If you're careful what you harvest, natural foods from the forest and sea might add to your sense of gratitude this season.
At this time of year, most Americans rush to the grocery store to fill up on fixings for celebrating the harvest.
But others are doing the harvesting at the source, finding food where it grows in nature. Wild-food foragers say heading out to woods, fields and waters seeking sustenance gives them an added sense of gratitude for the blessings of nature.
In Western Washington, those blessings are abundant throughout the year. And while foraging is often a fair-weather activity, it’s possible to find tasty additions to a Thanksgiving meal even as the world appears to go dormant for winter. And it’s a rewarding reason to spend time outside.
Karen Sherwood, who runs the Issaquah-based Earthwalk Northwest school with her husband, Frank, was recently outside gathering a staple most folks leave to the squirrels: acorns. “We’re actually going to be using them for a Thanksgiving feast with some of our students,” in muffins and maybe some venison stew, Sherwood said.
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Her dinner could include everything from elderberry jelly to dandelion-leaf salad to a bird her daughter and husband might bring home from a hunting expedition.
As a professional ethnobotanist, Sherwood can whip up entire dinners from found foods. But you don’t need to spend days in the wild to give your dinner guests an idea of what’s growing around them in the region and add a taste of the wild to a more traditional meal.
The Washington coast and Puget Sound are rightfully known for shellfish. “It’s always lovely to have a batch of steamed clams at this time of year,” said Sherwood, calling the broth “nectar of the gods.”
Seattle writer Langdon Cook, author of “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st-century Forager,” agrees. “I make a tomato-based Italian-style shellfish stew with clams and mussels in the shell, and I also make a New England-style clam chowder. One year we made a Dungeness crab bisque, which was time-consuming but a highlight of the meal.”
Clam digging is only allowed at certain locations and times, so check on regulations and license requirements with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, http://wdfw.wa.gov. (November is razor-clam season at the coast.)
Shellfish aren’t the only bounty of the coastline: “Summer is prime time for seaweed, but sometimes after a storm a big rope of bullwhip kelp will wash up. If it’s still in good shape (and came from clean waters), take it home, slice it into thin rounds, and make kelp pickles, one of my favorites,” Cook said.
Chutney is another thing you can make from bull kelp, says Bellingham’s Jennifer Hahn, author of “Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine,” which includes recipes for kelp pickles as well as chutney.
“Even people with seaweed texture phobia, which is not uncommon, will say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s good!’ ” she promises.
Rose hips are plentiful and are full of vitamin C. Although taste varies by type of rose, the best have a tangy, sweet flavor. Sherwood flavors honey with them (be sure to keep the honey in the refrigerator afterward or it’ll ferment — unless you want mead for Christmas). You can also make rose hips into syrups or tea.
Frosty mornings make rose hips softer and sweeter, better suited to soups and sauces, Hahn adds.
Although the berry season is past its peak, many plants kept producing well into fall this year. Elderberries, which grow in the south Puget Sound area and on the east side of the Cascades, make great syrups (perfect cheesecake topping) and jellies.
Another Thanksgiving-time option: evergreen huckleberries. “They’re often available right around Turkey Day, and they make a great cobbler for dessert or even a sauce to go with the bird,” Cook said.
Many people think of dandelion as a weed, but foragers see it as a food source so widely available that it would be nearly impossible to exhaust. It’s known for tender spring leaves, but the autumn version is perfect for those who like a more robust flavor. Wood sorrel is another green to look for until frost does it in.
Be careful out there
Some wild-food hunting and gathering requires advance planning and specialized knowledge. Wild birds and mushrooms both make wonderful additions to autumn dinners, and late fall is a good time for them, but newbies should seek expert advice before going out to find either on their own.
Sherwood says foragers need to have a sense of responsibility for both themselves and nature.
Keep yourself safe by not eating anything you aren’t sure about. “The forager’s golden rule: never eat anything you can’t identify without 100 percent certainty,” Cook said.
Don’t start foraging without studying up on edible plants. Better yet, take a class.
Also, be prepared for changing weather conditions and terrain, and carry a map and a compass when you head into new territory. Avoid plants and shellfish that may be contaminated by pollutants or unsafe pesticides. Don’t get into legal trouble by gathering without permission on private land.
Ethical foraging means not collecting all, or even most, of the resources when you find them. The rule of thumb is to take one of every 20 you find. “But also, you need to step back and consider the individual species as well,” Sherwood said, noting that some take longer than others to regenerate.
“We are the caretakers. We want these plants to be there the next time we go out, and the next year, and the next generation,” Sherwood said.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.