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OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles — and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she encourages you to learn a little about foraging for wild foods by introducing five ingredients every Northwesterner should know and offers a recipe for nettle pesto risotto.
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Japan has a long tradition of relishing sansai, or “mountain vegetables”; these seasonal foods like bamboo shoots and butterbur sprouts come from the woods, not the store. But the Pacific Northwest’s coasts, meadows, mountains and forests are also hiding a wealth of gastronomic delights, and even if you can’t make it out to gather your own, we have some ideas on ways to take your culinary experience for a walk on the wild side. Which common roadside weed and garden green can cause kidney stones if you eat too much? Read on to find out!
Small bites: Oregon just says no to single-use Styrofoam, a food cart melting pot and invasion of the oyster snatchers
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Styrofoam take-out containers banned in Oregon
OPB’s Dirk VanderHart reports that a bill to ban plastic foam food containers, coolers and packing peanuts has cleared the Oregon Senate and is headed to the House. A previous attempt to ban polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) food containers in 2019 failed, but with different people in the Legislature, the new one has a better chance of passing. If you get take-out often enough to be affected by this, consider bringing your own reusable container, or subscribe to a service like Bold Reuse in Portland or Eco2Go at Oregon State University — just drop off your used container at the designated drop-off bin (it doesn’t even have to be fully washed).
New food cart pod is a win-win for diners
Since last summer, the restaurant group Win Win has been pushing to detoxify the food industry from the inside out. Their goal is to create equitable and sustainable opportunities in the restaurant sphere while prioritizing BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food makers. And part of that vision included a food cart pod with a diverse array of chefs and cuisines. This month, that became a reality with Lil’ America, a food cart pod in SE Portland in conjunction with Dos Hermanos Bakery and Fracture Brewing. OPB’s Crystal Ligori spoke with three of the seven carts in the new pod.
Red alert on green crabs
Invasive green crabs are threatening Northwest oyster beds, reports Tom Banse, and the state of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched an all-out offensive to quell the greedy crustaceans, enlisting help from the Lummi Nation, Shoalwater Bay Tribe, shellfish growers, as well as members of the crab-trapping public. Willapa Bay grows the vast majority of all the country’s oysters (70%), so this isn’t just an ecological problem; it’s an economic one. One challenge is that a female green crab can produce a lot of eggs — 200,000 at a time — and the crab larvae are untrappable. Another problem is that the crabs don’t offer a lot of culinary value — the trapped crabs are frozen to death before heading to the landfill (hey, WDFW, ever heard of composting?).
Five wild ingredients every Northwesterner should know
In Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” a young boy leaves his family’s New York City apartment to live off the land in the Catskills. He hollows out a tree for shelter, fires his own pots from clay he digs from a creek bed, boils water in a leaf and even (improbably) trains a falcon nestling to hunt for him. But before he reaches that level of survivalism mastery, he has to learn how to forage for edible plants, turning wild berries into jam to smear on his acorn pancakes.
Whether or not you’ve ever entertained fantasies of running off to live among the elk (for example), you’ve got to admit that the eating would be pretty good in the superabundance of the Pacific Northwest. Even if you’re not ready to wander completely off the grid, you can unlock your inner Euell Gibbons with some choice edibles available right in your neighborhood.
Wild-foraged foods have been making their way into fine dining menus for decades; when Oregon native Cory Schreiber opened Wildwood in 1994, he wasn’t just bringing the farm-to-table moment from Chez Panisse to Portland, he was introducing Northwest diners to regional ingredients like wild mushrooms and huckleberries. Though the restaurant closed 20 years later, new guard chefs like 2023 James Beard Awards finalist Josh Dorcak (MÅS, Ashland) have proven that the Northwest’s coasts, meadows, mountains and forests are hiding a wealth of gastronomic delights.
Any discussion of springtime foraging in the Northwest has to start with that alien brain-looking mushroom known as the morel. Morels like a little drama, so look for them in coniferous forests that have burned, in old apple orchards, or if you’re lucky, in the pile of wood chips the electric company delivered during their annual tree trimming but that you never got around to spreading around your garden paths. Morels are also pretty widely available in markets by mid-spring.
