Foraging for `foods from the field'
``Gather ye rosebuds while ye may'' -- and while you're at it, bring me some Jerusalem artichokes, barberries, and sumac. For the truly adventurous cook, that's not such an outrageous shopping list. Within walking distance of most of us there is more to autumn than brilliant foliage, pumpkins in the fields, and the snap and crackle of leaves underfoot.
Those who take the time to shop alfresco in the fall will find their efforts amply rewarded.
One of my favorite wild foods is the Jerusalem artichoke. This so-called ``artichoke'' is actually a member of the sunflower family; the word ``Jerusalem'' is a corruption of the Italian word girasole, which means ``turning to the sun.'' It is one of the few native North American plants. Unlike sunflowers, however, Jerusalem artichokes have no seed in their flowers and have rounder, furry stalks without prominent vertical ribbing.
Many people cultivate Jerusalem artichokes in their gardens, and they grow easily but spread quickly. They can also be found in the supermarkets, often called sunchokes.
When hunting for the wild ones, if in doubt, dig it up. Only Jerusalem artichokes will have the thick, tuberous, edible roots. Flowering occurs in early to mid-autumn, and harvesting is best done after the first frost or, at the very earliest, after flowering has ceased.
You can continue gathering all winter if the ground is soft enough, but since Jerusalem artichokes do not keep well in the refrigerator, harvest only what you need.
``Foods from the field'' not only introduce new flavors to your meals but also add visual and textural ``perk-ups'' to more traditional fare.
I still remember the temerity with which I greeted my first ``wild meal.'' The table d'h^ote featured cream of fiddlehead fern soup and an array of milkweed flower fritters. The fiddleheads had been picked early in spring, made into a soup, and then frozen. The salad served was as pretty as any I'd ever seen, but the ingredients were new: nasturtium leaves and flowers, lambs' quarters, sow thistles, chickweed, and purslane. For drinks, there was sassafras tea or sumac-ade. A fine meal.
There are probably many edible wild plants that you've already tasted -- such as young dandelion greens for salad, wild strawberries, elderberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries.
Here's how to go about foraging for your own food. It's simple.
Know what you are picking, or go with someone who does. There are many excellent paperbacks on the subject and there are experts at regional extension agencies.
Horticultural and environmental clubs will help identify your finds if you provide a complete sample including leaves, stem, and either fruit or flower. If you're not sure, don't eat it.
Do not denude an area. Leave behind enough for others to enjoy and for reproductive purposes.
Do not collect next to roadways, hydrants, dumps, chemical waste sites, polluted water, or in areas or lawns where pesticides have been used. Collecting dandelions from a neighbor's lawn is fine, if you first ask if weedkillers were applied, and be sure to ask permission to trespass.
Remember that not all parts of every plant are edible. Rhubarb stalks, for instance, are delicious, but the leafy portion is not edible.
A good, well-illustrated reference book will tell you what you can and cannot eat. Jerusalem Artichokes
Simmer tubers in skins in as little water as possible. When tender, remove and serve as you would potatoes, with butter and a garnish of chopped parsley or chives. Stuffed Jerusalem Artichokes 6 medium-sized Jerusalem artichoke tubers 1/2 lemon 1 small wild onion 2 tablespoons butter 4 ounces sliced mushrooms Salt and pepper (to taste) 2 teaspoons nutmeg 2 tablespoons parsley 1/2 cup grated cheese 1 can consomm'e
Clean and scrape tubers well. Put in a 3-quart saucepan and cover with water to which lemon juice has been added. Add a dash of salt and bring to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes, then drain. Excessive boiling and excessively high temperatures will make tubers tough.
Lightly fry chopped onion in butter. Add mushrooms and stir until butter evaporates. Season to taste with salt and pepper, nutmeg, and parsley. Transfer to a bowl, cover with waxed paper, set aside. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Peel tubers, hollow a hole in centers, and fill. Arrange in buttered casserole, sprinkle with grated cheese, add consomm'e, and bake about 25 minutes.