Malcolm McDowell Woods
The Budget Gourmet

Want good food for free?

By - May 7th, 2010 04:00 am

Annie Wegner

A sewing shop in my neighborhood has a chalkboard in the window with a handwritten message along the lines of  “Don’t throw it out!  Let us see if we can fix it.” As I passed by recently, I realized that this “sign of the times” was, perhaps, a business opportunity for them.

Although I was raised to have my shoes repaired and clothing mended versus just getting rid of them or, heaven forbid, throwing them out, I don’t know how many others live this way. At least maybe they didn’t before the economy took a downturn. In today’s financial climate, who wouldn’t want something cheaper or even for free?

This is how I view wild foraging — getting food for free. If you school yourself in plant identification enough to know what is safe to eat, there is a staggering array of free flavors lingering on our roadsides and in our woods.  Last spring I finally had an opportunity to delve into Euell Gibbons’ classic wild food reference and identification guide “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.”

Gibbons recalls growing up poor and scouring the woods and rivers for sustenance. He reminisces about hosting “wild parties” where he would create a tempting spread of foods almost solely from the immediate wilderness. Although I’m not ready to declare “I eat weeds and trees” like Mickey Robinson from the public broadcasting filler, I have savored some surprisingly delicious wild eats.

I strive to expand my urban homesteading skills each year, but 2009 was the year that I finally, more seriously, explored wild foraging. Around Mother’s Day, I picked violets from the yard to make violet jam. Mid-spring found me digging ramps (wild leeks) on my side of town. Early June, I picked catnip along hillsides to dry for a soothing tea. In July, I was practically hanging from the mulberry trees in the park and scratched up beyond recognition from picking black raspberries by the lakefront. I gathered enough fruit to freeze two pints of mulberries and three pints of black raspberries — not a bad haul for free considering the premium on local berries.

I definitely plan to gather wild fruit again this year and will carry on until my daughter, the bucket holder, feels too embarrassed to tag along (“Mom, why do we have to gather food in the park?” I imagine her saying as she hides behind her hair as a ’tween).  This year I would also like to try seeking out wild asparagus, making sumac-ade, and grinding acorns into flour or meal.

My favorite wild find last season was grape leaves. Brining my own had been on my checklist for years after I saw a friend’s ancient grape arbor, but I learned that a local Greek family had dibs on the young leaves every spring. I found a prolific patch along a nearby walking path and made that my go-to area for this preserving project.

Ideally, grape leaves should be harvested in June when they are full-size but still tender. I plan to enjoy the last of the leaves I put up last spring with the first salad from our garden — spinach from the cold frame, broadleaf sorrel from the herb garden, chives for a vinaigrette, maybe a poached local egg. It’s not necessarily the most harmonious salad, but magical nonetheless because it’s eaten after enduring seemingly endless gray spring weather and, therefore, with much anticipation.

Pickled grape leaves

Yield: 1 pint
About 30 tender, light green grape leaves, stemmed
2 teaspoons canning and pickling salt
4 cups water
1 cups water plus ¼ cup bottled lemon juice

  1. Measure 2 teaspoons salt and 4 cups water into a large saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add grape leaves, and blanch them for 30 seconds. Drain.
  2. Stack the leaves in small piles of about 6 each, and roll the stacks loosely from the side. Pack into a clean, hot pint home canning jar, folding the ends over if necessary.
  3. In a small saucepan, bring to a boil 1 cup water and ¼ cup lemon juice. Pour the hot liquid over the rolled leaves, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove bubbles with a rubber spatula. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth.
  4. Cap jar with a pretreated lid. Adjust lid. Process in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes for pints.

Note: These leaves are not salty and will not have to be rinsed before stuffing them.

Stuffed grape leaves with lamb

Adapted from “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
Serves eight
1 pint (about 30-36) home-preserved grape leaves (or store-bought, rinsed)
3 large onions, finely chopped
¼ cup grape seed oil
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 pound ground lamb, browned
1 cup fresh dill, chopped
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Spread grape leaves on paper towel to drain.
  2. Sauté onions in oil until soft.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients.
  4. Place the grape leaves on a board, shiny sides down, and put 1-2 tablespoons of lamb-rice mixture in the center of each leaf.
  5. Fold the sides of the leaves to the center, then roll them up tightly, starting from the stem end.
  6. Squeeze slightly in your palm to secure.
  7. Steam the rolled grape leaves, seam side down, in a covered kettle for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  8. Serve with lemon wedges and yogurt sauce (see recipe that follows.)

Yogurt sauce

Makes 1 cup
¾ cup plain, whole milk yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
Salt to taste
Blend yogurt, lemon juice, water and garlic together and season to taste.

Local eating hint:
Gardening season is upon us and this may be the biggest year in decades for home gardens, especially in urban areas. Last year, the Victory Garden Initiative had a gardening blitz and will again over Memorial Day weekend. Even if you don’t have a yard, there are now many vegetable and fruit varieties (from tomatoes and okra to strawberries and pumpkins) that you can grow in containers. Ask your local urban farmer, garden center, or gardening neighbors for advice on which kinds could work for you.

It’s also time to shine up your preserving equipment — dust off your hot water bath canner, check the gasket on your pressure canner and get the gauge calibrated. Make a list of the staple items you’d like to see in your pantry come October. If you haven’t yet learned this domestic skill, seek out an introductory course at one of the many locations offering classes this season — the Urban Ecology Center, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa, the Fondy Farmers’ Market, or the Milwaukee Public Market.

Local Sources:

Lamb: Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, N5784 Johnson Road, Delavan, (262)728-9629. Steve and Darlene Pinnow sell flavor. Their trademarked Wisconsin Lamb is hormone and antibiotic free, processed and packaged fresh several times a week. They sell custom cut orders direct or one can purchase their meat at several local groceries.

Yogurt: Sugar River Dairy, N7346 County Highway D, Albany, (608) 938-1218. Sugar River Dairy is a family-owned and operated farm producing fresh, small batch yogurt with milk from a single local dairy farm. Their cows are pastured and rBGH-free. Their plain whole milk yogurt has a balanced flavor and creaminess; it can be enjoyed without any embellishment or as a garnish to soups or used in sauces. In the winter it’s sold at the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers’ Market and can otherwise be purchased at Outpost.

Grape Leaves: Look along walking paths and in wooded areas for full-grown, tender leaves. Pick the biggest ones you can find and wash them thoroughly before processing.

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