Streamside EdiblesSpringtime brings a bounty of wild foods to the coulee country of southeastern Minnesota.
By Kay Wethern. Photography by Bill Lindner
The view renders a panorama of hill and vale, farm crops and prairie, textured with vast woodlands. Inside this deciduous forest lie ribbons of rivers. Below, natural springs flush up, giving life to plants and animals and luring the wild food lover. Southeastern Minnesota is a spread of springtime treasures.
It's early May. In search of trout, fly-fisherman Pete Cozad and wild food forager Kristen Schici drive southeast. Near Caledonia, they descend into a lush green valley. With recent rains, the morels should be popping up. Time is right to forage for other wild edibles as well.
They arrive at a trout stream that Pete knows is prime. He was raised in this corner of the state; these are the waters of his youth. He begins to work an outer curve with a riffle.
"I love the intimacy of the smaller streams, the overhang of trees," Pete says. "I can almost hear the hatch hovering in the air."
He notices mayflies, so-called blue-wing olives, coming off the water. He picks an artificial blue-wing olive and ties it on. Pete directs his cast so his fly drifts down the feeding lane. He hears the classic "plunge." It's a nice trout.
Moving farther downstream, near a spring, Pete sees a bed of watercress?a dark-green, delicate, leafy plant with fine, white roots. Eaten raw, watercress has a peppery or tangy flavor, which is tasty in sandwiches and salads. It can also be steamed or lightly fried. Native to Europe and the Mediterranean region, this perennial herb can be found year-round along streams and in shallow springs throughout the United States. Pete grabs a handful of the plants and puts them into his creel.
Nearby, on the south slope of a bluff, mushroom fanatic Kristen looks for morels. Stick in hand, she feathers through leaves and brush, seeking the coveted fungi. Slightly nutty in taste, morels are widely considered the most prized of wild mushrooms, and emblematic of early spring.
Foraging for natural foods continues. In partially shaded woods not far from the creek, Kristen walks through a mosaic of wild violets and white trout-lilies. On a mission for wild leeks, she searches for their long, oval, pointed leaves. This herbaceous plant, also known as "ramps," ranges from coast to coast. Kristen finds a colony of wild leeks forming good ground cover. An easy way to distinguish wild leeks from poisonous lily family look-alikes: Crush the waxy leaves to see if they release the pungent onion aroma of leeks. Kristen pulls up just enough leeks for a meal. The leaves and bulbs are eaten raw or cooked, and are popular in soups.
On the riverbank, Pete spots a patch of ostrich-ferns. The coiled tops of young ferns resemble the scroll of a fiddle, thus the nickname "fiddleheads." At this early stage, they are edible; once unfurled they become poisonous. With an earthy flavor like asparagus, fiddleheads are great fresh in a salad or as a sauté. Pete snips a few and moves on.
Late afternoon, Kristen and Pete meet up. Hungry and ready for a feast, they break out their cooking gear and condiments. Preparing whole trout is a simple matter of splitting the belly, gutting, and rinsing. While Pete stokes the fire, Kristen cleans, cuts, and dices the day's harvest. Lightly breaded trout fry, while wild leeks and morels sauté in butter and garlic. Fiddleheads sizzle in olive oil and sesame seeds. Just before everything is done cooking, Kristen tosses watercress with crispy bacon, balsamic vinegar, and cracked black pepper for a savory salad.
Pete and Kristen enjoy nature's variety of tastes and textures. Looking back on this beautiful day in the southeast, they agree that gathering the food was just as rewarding as eating it.
Kay Wethern, Minneapolis, is a free-lance writer who writes about the natural world. Outdoor photographer Bill Lindner, Minneapolis, specializes in the art of fishing and hunting.