Though they are arguably one of the most delicious things growing on the forest floor, they come with one caveat: morels’ little nooks and crannies make excellent hiding places for tiny white worms. They’ve unavoidable; even store-bought morels have them. To get rid of them, just place the morels in a bowl of salt water (as salty as you’d use for boiling pasta) and place a plate on top to weigh them under the water. Wait 30 seconds, then swish them around before scooping the mushrooms out with a slotted spoon. Give them a good rinse in fresh water and let them dry on a kitchen towel before adding them to creamy pastas or sautéing them with lots of butter and shallots.
Stinging nettles (Urtica urens and U. dioica) grow in swampy forests and riparian corridors along streams throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Though they resemble a mint at first glance — both mints and nettles share the opposite-decussate leaf arrangement — they’re in their own botanical family (the Urticaceae). Another easy way to tell a nettle from a mint is that the latter is fragrant, whereas the former will sting the heck out of you. This is thanks to the tiny silicate hairs covering the stems and leaves, which act as tiny syringes, ready to inject their venom into the skin of any would-be herbivores. The venom is a mixture of histamine (causing a rashy allergic response), serotonin and acetylcholine, with a few acids thrown in to make sure you don’t soon forget the pain. Better-stocked markets will often have them pre-bagged, though you’ll pay through the nose for the convenience.
If you elect to pick your own nettles without getting stung, wearing gloves is the first line of defense, and don’t worry: Heat deactivates the venom so once they’ve been cooked, nettles can’t sting you. Steaming them makes them ready for any number of applications, like pesto and soups (nässelsoppa is a Scandinavian classic), baked into a creamy gratin, mixed with ricotta for filling ravioli or folded into a buttery risotto like we’ve done in the recipe at the end of this newsletter. Once blanched and pureed you can freeze nettles for later, or you can dry them for adding to tea.
True to its moniker, miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) was indeed eaten by miners during the California Gold Rush; before Overlanders arrived to establish agriculture in the West, fresh produce was so rare and expensive in California that crates of apples being shipped from Portland to San Francisco had to be strapped down to deter train robberies. Miner’s lettuce was a salvo against scurvy, ready for harvest from April to May. It grows everywhere — you’ll often see it on the edge of lawns or along damp trails and sidewalks around the west. The diminutive salad green so impressed botanist Archibald Menzies that he brought samples back to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, after his visits to the Northwest in the 18th century.
Miner’s lettuce is a crisp and succulent addition to salads, of course (it loves apples and walnuts), but you can also treat it like you would spinach; use it in spanakopita and other savory pies, mix it with olive oil and cheese to pile onto flatbreads and pizza, or add it to pasta primavera. Its slightly lemony flavor also makes it a natural pairing with briny capers and tinned seafood. Though it’s probably one of the easier plants to find in large quantities, don’t eat too much in one sitting — like spinach and chard, miner’s lettuce contains high levels of oxalate which, in large concentrations, can accumulate in the human body and cause kidney stones.
You may have seen fern croziers (better known as fiddleheads), but what are they? The fiddleheads seen on the East Coast are ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but in the Northwest, it could mean one of two ferns: bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) or lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Bracken fern is a pioneer species, meaning it quickly colonizes disturbed grounds; in the Northwest, that’s usually clear cuts and burned areas. Lady fern likes damp woods and can tolerate wet feet (look for it in low areas near creeks).
You can also find fiddleheads sold in some East Asian markets as fernbrake, either dried or boiled/frozen; they’re relished in Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisines. The dried version needs to be soaked overnight and boiled in a few changes of water before they’re ready to use, but then you can stir fry them for a side dish, pickle them or add them to soups and stews. When sautéed with butter and a squeeze of lemon, fresh fiddleheads resemble asparagus.
NOTE: If you’re using fresh bracken fiddleheads, you’ll first need to soak and cook them to remove ptaquiloside, which is slightly carcinogenic (but water-soluble and destroyed by heat). Like a fine wine, enjoy in moderation!
