"Once you get used to the richer, stronger, more vital flavors of wild food, domestic meats, farmed fish, and pallid supermarket tomatoes will all begin to taste like cardboard to you," says Hank Shaw, author of the new book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast (Rodale, 2011). "The bottom line for me is that I eat wild food because it tastes better to me than domestic food—I will take a wild salmon or a venison loin over a farmed salmon or a piece of beef any day of the week," says Shaw.
To be sure, we understand that Fourth of July is right around the corner, and you likely aren't going to embark on a bison-hunting excursion this week. The good news is that you can find this type of food while sticking around your community to look for edible blossoms, berries, and other free and tasty treats.
Here's how to tap your inner caveman and harvest edible wild plants and other wild food this Fourth of July.
Hands down, Shaw says, if you're looking for edible wild plants this time of year, berries are your best bet. "Summer is the best time for all sorts of berries, and there is one that's ripe near wherever you live from late June through October," he explains. "Best of all, most store-bought berries have wild cousins—strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and others."
Shaw's rules of thumb for recognizing edible berries:
• Mulberries—high in vitamin C and heart-healthy, cancer-fighting resveratrol—are easy to recognize, as are all the wild friends of the blackberry and raspberry. "A rule of thumb is that if it looks like a raspberry or blackberry, it's edible," Shaw says, noting you should avoid the white mulberries native to China. (More on mulberries here.)
• For the blueberry cousins (huckleberries, especially), look for a berry like a blueberry that has that little "crown" on it, opposite the stem. That crown is your tip-off that it will be edible.
• When in doubt, taste an unknown berry by touching the juice right at the tip of your tongue. You will immediately know if it is bitter or sweet. (Not all bitter or sour berries are poisonous, but the edible sour ones are harder to categorize.) If it is bitter or impossibly sour, spit it out. If it is sweet, you are in business. No poisonous berry is sweet and tasty. This will sort out most of the easier berries from the ones that are either poisonous or need lots of processing or extra sugar.
Don't be afraid to get creative with your berries, either. "For dessert? Only an apple pie could be more American than a wild berry pie," Shaw says.
Create a cool treat with wild edible berries…
Hunt, Gather, Cook features this great recipe for a summer treat that you can create from mulberries, blackberries, or any soft berries, like blueberries, raspberries, or gooseberries.
Mulberry or Blackberry Sorbet
Makes 2 pints
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
5 cups mulberries or blackberries, stems removed
¼ cup cassis, elderberry, or blackberry liqueur, or port*
*(Shaw recommends cassis.)
Bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, and let it simmer gently for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the syrup cool a bit.
Meanwhile, put the berries in a blender. Pour the syrup over them while it is warm but not hot. Blend into a puree. Use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to push the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. This removes a lot of the seeds and any remaining stems.
Add the liqueur to the bowl and chill the mixture in the fridge for 1 hour or so.
Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and follow its directions. If you don't have an ice cream maker, pour the mixture into a small casserole dish and set it in the freezer. When it is frozen—the alcohol will keep the mixture from freezing rock-hard—serve by using a fork to scrape it into shaved ice. Technically, the shaving method makes this a granita, not sorbet, but it's just as good.
A top forager's pick for a Fourth of July table involves fish, in Shaw's opinion. "Fish would be my top choice. Everywhere in the country, fishing is good in late June and early July," he says.
Some of Shaw's regional suggestions:
Massachusetts: Striped bass
Louisiana: Red fish
Mountain States: Trout
Pacific Northwest: Salmon
While seasonings require more foraging knowledge than berries, depending on where you live, there are some easier-to-identify wild spices. (It's always a good idea to have a guidebook to bring along with you on your foraging trips.) For coastal dwellers, California bay laurel is a good option to look for in the West, while bayberry bushes are located in the Northeast. "Bayberry is like a regular bay leaf, only better, more floral," Shaw explains.
• If you live out West, search for native sages, such as California white and black sages, to spice up your cooking. Sage is commonly used in cooking with poultry.
• While it's a bit too early to make your own mustard from neighborhood plants, keep your eyes peeled later this summer—wild mustards and radishes don't set the seed you need until later this summer.
(Shaw's book goes into more detail regarding finding wild, edible plants.)The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants (Forager's Harvest Press, 2006) is also a popular guide book.
If you're looking for a more sustainable replacement for your average grocery store–bought burger, Shaw highly recommends seeking out bison, which co-existed with the Great Plains Indians for thousands of years. "I wish we could restore millions of acres of the plains to native grasslands and run buffalo on them instead of cattle," Shaw says. "That way, we could restore habitat and enjoy a native, sustainable source of protein at the same time."