Harvester of Sorrel

I was delighted to discover yesterday that what I had thought was a pretty sort of clover growing in a shady flower bed next to my house (and which I very fortunately left unmolested for some odd reason – perhaps whimsy, perhaps respect for the bumble bees, perhaps laziness) is in fact not clover at all, but a tasty tasty treat called wood sorrel.

Hint: not clover

Hint: not clover

I have, in the past, eaten, purchased, and even grown a completely different plant, also named sorrel, with rather spinach-y looking leaves. To differentiate the two, the sorrel that has delightfully chosen to grow right next to my house is called “wood sorrel”. Like the other sorrel, it has a lemony taste, but I find it to be slightly less acidic and all together more interesting.

My daughter and I gobbled a few tart, delicious leaves right away while we knelt in the dirt. I gathered a few extras, leaving plenty to self-propagate in the garden, and strewed them on the salmon burgers we had for dinner. There they were in their element – sort of like a combination of salad and pickles all at once.

As it turns out, it seems that pairing wood sorrel and salmon has a long history in Ireland. The recipes I have encountered for it tend to feature salmon served with a sauce featuring wood sorrel cooked up with butter and heavy cream. I am thinking this might be the perfect dinner party dish to come out to my friends as a forager. I could pass the dinner off as a sort of tribute to my heritage, as opposed to a dinner consisting of me finding something weird in the weeds that could be gross or covered in dog pee or poisonous and making them eat it.

So… hey, speaking of poisonous,  I should probably mention that, in my browsing of online sites about foraging, I have encountered a few warnings about wood sorrel that suggest it should not be eaten because of its high levels of oxalic acid. So why did I eat it, let my daughter eat it, and consider feeding it to guests? Well, mostly because the whole oxalic acid thing is overblown and dependent on rumour rather than science. I mean, oxalic acid is present in high-ish quantities in spinach, parsley, and chives, and I don’t see anyone stepping away from the spanakopita, tabbouleh, or sour cream and chive potato chips.

Because I am pedantic – I can’t help it, I just am – I did my best to find out what the deal is with oxalic acid. I discovered that there is a whole heap of confusion out there, and, were I a food scientist or a toxicologist, an interesting research topic. I can certainly understand that even the whiff of toxicity is enough to make anyone with a blog continue to place a warning stamp on a plant. I mean, it must seem as if the two possible outcomes from eating wood sorrel are so uneven: in the best scenario, in which the plant is not toxic, you have a nice salad; in the worst scenario, in which the plant is toxic, you and your loved ones, for whom you prepared dinner, die.

In the case of wood sorrel, however, the presence of oxalic acid is absolutely insufficient to produce any dire consequences. It was a traditional food of the First Nations people, and, as I mentioned previously, the Irish. It grows around the world, and has been eaten, and turned into tea and drunk, for millennia. It’s good for you – it contains fairly high levels of vitamin C. Like many other vegetables (e.g. spinach) that contain oxalic acid, wood sorrel would need to be ingested in brobdingnagian proportions in order to be toxic. And if you are eating 20 lbs of wood sorrel in one sitting, I suspect you may have other issues that could also be contributing to your untimely demise.

Now, don’t go eating rhubarb leaves, however. Although they are the poster child for why oxalic acid is toxic, apparently their toxicity is likely due to other compounds present in the leaves, rather than just the oxalic acid alone. So – they probably are kind of toxic, even if the oxalic acid is not necessarily to blame. And I, for one, am not in such desperate need of a salad that I would tempt fate with rhubarb leaves. I will stick to my wood sorrel.

On a rampage

Ramps. Lovely, lovely ramps.

Ramps. Lovely, lovely ramps.

I live in a newly built suburb in southwest Ontario, which sounds, perhaps, like the last place imaginable for any indigenous species to inhabit. For those who knew me back in my day, it also sounds perhaps like the last place imaginable for me to inhabit, either. Fortunately, however, the town and the developers maintained a few acres of green space, in which beavers build, deer frolic, foxes stroll, and blue herons strike regal poses. The bunnies, however, just seem to nibble my garden. Little buggers. Perhaps they need to follow a few blog posts on the benefits of woodland foraging, and leave my damn lilies alone (shakes fist, would wave cane if in fact had or needed said cane).

Our suburban woodland.

Our suburban woodland.

It delights me no end that I can step outside my suburban home with a hand trowel, poke around under a few trees, and come home with dinner. I gain from the experience a deeper connection to the earth and our place in it. I may also gain a few deeply concerned glances from neighbours who wonder what on earth I am doing behind that tree, and if I am OK. If they stop to ask I am very happy to let them know.

