Sure, if you have money and you know what you’re looking for, you can get restaurant-quality produce, meat, and fish by shopping around for the good stuff. But chances are, a great restaurant is still going to top you on quality, because that’s where the purveyors and growers go with their best stuff, knowing that the market is there and they’re going to get top dollar.
But when it comes to fresh spring produce, there are a few notable categories in which even you, the Midwestern home cook, have a potential edge on most restaurant chefs. I’m talking foraged edibles – those treasures of nature which humans still haven’t figured out how to cultivate or farm after thousands of years of agriculture.
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Two of the most prized signs of spring on the tables at high-end restaurants across the country and world at this time of year grow wild abundantly in the forests of Indiana, as well as in many other states. These are morel mushrooms and ramps. If you know what you’re looking for and when/where to look, you can share in these prized and typically pricey tastes of spring, for the low cost of taking a hike in the blooming forest.
First of all, one must be sure what one’s looking for. It’s never a good idea to just go plucking plants at random out of the forest floor and attempting to eat them. Morel mushrooms, thankfully, have a very specific look to them: a trademark honeycomb appearance like the ones in the photo above. A quick search of the internet will find you many photos and once out in the wet spring woods, you’ll know it when you see it. If you’re unsure, check with someone who knows, and if still in doubt, don’t eat it! But once you’ve tasted the real thing, you’ll understand why folks around here are so mad for ‘em this time of year: morels have a unique, meaty, earthy flavor that goes great with butter, cream, steak or chicken, and other green spring veggies like asparagus.
Ramps are perhaps a bit harder to identify, though more plentiful – they are a variety of wild leek, similar to a scallion or green onion, with a pungent garlicky smell. If you get the root out, you’ll see a thin, long white onion shape, often with a pink root tip. Again, once you know what you’re looking for, you can enjoy the fresh oniony taste in a saute with the aforementioned mushrooms, or in an omelet, compound butters, or any number of soups.
The other common deterrent to starting foraging is that anybody who has found a spot in which these wild edibles tend to grow year-after-year is not typically interested in divulging the location, lest someone else move in on their precious “crops.” So really, you just have to be open to checking out any large wooded area nearby. Make sure it is not private or protected property, but there are plenty of public parks that allow folks to wander the trails.
The trick with the morels is you need rain. They are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus, which sends forth its mushrooms after any heavy spring rain. The ground needs to be warm and wet, and the next day when the sun comes out is your cue to start exploring.
My three-year-old and I got out the first week of May to explore a couple locations around Indianapolis, following a Monday-night deluge that seemed like the right warm-to-wet ratio. Sure enough, we found enough to make a delicious chicken dish with artichoke hearts, morels and white wine cream sauce that night, which was appreciated very much by Mom, if not necessarily the kids. Hard to say, as usual, but one can hope that something about the experience of finding one’s own food rubbed off on the youngsters, even if the little ones can’t yet appreciate that the restaurant chefs would be jealous.