Despite a very long winter that has not yet left this area, spring is now gracing us all with the presence of dirty snow banks and ice. It is those ugly snowbanks that are a harbinger that spring’s Free Range Shopping is coming soon.
What is Free Range Shopping? It is a means of freely foraging nutritious and delicious food. By mid to late April, as top layers of soil are visible and warmed by the sun, delicious morsels will be offered.
Some of the earliest available plants will include dandelion, sunchokes, and ramps. Dandelion, taraxacum officianle, roots may be harvested when deeper layers of soil are still frozen. As soon as the plant is barely visible, the tap root is cleaned, chopped and roasted in an 250-300 degree oven until the smell is reminiscent of brownies cooking. The roasted roots may then be ground in a coffee grinder or blender to make a delicious hot beverage that is low in calories, high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. When the dandelion’s leaves appear and are under three inches in length, the plant, along with the crown attached, can be harvested, washed, dipped in a light tempura batter and fried in a little oil until crispy and golden in color. This dish is called Yard Squid by 4H members who have enjoyed this nutty, sweet treat.
Sunchokes, or Jerusalem Artichoke, helianthus tuberosa, are a member of the sunflower family and native to the Northeast. The plant grows upwards of 10 ft in height and produces several small, yellow flowers. The tubers produced can be harvested in the late fall after some frosts and as soon as the soil is friable to a depth of 4-6 inches in the spring. The tubers are starchy and nutty in flavor, delicious roasted with meats and other root vegetables, and sliced into french fries.
Ramps, or wild leeks, alium tricocum, will start appearing in early-mid May. Leaves will be lily-like in appearance so be certain there is a strong smell of onion or garlic when the leaf is bruised. Ramps may be harvested with the bulb and leaves. Please be aware that the ramp only reproduces with seeds that are formed every 5-7 years, germination rate is poor and can take up to 18 months. Pulling up the entire plant will permanently stop the reproductive cycle. Many areas are now depleted of this pungent, but delicious, plant because of over-harvesting. Sustainable harvesting is a must. Harvesting the leaves by cutting a couple from each plant does not harm the plant. The leaves can be used in recipes fresh, dehydrated for long term usage, and chopped, blanched and frozen. The leaf is loaded with all the distinct wild ramp flavor.
Tips for safe Free Range Shopping: Do not harvest plants near railroad tracks, under power lines, within 200 feet of any busy roadway, or near farm fields that have been sprayed. Harvesting on state land is not allowed. Check with owners of any landowner before harvesting. Be a good steward of the land. Utilize at least two good plant identification books and a knowledgeable person.
Cornell Cooperative Extension offers classes in identification and utilization of wild edibles. Contact the CCE office, (518) 483-7403 for questions.
Photo of dandelion by Greg Hume.