Surely even the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth with their boiling cauldron of decidedly odd ingredients (“fillet of a fenny snake”anyone?) would be impressed with the salad I am about to taste.
The ingredients include Adder’s Tongue leaves as well as the stems, leaves and flowers from Creeping Charlies and Purple Dead Nettles.
But the witches made their brew in a dark cave in the wilds of Scotland while I am in the well appointed sunny kitchen of Beth Thompson whose home is set upon a large stretch of emerald lawn in Valparaiso. And the women (and one man) concocting the salad and other elaborate dinner items aren’t witches at all but rather members of the Porter County Herb Society who yesterday spent three hours foraging the woods of Chesterton for ingredients.
The menu items dispel any lingering thoughts that eating food from the wild means chewing on unappetizing looking tasteless twigs. Marval Bennett, one of the founding members of the society which was formed in 1993, had just finished placing tiny violets in the salad before adding both a garlic mustard vinaigrette and a Savory Gastrique Drizzle made with tangerines, Grand Marnier and wild leeks.
The dressings are sweet and savory and the greens, accented with the crisp crunch of tiny day lily roots and the mix of flavors and textures from the different leaves are distinct -- peppery, slightly bitter, fresh, gingery (from the wild ginger leaves, bulbs and flowers used) – and very fresh.
As indeed they should be. Much of what was being used here were growing in the woods off of Waverly Road in Chesterton.
Led by David Hamilla, a botanist and former chef, herb society members learned how to identify edible plants, bringing back to Thompson’s house a profusion of blossoms, stems and leaves.
What to many of us would look like a collection of weeds – after all, I have spent hours pulling chickweed from my gardens before learning that it is edible and tasty – are the foods that once made up the ingredients of ancestors' meals.
After wildcrafting (as foraging is also known), Bennett, Thompson and Deb Watkins returned to Thompson’s home and spent another five hours cleaning, sorting and learning more about their future dinner from Hamilla who often teaches classes in foraging and cooking. Because of his background as a chef and his passion for botany, Hamilla, who is actually a certified geologist, does view these would-be weeds as just nutrition; he uses them to create gourmet meals.
“I would look at recipes when I was working as a chef and decided what I could use from the woods in the meals I was preparing,” said Hamilla.
He has since created and collected hundreds of recipes for almost every wild edible plant in the area. Want to know how to make sheep sorrel leaf spread, wild leek guacamole or duck with plums and burdock? Hamilla is the go to person.
This late afternoon he is orchestrating the dinner preparation, talking about the plants as Nancy Pennell of Chesterton tops a tomato bruschetta mixture with finely chopped wild onion leaves and bulbs and Beth Thompson and Mar Gloyeske, also of Chesterton, sauté leek leaves and bulbs in butter for the grilled salmon. Lorretta Lach of Valparaiso sautes wild ginger root in butter for the roasted potatoes and Pauline Engels oversees the grill. As they work, other members such as Ruth Harbecht of Jackson Township, arrive – with Harbecht bringing her favorite, though definitely not foraged, dessert along. Many members of the society, like Joni Wainovich of Chesterton, have been members of the society for several decades.
Once you know what to look for, it’s surprising how much food is growing wild.
“A friend of mine from Mexico was visiting and she saw some purslane growing in the cracks of the sidewalk,” recalled Thompson as she ladled out a bowl of soup made with eight types of mushrooms, which with the exception of one, were either gathered fresh or dried by Hamilla the year before. “She said you can eat that.”
The following recipes were created by David Hamilla for the Porter County Herb Society “Cooking Wild” Dinner.”
1 handful of Spicebush twigs and leaves
DIRECTIONS: Bring one quart of water to a boil then turn off heat. Score twigs and steep in the hot water for 10-15 minutes or longer for a stronger flavor. Sweeten with agave nectar, honey, sugar or stevia.
Wild Mushroom Soup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 cups chicken stock
8 cups beef stock
1 cube chicken bullion
1 cube beef bouillon
6 eggs beaten
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup morels
1/2 cup portabella mushrooms
1/2 cup white mushrooms
1/2 cup chanterelles
1/2 cup chicken of the woods mushrooms
1/2 cup oyster mushrooms
1/2 cup porcini
1/2 cup cloud ear mushroom
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Wild onion, finely chopped
Red Bud flowers
DIRECTIONS: In a large pot, add the stock and boullion. Bring to boil. In a small pan combine butter and flour to make a light brown roux. Add roux to stock to thicken. Bring to boil. While stirring thickened stock, drizzle beaten egg in to make an egg drop style soup base. Add mushrooms and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer for at least 45 minutes. Transfer soup to bowls and garnish with crème fraiche, wild onions and red bud flowers. Serve.
Cedar Plank Salmon with Wild Leeks
6 x 14-inch cedar plank
1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 wild leek leaves sautéed in butter
1/8 cup crushed, roasted hazelnuts
DIRECTIONS: Soak cedar plank in salted water for at least 2 hours, then drain. Rinse the salmon under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Generously season with salt and pepper on both sides. Lay the salmon (skin-side down) on the cedar plank. Carefully spread the mustard over the top and sides. Place the brown sugar in a bowl and crumble between your fingers, then sprinkle over the prepared fish. Place butter pats on each fillet. Set grill for indirect grilling and heat to medium-high. Place the cedar plank on grill, away from the heat. Place prepared fish on the plank. Cover the grill and cook until cooked through, around 20 to 30 minutes. The internal temperature should read about 130° F. Remove from grill, sprinkle with hazelnuts, and rest covered for about 5 minutes. Drape a butter-fried leek leave over each salmon fillet, broil until the leaf begins to darken and serve.
Wild Greens Salad
Garlic Mustard leaves, stems, flowers
Wild Onion leaves, bulbs
Wild Leek leaves, bulbs
Wild Ginger, roots, leaves, flowers
Spring Cress leaves, stems, roots
Fawn Lily Adder’s Tongue Leaves
Creeping Charlie leaves, stems, flowers
Day Lily tubers
Virginia Waterleaf leaves
Purple Dead Nettle leaves, stems, flowers
Chickweed leaves, stems, flowers
Violet leaves, stems, flowers
Romaine Hearts shredded
Eggs, boiled and chopped
Gruyere cheese, cubed
Bacon, cooked and chopped
Red Bud flowers
DIRECTIONS: Combine greens, eggs and cheese. Add mustard dressing (recipe below). Toss to coat evenly. Drizzle gastrique (recipe below) over salad. Garnish with bacon, Gruyere, croutons, bacon, violet and redbud flowers and Parmesan.
6 tablespoons Dijon mustard
12 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (unseasoned)
Pepper and salt, to taste
Whisk ingredients until smooth and thoroughly mixed.
Savory Gastrique Drizzle:
3 wild leeks, minced
Juice from 3 or more tangerines including the zest
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Triple-Sec, Grand Marnier or other orange flavored liquor (optional)
DIRECTIONS: In a small, non-reactive saucepan, sauté the leeks in butter. When leeks are translucent, add the sugar, vinegar, fruit juice and zest. Bring to a boil. With the pan off the heat, add the liquor. Cook on low heat until reduced by at least half or when the mixture has thickened and will coat a spoon. Remove from the heat and strain the mixture. Let cool completely, then refrigerate.