In Japan, sakura season is such a big deal that there’s an entire culture of anticipating and adoring the blossoms. Dating back to the 8th century, Hanami, or “flower viewing,” is now celebrated with picnics and outdoor parties. If you can’t get out of the city, you’re still in luck: There are cherry trees all over the place, and right about now they’re all in various stages of bloom. We have our own native cherry species in the Northwest (Prunus emarginata), but if you want pink blossoms instead of white, you’ll probably have to take a walk around your neighborhood or venture to Portland’s waterfront.
You don’t have to live in Japan to experience the flavors of sakura season — used in everything from potato chips to Kit Kat bars, you can find sakura flavored snacks at any Japanese market or online retailer, or you can gather them yourself. To preserve cherry blossoms for later, you can stuff the blossoms into a jar and top them off with plum, rice or champagne vinegar, then affix a lid and leave the jar in a cool place for a couple weeks; cure them in salt (shio zuke) for adding to pickled turnips and rice dishes; or candy them like you would violets to decorate cakes and cookies.
If you don’t have a field scientist’s plant ID skills, you still have some options: You can either sign up for a foraging class, take your chances with a foray at the coast or just dip your toe into the world of wild foods by buying the ingredients — it’s not a failure to procure them from farmers markets and better-stocked grocery stores. Do take a look around your own back yard, though; from sheep sorrel to chickweed, nature’s supermarket provides.
Recipe: Nettle pesto risotto
Risotto is an infinitely adaptable dish that reflects the best of any season: pumpkin for fall, tomato and corn for summer, chestnuts for winter. Sure, you could use English peas or asparagus for springtime flair, but we find fresh stinging nettles perfectly suitable here. Though dried nettles (sold as vitamin supplements or tea bags) can smell a tad fishy, fresh nettles have a subtle fragrance and flavor that tends toward green and grassy — the ultimate essence of spring. If you don’t want to make risotto, you can totally use this pesto on pasta or gnocchi, stir it into cooked white beans or store it in an airtight container in the freezer, where it will keep for a few months. Recipe makes about 1 ½ cups of pesto; risotto serves 4-6.
Notes: Stirring brings out the starchy creaminess in the rice, and if you want good risotto, you’ll be doing a lot of it! Since you’re going to be here for a while, you may as well revel in the gentle resistance of arborio rice creaming against your wooden spoon. Just meditate on it, think your thoughts, sing along to your favorite music.
4 cups fresh stinging nettles, rinsed
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ cup toasted pine nuts1 garlic clove, smashed
½ tsp salt
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp minced shallots
1 ½ cups arborio rice (or carnaroli, if you’re feeling fancy)
½ cup dry white wine
A few pinches of salt and pepper
More Parmesan and olive oil for drizzling
- Using tongs, carefully place the nettles in a steamer basket (or in the microwave with a splash of water) and steam until just wilted but still very green, about 1 minute. Allow them to cool enough to handle, then add the steamed nettles to a food processor or blender and pulse a few times until finely chopped. Add the remaining pesto ingredients and blend until a smooth paste forms.
- In a small saucepan, bring the chicken or vegetable stock up to a simmer and keep it there.
- Melt the butter and olive oil together in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Sauté the shallot until translucent, about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the rice and sauté, stirring, until mostly translucent except for a white dot in the middle of the grains, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Add salt and pepper.
- Add hot stock, one ladleful at a time, cooking and stirstirstirring until fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next cup of stock.
- After about 20 minutes of stirring and adding stock, the risotto should be al dente. Stir in the nettle pesto, then taste and adjust salt as needed.
- Add one more ladleful of chicken stock and give the risotto one final stir to coax out that last ooze of velvet. If you’ve run out of stock, it’s OK to add a little hot water to carry it through to the end. The risotto should be like a good mood: relaxed, creamy and kind of loose; not stiff, but not too soupy.
- Serve the risotto with a sprinkle of Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.