I feel a bit embarrassed about this post because I know it is one of those entries that a lot of you will enjoy reading, but you’ll have moments of eye rolling and sighing and chuckling, thinking “What’s this lady talkin’ about over there on her little island with her easy-peasy lemon-squeazy talk of foraging for stuff for soup? I don’t have the time, energy, or access to these things!” I offer it anyway. Some of you are just as enamored and passionate about the gourmet flavors that emerge from wild foods as I am and understand the singularly wild delight that comes from eating things that are so different from our common taste experience. Perhaps a bit of it will inspire you to grab your walking shoes and a guidebook and start identifying plants, and at the very least it might entertain or offer a peek into a new concept.
Spring is my favorite season for foraging for wild food. While some gardens are fully enamored with the world by this time in May, full of growth and splendor, perhaps a hot house or two, most of my Pacific Northwest garden is still peeking out of the ground and figuring itself out–except for the herbs, which seem like they are on steroids; sprightly spring onions full of life and zip; and our baby red spring-sweet radishes; plus some tender baby chard, turnips that are mostly just greens at this point, and emerging beet greens.
But after years of living in this corner of the world and going for long forest walks now and as a child, I know that springtime isn’t really the season of cultivated gardens; it’s the time of wilderness and rain, of earthy, spongy soil, and tender shoots and delicate leaves that will soon mature and grow strong and tall.
Yesterday, I so craved the taste of the wild rain and spongy earth that I hurried home from my errands, grabbed my scissors and mixing bowl, donned my rainboots, and stepped outside to grab ingredients for a wild forest and flora soup.
“What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
“I don’t like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It’s just the wilderness instinct in me,
I guess.” Walt Disney
Reasons to Eat from the Wild
One of the reasons I love foraged wild foods is because I know that wild food, similar to organic food, is higher in nutrients and flavor than anything you’ll find in the cultivated world. This is because wild foods are accustomed to working hard to fight off intruders and carve out their space in the world. In a similar way, so are organic foods. Once you stop spraying food with fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides, your food has to fight for its space in the garden bed–in so doing, it builds up a hardy store of health and strength to grow on its own, without the assistance of artificial sprays and blocks. This higher health and nutrient level in the food translates on our plate–the flavor is higher and the nutrients that are delivered into our body are often so much more concentrated that we can’t help but comment on the difference because we feel it when we eat it.
Cultivated food, both organic and non-organic, by its very nature, has been pruned and sculpted for taste and hardiness. Farmers and gardeners have long selected favorite seeds to carry forward into the following year’s garden. In this way, we have often selected seeds that produce food that is sweeter, crunchier, and more resilient–while at the same time seed-selecting for taste that we know and love.
Wild food isn’t like that. It’s just wild. It grows and grows back no matter how many times we pull it up or cut it down. It selects for resiliency, which often means bitter or pungent flavors (or stingers) that predators don’t like.
Just like in human life, where to survive you must learn to develop your own spunk to become a strong commander of your space, wild herbs and plants, including all the ones I am using in my soup today, have developed hardy fighting powers to ward off pests–the stinging nettle is the most obvious here. Additionally, the seemingly magical powers of the horsetail to grow back multiple plant strands whenever snapped off is another example of resilience in the wild.
Just imagine if we could all embody the spirit of the nettle, the horsetail, the dandelion, and the fir tip: We would sting if intruded on; we would grow back en masse, bigger and better than ever before; we would bloom in any condition; and we would add new growth every season until our branches reached the sky.
That’s why I love the wild. It reminds me that sometimes the most hardy things arrived at that state because they had the endurance and resilience to keep going no matter the odds. It’s a constant reminder of survival of the fittest. And because of this, the battle and the celebration, the food tastes magically alive and full of all the remnants of that dance.
Food from the Wild: Foraged Herb Pho Noodle Bowl
Vegetarian pho, when done right, is one of my favorite meals on earth, especially in the wintertime. But I like it served hot and full of garlic and lime and brothy goodness; to be honest, I haven’t found a ton of restaurants that blow my wig back, so to speak. Sawatdy Thai here on Bainbridge Island has the most amazing, giant bowl of vegetarian Thai-style pho available on their lunch menu full of fresh chopped ginger and a full-bodied broth that the owner makes herself. It’s seasonal, which means it’s not usually around on the hot days of summer.
I like this Foraged Pho Noodle soup because it’s reminiscent of pho but also really adaptable to whatever you might have on hand. I’ll serve a different version of this in summer, and in fall. Now, if you decide to make this, know that it is the simplest preparation for a soup that you’ll probably find anywhere. I’m saying that up front because I need you to know how easy this is. It’s not a journey of a thousand steps. It’s some scissors and a bowl and access to a few key weeds in areas that are not sprayed with weed killer, and a great broth. That’s it.
Also, I combined wild things with curated things available in my garden–you might not have a garden, but you’ll probably have a few things knocking about in your fridge or local grocer that will work just fine, and in literally 5 minutes, voila!, you too can have a little collection of things to put in your soup.
Starting from the top left of the photo and moving clockwise, I collected: fresh dill, spring (baby) Walla-Walla yellow onions, radishes with the tops on, nettles, chives and chive blossoms, mint, horsetail shoots, fir tips, dandelion leaves and flowers, parsley, and mustard flowers. You don’t need all of these things. This is just what’s growing outside my door so it’s what I’m using. However, you likely have access to a lot of this right now growing in various stages of development depending on your climate.
