local, Hahn looks to her back yard.

Inspired by a childhood spent foraging with a friend, she honed her skills during a solo kayak trip from Alaska south to Bellingham. She chronicled the journey in her 2001 book, “Spirited Waters.”

Hahn foraged to supplement her stores. She ate sea urchin the way long-distance runners eat Gu, an energy gel.

Inspired by a growing interest in local food, Hahn last year published “Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine.”

She sought out some of the best-known chefs to contribute recipes and scored with big names including Tom Douglas, Jerry Traunfeld, Maria Hines and Holly Smith.

Famous restaurants Chez Panisse in the San Francisco Bay Area, Willows Inn on Lummi Island and The Herbfarm in Woodinville all offered recipes.

The result is a gorgeous, well-written field guide that inspires readers to better appreciate the natural surroundings and abundance of the Pacific Northwest.

There’s plenty of food growing in the wild, ripe for the picking.

“When you look out into the forest, there’s food and medicine everywhere,” Hahn said.

Hahn, who teaches at Western Washington University and gives seminars throughout the region, said her mission is conservation through the palate.

As she stepped from her back door to harvest bundles of lady fern fiddleheads, she was careful to pick no more than one head from each root. That preserves the plant’s energy.

Much of her knowledge comes from First Nation practices that preserved species. She admires the ancient wisdom that sought harmony with nature.

She’s also cautious when picking wild plants. With the fiddlehead, anything bigger than a hand’s length from the ground can be toxic.

“When you’re picking greens, you want to know what you’re doing,” she said.

By reading “Pacific Feast,” it’s easy to get started. Hahn includes simple clues to distinguish the lady fern from its poisonous look-alike, the sword fern.

Once harvested, the fiddleheads can be sauteed, marinated or tempura fried. The ferns taste a bit like artichoke or asparagus.

As her basket filled with the curly green delights, Hahn offered her gratitude.

“Thank you, fern,” she said. “These are lovely.”

In a couple of hours, she picked stinging nettles for a pesto and wood sorrel for a cream sauce topping for oysters. She picked dandelion greens, salmon berry blossoms, licorice fern and fireweed.

She picked giant skunk cabbage leaves to use as a natural serving platter. (The leaves must be boiled in several batches of water to remove toxins. The plant is a survival food, but not something for everyday dinners.)

Later in the season, she’ll pick from the abundance of berries, forage kelp, seaweeds and mollusks from her kayak and hunt mushrooms growing in the shade of trees.

Back in her kitchen on a partly sunny spring day, she used about every dish in her house to whip up a fabulous feast. It was wonderful to eat off the land.

“You fall in love with the delicious flavors of the Pacific Northwest that have been here for millions of years,” she said.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Where to forage in Snohomish County?

Jennifer Hahn recommends foraging in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Pick up a free permit at a ranger station. Always check local rules before foraging on public lands or in public waters.

Hahn recommends taking a foraging class before attempting to harvest on your own. She offers several courses in the region, including two classes in Snohomish County:

Pacific Feast: a slide show, lecture and book-signing, 7 p.m. June 2. NW Stream Center, 600 128th St. SE, Everett. $5 member, $7 nonmembers. Registration required. Call 425-316-8592

Finding Earth Delicious: a walk followed by a cooking demonstration, 11 a.m. June 18. NW Stream Center, 600 128th St. SE, Everett. Registration required. Call 425-316-8592.

For more information: pacificfeast.com.

Pacific Feast” is published by Skipstone and retails for $21.95. A pocket foraging guide is available for $7.95. Check local bookstores or visit www.skipstonebooks.org.

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