I debated the wisdom of posting about foraging for ramps. On the one hand, they are delicious, and finding something delicious in the woods (that requires only digging – not, like, shooting) is surely a deeply satisfying pleasure we should all experience; on the other hand, their deliciousness leads to demand, demand leads to over-foraging for both personal and commercial use, and over-foraging leads to their endangerment in the wild.

Finally, I reasoned, the over-harvesting of ramps is the result of commercial operations. Businesses predicated on selling ramps already know all about ramps – my posting it on a blog that currently has perhaps about two readers – and one is probably my mom – won’t lead to any new businesses descending on forests like a horde of locusts. Right, mom? I’m looking at you, lady – no shady underground ramp harvesting operations for you!

Ramps are a woodland species, requiring the shade of trees and a rich layer of fallen leaves. They are harbingers of spring: you may spot them as you step around puddles left by melting snow, or peer around trees to see new growth. Their bright green shoots grow out of the carpet of decaying grey leaves long before any other spring arrivals. I hope that you too will head off to the woods early next spring to enjoy the earthy smells and feel the warming air on your skin, and that you have the good fortune to discover a patch of these earthy, garlicky, onion-y beauties peeking out of the damp ground behind a tree.

Their leaves are almost unmistakable – they are a brilliant green, with stalks that are usually a rich burgundy colour. Some stalks may be white. If you are not sure, of course, pinch off the tip of one of the stalks and roll it between your fingers. If it has a strong odour of garlic and onions, then congratulations: you will have a spectacular dinner tonight.

As a note on how much to pick when foraging, always leave the majority of what you find untouched.  Fortunately, ramps are strongly flavoured – a little goes a long way. Consider the rarity of the species and its germination time when you pick anything. The exception here, of course, is invasive species like my loathed enemy garlic mustard – for those I suggest a scorched earth policy is best.

This spring I went out twice. Of a patch of perhaps 100 ramps, I picked about 15. This was enough for 3 meals for two adults and one small child: ramp pesto with homemade pasta, bacon and eggs with fried ramps and biscuits, and ramp chowder. We fell on each mouthful like hyenas on a weakened wildebeest.

There are many ramp recipes out there, so I won’t worry about posting mine – particularly since I didn’t measure or keep track of of how much I was using. And by the time I thought to take pictures, the food was gone and the kitchen a mess. A better source would be Serious Eats, for example, which has compiled a list of some intriguing ramp recipes.

Finally, I will close with the words of Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train: “Remember – get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries”. And pull up some freakin’ garlic mustard as you go.

Foraging ahead

Last year, I got very excited about foraging. I had noticed a post on the facebook page for my neighbourhood, asking for help pulling out garlic mustard in our woods. Since I didn’t know what it was or what it looked like, I googled it. One thing led to another, as it often does with google searches and me: upon discovering that garlic mustard is a garlic flavoured member of the enormously nutritious brassica family, originally brought over by Europeans to, you know, eat, but now destroying native woodlands here because nobody is eating the freakin’ things, I thought it would be fun to find out what else is sitting in plain weedy view, deliciously and nutritiously awaiting consumption.

Evil garlic mustard, caught in the act of taking over a local ravine.

Evil garlic mustard, caught in the act of taking over a local ravine.

I discovered Tama Matsuoka Wong, and was soon making salads composed of purslane and lamb’s quarters. And here is an interesting fact about lamb’s quarters: while it is now considered to be only a weed, and a highly invasive one at that, it was actually cultivated by our early ancestors, and is closely related to quinoa. Next time you are pulling them out of your garden, stop and chomp on a few – I mean, if they haven’t been coated in alarming pesticides, that is. That is some seriously paleo eating. Taste-wise, lamb’s quarters are similar to spinach, and can be used interchangeably.

As for the garlic mustard, I will try it again this year. I will admit my first attempt at using it as food tasted… virtuous. And by virtuous, I mean “like the bottom of my lawn mower”. I will try it again this year – perhaps a goat cheese quiche, or smooshed up in pasta dough. Or in a kim chi. I am determined to eat my way through this invasive species.

I will post any future cooking successes I have with garlic mustard. In the meantime, however, I encourage everyone to keep these buggers in check. If you see one, pull it out! Even if you don’t eat it! They crowd out native species of plants, destroying natural habitats for flora and fauna alike.