The Heyday Restaurant on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis celebrated the arrival of Spring last Tuesday by offering a four-course meal featuring wild foraged foods at $45 a plate.
A better deal could be found that very night in Montevideo: It required two large tables to hold the nine-course offering of wild foraged foods served at no charge in the basement of the Congregational Church on Fourth Street in Montevideo.
Dandelion fritters, a wild greens salad, Minnesota River catfish, pheasant and wild rice hotdish, and lotus root upside down cake are just a sampling of the dishes the tables held. All of the foods were foraged and prepared by participants in a University of Minnesota Master Naturalist program held this spring in Montevideo. The program was sponsored by Clean Up our River Environment.
The participants prepared the feast to celebrate their graduation from the 11-week program. They studied the Prairie and Pothole biome of southern and western Minnesota
“The great thing about it is this is where we live, where they live. They all learn so much more about where they live,’’ said Kylene Olson of Watson, who served as their instructor.
They also learned so much more about the natural foods that continue to grow on the remaining wild lands and waters of the prairie region.
“None of these people will starve in the apocalypse,’’ joked Amy Rager on her Facebook page. She is the director of the Master Naturalist program for the University, a resident of rural Montevideo, and mother to Liza Buchanan, the young angler who supplied the catfish.
There’s a growing interest across the state in foraging wild foods. Preppers, as these wild foragers are often called, make natural foods as large a share of their diet as they can.
State laws allow some foraging on most public lands. New Master Naturalist Ariel Herrod researched the laws and reported that in general, it is okay to harvest fruits and mushrooms for private consumption. Leaves, roots and vegetative reproductive portions are not supposed to be foraged on most state lands. No harvesting of any sort is allowed on Scientific and Natural Areas.
Herrod pointed out that many wild foods can be cultivated on privately-owned lands. And many wild foods, from dandelions to nettles and garlic mustard, are abundant everywhere.
As the dishes made evident, even “weeds” like stinging nettles can be part of a delicious and nutritious meal. Once blanched, nettles lose the sting but retain their flavor and nutritious benefits.
Wild leeks or ramps and garlic mustard can add flavor and spice up a dish. Pickled wild leeks become a worthy treat of their own.
Master Naturalist Mike Murray turned wild rice into pancakes that needed no syrup topping. Ginger and shallots added all the flavoring needed.
Master Naturalist Scott DeMuth showed that acorns are not just for squirrels. Take the tannin from them, and their bitter taste is gone. Acorns are nutritious and can be turned into flour, he pointed out. DeMuth served up a dish of acorn pasta with nettles and greens pesto.
With help from his spouse, Wicanhpi Iyotan Win, DeMuth also produced a tasty dessert that he called a twist on pineapple upside down cake. Lotus roots replaced the pineapple. Maple syrup sugar took the place of refined sugar.
Students in the Master Naturalist program are required to complete a capstone project of their own choosing. Ten of Olson’s students made wild food foraging and preparation their project. As part of the project, they intend to publish a recipe book featuring many of the wild foods that can be foraged on the western Minnesota landscape.
Olson noted that it took lots of effort to forage and prepare the foods, not to mention the challenge of coordinating the work of 10 people to make a feast so large. Yet she was not surprised. From day one, she said she realized how enthusiastic a group these new Master Naturalists are.
That’s evident too by the capstone projects others in the class have taken on. Dawson-Boyd teachers Sharon Vick and Sharon Olson are developing a curriculum to introduce elementary students to the natural world. Appleton attorney Brian Wojtalewicz has removed invasive plants along the Pomme de Terre River and planted 50 trees in their place.
And as for the wild food dishes served in Montevideo, Olson has no doubt they would be worthy of gracing the tables at the trendiest of restaurants. “Very well done. I am proud of them,’’ said Olson.
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