2016 was the year I decided to start foraging beyond my neighborhood. In the past our foraging was limited to plucking lilac from a neighbor’s tree to make the Mother’s Day cocktail. Like many things in life, I was curious but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I started by reading blogs and perusing a few books. After learning that hop shoots are edible, I began foraging two ingredients from my backyard – lilac and hops. Then, serendipity happened. There is a group of people that we get together with every few months for some serious cooking and the May’s proposed dinner menu featured morels. Foraged morels. Collectively, we cut a deal immediately. I would plan and cook a foraged menu after an outing or two during which others in the group would show me the basics of foraging.
On a beautiful May Saturday in the southern part of Minnesota that was untouched by the last glacier, I learned to think like a mushroom – dying elms, wet soil, southern exposure due to the time in the season – and we had some luck. Apparently the right soil temperature is in the mid 50s for peak morel growth.
Then we hiked to another spot with perfect fiddleheads and nettles. Then watercress. The friend who taught me the basics also had a spot for ramps and asparagus that we did not have time to visit together but he brought some along for the forest dinner.
An important part of foraging is letting nature to continue to do its thing, which requires leaving behind at least half of the fiddleheads and ramps that have grown. Trust me though, we picked every morel we found.
I have been duck hunting a few times and the part of the experience I like the most is being in quiet, beautiful places while looking for the perfect perch. This is often interrupted by loud booms, especially given my aim. So foraging is even better because the forest is inherently quiet.
How did the menu end up?
We started with a watercress salad that was garnished with hop shoots from our garden and 12 year Hook’s cheddar. I tried pickling some of the hop shoots and really preferred them fresh. I prepared a buttermilk-based dressing with a balanced Italian olive oil and the watercress leaves that didn’t make the cut for the salad.
First I thought about a pasta with a simple and buttery white wine sauce. Would this overpower the morels? A chef friend recommended soft scrambled duck eggs to provide a creamy but non-competitive base for all of our goodies. After consulting the group, we settled on a toned down pasta. I thought about a number of options and landed on a modification of one of my favorite dishes of 2015, mushroom risotto. But I didn’t want to overpower the morels as a part of the risotto. So, instead of a mushroom risotto I decided to do a ramp risotto as the base of the main dish. The bulbs went into the risotto during the cooking process (supplemented with shallots) and then the leaves were chopped and folded in just prior to serving along with the cheese a little butter and a few nettles.
I washed the morels and cleaned the fiddleheads of their papery coating. Next, I cooked both simply in Hope Creamery butter in my grandmother’s cast iron pan (one of my favorite possessions). No garlic, just salt and pepper. I was very careful to make sure that the fiddleheads were al dente for serving and that the morels were still a little firm. Then I briefly cooked the wild asparagus in the butter that had been used for the morels.
The fiddleheads, morels and wild asparagus went on top of the ramp risotto. Given the theme of the dinner was eating from the forest, most of us complemented the meal with a piece of rare venison.
One of our guests brought homemade rhubarb ice cream, and sugar cookies from Patisserie 46, which was the perfect complement to the meal.
We paired a 2012 Hartford Court Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir with the main course. It was an incredible wine, and had enough body to be beautiful and thought provoking while not overpowering the tastes of the forest.
We also had a few sours from the upcoming Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery. These are something special and worth watching out for as they come on to the market. In the meantime, the talented brewers are collaborating with Fair State on a few beers.