Teresa Marrone grew up in Chicago, one of the urban centers of the nation.
At college in Wisconsin, though, some of her friends were headed out to the woods to see what they could find.
What they found was wild food, and as Marrone learned that the food not only tasted great but was free (she was a starving college student, after all), she became hooked.
Marrone is now an experienced forager and author of several cookbooks centered around cooking with wild foods.
Now of Minneapolis, she collects wild foods because she appreciates the taste, quality and variety she can find in the woods. But collecting is just the beginning. Once the foods get home, there’s a world of possibilities.
Often, Marrone said, people cooking with wild food let the novelty of the fact that the food is wild carry the dish, but she believes that the food can really shine.
“You can make something attractive and tasty, rather than just sustenance,” Marrone said, adding that she aims to have the dishes in her cookbooks appeal to someone who’s not a strict forager.
If you want to cook with wild food, Marrone said, berries are a great place to start. While there are many other common wild foods, like ferns or cattails, most people can identify wild berries (though you should always be certain of identification), and there are plenty of great recipes for wild berries.
Most of cooking with wild berries is knowing how to process them, Marrone said. Summer — July especially — is peak berry season. Marrone’s favorite is serviceberries, which are surprisingly common. Serviceberry trees are often planted as landscaping in urban areas. Many people have the trees or bushes in their yard, but don’t realize the berries are edible.
“Serviceberries are great for beginners,” Marrone said. “They’re foolproof to identify.”
Marrone said serviceberries taste like blueberries, but with a little bit of an almond flavor. Sometimes they’re even slightly sweeter than blueberries. Serviceberries can be substituted for blueberries in any jam or pie recipe, though the result will look and taste different than if it were made with blueberries.
When it comes to identifying wild foods, Marrone said there is one tried-and-true rule of thumb in the Northland: If a berry has a five-point crown, it is safe to eat. Blueberries, for example, have a five-point crown. So do serviceberries.
One of the challenges of collecting wild foods is that they’re usually only available for a short while. Raspberries are essentially available year-round in the grocery store, but they’re only available for a short time in the wild in the Northland. For that reason, one of the main aspects of cooking with wild foods is preservation.
The primary way to preserve serviceberries is by freezing. That works well for many — but not all — berries; some things just turn into a mess.
Freezing serviceberries, though, is simple: Lay the berries on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer and put them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen solid, transfer them to plastic bags that zip shut. If the berries aren’t frozen, spread out on a cookie sheet, they become one hard block in the freezer that’s difficult to measure and use. However, serviceberries can be pre-measured and put in labeled bags for later use. Wild raspberries, blueberries and strawberries can be frozen in the same way.
Wild foods aren’t just being used in home cooking. Mike Kempenich, also of Minneapolis, is the owner of The Gentleman Forager. He collects wild mushrooms and then sells them to restaurants in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. He said that chefs appreciate the tastes and textures that he’s able to offer and that can’t be found in a store.
“All mushrooms are different,” Kempenich said. “From chewy to crunchy to sweet to fruity.”
From texture to flavor profile, there’s a wide variety. Many mushrooms can’t be cultivated, so foraging is the only way to get them.
Kempenich also arranges wild mushroom dinners prepared by professional chefs. The Black Morel Hootenanny, held each spring, is a morel foray, guided by Kempenich, followed by a gourmet meal in which the foraged morels are cooked by professional chefs. A band even plays after dinner.
Kempenich said new foragers who have found morels can start cooking with the mushrooms by simply pan-frying them in butter and perhaps some garlic. He pointed out that all wild mushrooms need to be cooked before they’re eaten. One reason is that mushrooms contain chitin, something that’s also found in the shells of crustaceans. Human bodies can’t break it down, but the issue is eliminated when the mushrooms are cooked to a high temperature.
One of the restaurants that Kempenich supplies with mushrooms, both foraged and cultivated, is the Craftsman. Rhett Songer is the executive chef, and while he’s a relatively new member to the Craftsman’s team, the restaurant has been using local, wild, seasonal and organic ingredients for 11 years.
“The wild mushrooms versus the cultivated are definitely more earthy and more flavorful,” Songer said.
Using wild and seasonal foods, like Kempenich’s mushrooms, means the menu is constantly changing and stays interesting.
“We get a lot of people in who are foragers themselves and they really appreciate that aspect of it,” Songer said.
Moving forward, Songer is looking forward to using foraged berries in salads and desserts.
To Marrone, cooking with foraged foods is not only delicious, but connects the people around the table with their natural environment.
“There is great satisfaction in going out, and then coming back with something and putting it on the table,” she said. “It connects us to our past, and that’s becoming more and more important these days, when so many people don’t have any idea where their food comes from.”
Mike Kempenich, owner of The Gentleman Forager, received this recipe from Chef Timothy Fischer of the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Many of the main ingredients can be foraged in Minnesota. The recipe is a gourmet way to enjoy foraged foods.
50 Minnesota black morels
50 fiddle head ferns
For garnish, miner’s lettuce
1 medium black truffle
1 cup ramps
½ cup grilled ramp vinaigrette
Sauté morels on high heat in brown butter, with 1 teaspoon minced shallot, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and three short passes on a micro grater of fresh nutmeg. Blanch ferns in salted boiling water until tender, 35 minutes. Shock in ice water, reserve. Grill ramps over high heat until the ends are slightly burnt. The dressing: Add 1/4 cup grilled ramps to blender with 1/4 cup last season’s honeycrisp apple cider vinegar. (“Here’s the thing,” Fischer said. “I love vinegar and the one we make is aged and very mellow.”) To finish, add light virgin olive oil or a blend of half olive and half vegetable oil, to taste, between 1/4 and 1/2 cup. Squeeze juice from half of a lemon that has been coated in sugar and caramelized on the grill for around six minutes. Plate family style by placing chilled ferns down, topping them and lightly mixing with ramps and sautéed morels (let the morels cool a bit so they’re just warm when placing on salad), drizzle with vinaigrette and top with wild miner’s lettuce. Squeeze the other half of the grilled lemon over the salad, sprinkle with a smoked Hawaiian black salt, cracked black pepper, and finish with a generous amount of thinly sliced truffles.
Serviceberry Pudding Cake
From “Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan,” by Teresa Marrone. Marrone says this recipe is great for breakfast or dessert.
½ cup white sugar
3 tbsps cold water
2 tbsps lemon juice
1 ½ tsps cornstarch
2 cups fresh or frozen serviceberries (about 8 oz.)
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup whole milk or buttermilk
6 tbsps unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp vanilla extract
Heat oven to 375. Spray an 8-inch-square baking dish with nonstick spray; set aside. In medium non-aluminum saucepan, stir together white sugar, water, lemon juice and cornstarch. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Add serviceberries; simmer for about a minute, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. In medium bowl, stir together flour, brown sugar, baking powder and salt. In large mixing bowl, combine egg, milk, butter and vanilla, beat with whisk until smooth. Add flour mixture; whisk until smooth. Scrape mixture into prepared baking dish, spreading evenly. Pour serviceberry mixture evenly over the top. Bake until a table knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Set pan on rack to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Cake can be cooled, then covered tightly with foil and kept at room temperature for up to two days.