Note that none of the nutritional information I provide here is intended to treat or diagnose any health conditions. I am a gardener and a Pacific Northwest native; I’m not a medical doctor nor am I doing a deep dive into how to identify plants in this post. I’ll show you what they look like and how I forage for them, but do depend on your own common sense, a good guide, and/or a guidebook.
Let me explain just a bit about why I chose these particular items. For one thing, they are at their most tender and flavorful right now. Nettles and fir tips, for example, have a limited window for foraging before they become too mature to use. For another, a lot of these foods, just like the things you find in your garden, deliver nutrients and minerals that can be exceptionally healing and delicious.
Nettles, which don’t sting when cooked or pulverized, are inherently earthy and bright, offering a cooked texture that is similar to wilted spinach. They go great in soups and pastas and pestos and are purported to be heavy-hitters when it comes to delivering nutrition, aiding in respiratory health and even supporting seasonal allergy relief.
Dandelion is a common weed that might drive you crazy in your lawn, but delivers a whollop of good nutrition and flavor to salads, soups, stir-fries, teas, and the ever-flexible world of zippy pestos and dips. You can eat the leaves, flowers, and roots. The younger the leaves and flowers, the more tender and mild they will be; as they mature, they become more bitter.
Horsetail is one of those weeds that just never goes away. Literally some gardeners’ worst nightmare when it comes to protecting vegetable gardens from its eventual domination over all, it is often referred to as the most ancient weed in existence, hearkening, some say, from the days when dinosaurs walked the earth. High in silica and minerals, it is said to be tops for skin, hair, tendons, connective tissue, and bone health. As a natural diuretic, when combined with dandelion, nettle and/or milk thistle, it is purported to aid in the removal of toxins from the body. Due to its diuretic nature, it’s not suggested for continuous internal use, nor for people with heart conditions or hypertension. Additionally, due to its high mineral content and antimicrobial properties, many topical preparations and commercial shampoos and conditioners use horsetail. Consider drying it to make various skin and hair preparations of your own. (Some people are such followers of horsetail’s magic, they swear it can cure balding.)
Fir tips are available for only a few more weeks, so if you’re not pregnant or nursing, hop to it. Note: I have read that pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid anything with pine needle preparations. Look for Douglas Fir or Spruce tips just emerging from their brown paper casing. They will be light green and tender. Fir tips are exceptionally high in vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium. Fir tips are also high in phytoncides, which are substances created by trees and plants to protect themselves from bugs and germs. Scientists are actively studying the benefits of the phytoncides emitted by trees and plants to better understand how these substances can benefit humans, too, for example in disease prevention and fighting some cancers. Do not collect Yew Tree tips. They are highly poisonous.
Making Your Wild Food: Spring Foraged Herb Pho Noodle Bowl
- 2.5 quarts broth (vegetable or meat broth, bone broth, or bouillon)
- 5 medium cloves garlic, or 2-3 large cloves, sliced thinly
- Favorite protein such as tofu or cooked chicken or cooked beef (I used half a package of fresh sprouted tofu)
- Two limes, squeezed, and divided
- One lime, sliced
- Handful of noodles (pho rice noodles or spaghetti). I used Barilla’s gluten-free spaghetti noodles here because it’s what I had on hand
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Wild foraged nettles, 3-5 stems with leaves, washed and coarsely chopped, handled carefully with tongs and scissors so as not to sting yourself (untreated with any weed killer or pesticides)
- Handful of wild foraged dandelion greens, washed and coarsely chopped (untreated with any weed killer or pesticides)
- Several new horsetail shoots–look for ones still closed and just emerging from the ground, washed (untreated with any weed killer or pesticides)
- Spring onions, including green tops, washed and sliced into rounds (or green onions/scallions)
- Baby radishes with tops on, washed and cut in half (or mature radishes cut into fourths)
- Fir tips, handful, washed, kept whole (untreated with any weed killer or pesticides)
- Favorite herbs, coarsely chopped–cilantro, basil, mint, dill, would all go great here
- Snipped chives with purple flowers, if available
In a separate pot, boil water and add noodles, cooking according to package directions.
In a large (5-6 quart) soup pot, bring broth to a boil and add sliced garlic and horsetail shoots. Turn down to a slow simmer and season with salt and pepper to taste. (I am always a generous salter and pepperer of things, so keep that in mind when I ooh and aah about flavor–there’s plenty of those two elements in my broth.)
Add tofu or other protein and turn to low, allowing tofu to cook or precooked meat to fully heat through. Finally, turn off the heat. Add half of your lime juice, taste and amend with more lime juice, salt, or pepper if you like. Use tongs to add your chopped nettles. Follow with baby radishes, spring onions, fir tips, and dandelion leaves. These will wilt the minute they hit the broth. Leave the burner off and get ready to serve.
Add a serving of noodles to a large, wide bowl. Ladle hot broth and veggies over the noodles. Top with your favorite coarsely chopped herbs, chives, and break up your edible flowers (dandelion, mustard, and chive) to dust over the top. Add several twists of black pepper. Top with a couple slices of lime.
As always, feel free to add your favorite hot condiments here–sriracha, hot pepper flakes, jalapeno slices, or other toppings.
And drop me a line to let me know if you tried it and how you liked it!