Springtime in the driftless region is nothing short of miraculous. The rolling hills come to life, vibrant green vegetation shoots out of limestone cracks in the bluffs, flowering trees blossom, and the scent fills the air, as the warm wind moves through the valley. On spring days like these, there is nothing else I want to do, but pack a backpack and hit the trails with my faithful pup by my side, exploring the wild terrain of our terroir.
While not an Iowa native, I am a midwesterner at heart. I have always felt at home in this valley. And, I would be hard pressed to find another topography in the Midwest that provides the way our dear driftless region does. This window of time packs a lot of seasonal edibles that are, often times, literally, right under our noses!
Whether you are an avid hiker, explorer, forager, or a novice, I implore you all to get out and explore this spring! Note--always check to make sure you are exploring on public land before you plan your trip, and always follow these guidelines:
· Never forage on private land without permission, and check signs or contact the city, state or national park office for rules on public land.
· Be sure to bring gloves, bags, water, and field books and maps. Wear good hiking shoes, long sleeves, and pants. Be on the lookout for ticks, and ALWAYS check yourself after a hike.
· If you are a beginner, hike with a companion who is familiar with the area and flora, so that you can distinguish between edible and toxic wild foods.
Here are just a few of the wild edibles you might find on your excursion, which also happen to be my
Four Favorite Foraged Foods:
Morels: The elusive mushrooms that we only see in springtime. They are decadent, meaty in texture, and pack a hearty umami flavor. They have a hollow cap and stem, and what looks to be a brainy texture. While everyone will tell you to just “fry them up in butter,” let me recommend an alternative! Sautee these morsels in olive oil with minced garlic. Then drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and pop them in the oven for another ten minutes. You can add them to any dish (pizza, pasta, soup, salad) or just eat them plain or (my personal favorite) on toasted sourdough with fresh parsley to garnish.
Asparagus: While many folks grow this hearty perennial, you certainly might stumble upon it in the wild. Be sure to harvest it when the spears are thicker than a pencil, but not much thicker than your thumb (as the texture can get woody and fibrous). Like morels, there are endless ways to prepare asparagus. To really highlight the fresh, crisp, “springiness” of this vegetable, I like to barely cook them. Try a quick steam or flash blanching process (where the stems are still vibrant green), and then coat lightly with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, sea salt, cracked pepper, and toasted almonds – if that’s your thing!
Ramps: Ramps are most closely related to leeks and are also called ramsons or wild leeks. While I rarely make it home with a harvest of ramps (as I tend to eat them fresh out of the ground, while hiking), they are a delicious addition to many dishes. If you are a pesto lover, I highly recommend trying your hand at ramp pesto this spring!
Fiddleheads: Fiddleheads are simply young fiddlehead ferns before they have unfurled. You have probably seen them a thousand times without thinking about adding them to your plate! Boil or steam them before sautéing, and add garlic and fresh lemon juice to bring out their flavor. I, particularly, like to add them to egg scrambles on the weekends when I have time for a leisurely breakfast.
Spring has sprung! Get out, explore, and maybe try a few new foods along the way!
Click the link for a full list of places to hike in Winneshiek County!