Whether you live in a town or out in the woods, food is never far in the Hudson Valley—if you know where to look. Wild edibles abound here. I'll never forget the thrill I felt the first time I sniffed the distinctive odor of a wild garlic plant I'd yanked out of the dirt on the lawn of the Woodstock Children's Center during recess. And the novelty hasn't worn off yet. In fact, my interest in foraging has only grown. Whether I'm searching the forest floor for trout lily's spotted leaves and delicate yellow flowers or scanning the streambed for the rich green of wild ramps, I am always eager to see what Mother Nature has cooking.
For me, foraging is an oddly addictive mix of relaxation and excitement. Spending time outdoors helps clear my mind while the "hunt" for whatever plant I'm looking for at that moment adds little zaps of electricity to my walk in the woods. I'll never forget the rush I felt upon discovering a whole hillside of wild ramps—my heart was beating wildly.
If you have kids in your life, searching for wild edibles is a fantastic way to kindle their interest in nature, provide a vividly memorable frame for the seasons, and teach them about some of the many plants—native and not—in our ecosystem.
But perhaps most important is the fact that these foods are full of flavor—they taste distinctly alive in a way that even garden-grown foods often do not.
Roll in the Clover
Take wood sorrel, a wild edible whose leaves and small flowers have a fresh, lemony flavor with a mild, appealing chalkiness that adds a bright note to salads and pestos. It's another of the plants I ate as a child—a tradition that appears to be alive and well, judging by my six-year-old son's stories of eating it at recess. He and his friends call it lemon clover and I've also heard it called sour grass—both perfect names, if a tad less sophisticated than wood sorrel.
Wood sorrel is a member of the Oxalis family (Oxalis means "sour") and is high in oxalic acid—as are a number of other greens, including spinach, chard, broccoli, and rhubarb. Oxalic acid is considered toxic when consumed in large quantities because it inhibits the absorption of calcium. It should be avoided by people suffering from kidney stones, arthritis, and gout. However, just as with spinach and broccoli, wood sorrel is very good for you—it's packed with Vitamin C—when eaten in moderation, so do not deprive yourself of its fresh, lemony flavor unless you have one of the above conditions.
The variety near me has delicate stems that are covered with tiny hairs if you look really closely. Trios of folded heart-shaped leaves and small yellow flowers complete its elegant look. Some varieties have white flowers and others have no flowers at all. The stems can be green or reddish. There are no poisonous look-alikes to worry about—the only thing that might trick you is clover which is also edible if rather more boring in taste. Once you recognize it, you will start to see wood sorrel constantly as it grows pretty much everywhere.
Wood sorrel is absolutely delicious in a hearty, composed salad of sweet, waxy Yukon Gold potatoes, hearty hard-boiled eggs, tender, baby lettuce, thin slices of salty Parmesan cheese drizzled with a traditional shallot vinaigrette (recipe below). I also add fresh basil or dill if I have it on hand.
Purslane is another foraging favorite—a succulent, low-growing plant that you're probably familiar with if you do any gardening as it's a very common weed. Known as verdolaga in Spanish, semizotu in Turkish and pourpier potager in French, purslane is packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and has the highest Omega-3 content of any leafy green. It's so full of goodness that Michael Pollan actually called it one of the two most nutritious foods on Earth in In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Pollan writes: "Wild greens like purslane have substantially higher levels of Omega-3s than most domesticated plants." His other top pick, lamb's quarters, is also a common weed.
In addition to being a nutritional powerhouse, purslane is downlight tasty with a mild lemony flavor that has just a hint of pepper and a pleasing texture that is half-chewy, half-crunchy. I like it so much that I actually plant it between the rows of my garden though the wild stuff that grows between my paving stones always seems to do better than the plants I grow from the tiny black store-bought seeds.