There is nothing so satisfying as a meal gathered from the wild. On the table this week is smoked trout, steamed nettles, bluebell salad, rhubarb cobbler and homemade cherry ice cream. And while I most enjoy eating wild and cultivated foods in season, I do try to take the time to put some of the foods away for later months.
There is not a lot that I am going to say about the gathering of fresh trout not because I don't want to but because I am forbidden. Fishermen have their own secrets, which they share with a select few. Fortunately, I have become privy to some valuable knowledge that has made fishing something more than a pastoral and relaxing affair. Let's just say I am no longer mocked by large smiling trout at certain local high lakes.
Many fishermen I know never consider actually eating their catch, but most haven't seen what I have in the fridge. One fisherman I know freezes his fish whole in old milk jugs, a method passed on from an earlier generation. One way I like to fix fresh trout is by smoking it a true delicacy that requires proper equipment, a good amount of time and a bit of secrecy. It's a tough secret to keep however, because the aroma of wood smoked fish permeates the entire neighborhood, and suddenly people come calling. Leftover smoked trout (yeah, right) can be blended with cream cheese and eaten for days, or frozen for months and brought out on special occasions to be shared with friends and family.
Stinging nettles have a bad rap, I'm afraid. For years I have been drinking nettle tea, first prescribed to me by a midwife as a great source of iron. Until recently, my interest in harvesting fresh nettles was right up there with becoming a beekeeper. I preferred to purchase the dried plant by the ounce at natural food stores.
Fortunately, nettles lose their sting when once they are cooked or dried. My favorite way to prepare them is by steaming the fresh leaves and serving them drizzled with olive oil and soy sauce.
Nettles are highly praised by nutritionists. Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods, recommends using nettles to prevent gray hair, as a kidney tonic that enriches blood and improves vitality, and even as a cure for dysentery disease. According to Pitchford, the ancient Tibetan wise man, Milarepa, developed his legendary psychic and physical powers after fasting on nettles. Pitchford recommends eating nettles in miso soup.
As with any plants harvested in the wild, be certain of what you are picking. Nettles are peaking now, their large serrated leaves obvious on sunny slopes. Be sure to wear long sleeves and gloves to avoid the sting, caused by chemicals that are released when defensive hairs on the surface of the leaves break off when they are touched.
Though my daughter begs to differ, I believe there are only two blue foods that are truly edible. While I refuse to drink the sugary blue beverages and gooey blue candy that young people find so intriguing, blueberries and bluebells are a colorful and healthy addition to any meal. Bluebells, the flowers which are so abundant in the high country right now, are a great accent to fresh salads and, believe it or not, have a slight anchovy-like flavor. Try a few the next time you're out hiking. I just don't recommend eating them in large quantities.
Wild rhubarb is also at its peak right now, but I have sworn not to reveal the location of our favorite local rhubarb patch. I am a big fan of rhubarb cobbler and recently discovered a great recipe from retired baker Bobby T. Rhubarb combines well with not only strawberries, but cherries too. I recommend cooking the fruit down with some water and sugar and then freezing it for storage. The fruit compote can be used year round in muffins, pies and crisps.
My $20 cherry pitter from a Montrose hardware store has been put to great use already this summer. I recently used fresh-picked pie cherries from Hotchkiss to make a batch of ice cream that was perfectly sweet and tart. Pie cherries, the lighter colored tart cherries, generally don't require a pitter, as the seeds pull out by the stem, but when preparing sweet cherries, a pitter is quite useful. I love to buy cherries by the box full toward the end of their season when farmers are selling them cheap. I dehydrate and freeze them for later use, adding the dried fruit to trail mix, or incorporating the frozen fruit into baked goods or smoothies.
Next time you go shopping, think outside the grocery store box and see what's at the local farmers market or out the woods behind your house. Add some exciting seasonal ingredients to your meal and you'll find it's well worth the extra effort.