Favorite

Meal in the woods 

We went to the woods because we wished to eat deliberately.

And by that, I mean heading up to old logging trails off Woodland Park's Rampart Range Road to forage the ingredients for a spring wild salad. Not exactly as austere as Thoreau's experiment in simple living, but pioneering in spirit nonetheless.

Joining us is our guide, Springs native Chris Frederick, who has been teaching wild plant identification for more than 15 years to groups like the Boy Scouts and Air Force Academy combat survival instructors. We first met the 50-year-old naturalist in April when he dropped a copy of his wild plant recipe book and a sack of fresh-picked curly dock by the office. Now, on a warm spring day in late May, we meet again for a hike and introduction to the craft recently called "the next locavore fixation" in Food & Wine magazine.

Aware that the practice of gathering wild food is growing in popularity, Frederick begins our lesson by stressing the importance of harvesting foliage and fruits in a manner that doesn't kill the plant and thereby damage the ecosystem or public land.

"I am not advocating for people to go out and 'live off the land' and conduct a wholesale slaughter of edible wild plants," he writes in the preface to his book. What he is suggesting is that it is possible to gather small amounts of edible wild plants in a responsible, respectful, and sustainable manner.

We soon discover that the area in which we are harvesting food can hardly be called "pristine wilderness." In fact, it is littered with hunters' shotgun shells, and shows signs of use from annual military training exercises and from periodic cattle grazing. We hope that the impact of a few foodies daintily plucking flowers, stems and leaves will be imperceptible by comparison. To avoid fines, be sure to check any regulations on the land underfoot; foraging for personal use in national forests is permissible, though foraging in city, state or national parks is not.

The particular time at which one goes foraging, of course, determines exactly what items are available; some edibles are in season for as little as five weeks, while wild onion, for example, can be plucked from March through late September.

We set off from a washed-out gravel pull-off at around 10 on the morning of our hike, and Frederick leads us to some of his trusted, secret spots — "honey holes" I'd call them if we were fly fishing. As we trail behind him, Frederick pauses occasionally to point out non-edible but useful plants, such as yarrow, which he says Roman soldiers would carry into battle as a coagulant to stop bleeding.

Then he spies one of the eight ingredients we'll end up locating on this particular day (see below for descriptions), and we break out the brown paper lunch sacks that he's handed us for collecting, then fan out and start snipping with our scissors. Frequently, we stop to search on the south side of small ridgelines, where longer exposure to the sun produces more ample edibles.

The collection process turns out to be quite simple, as well as fun and novel, while it leaves us thinking, "Cool — I just stuffed a sack with food from this unassuming nook." The longer we look, the easier it becomes to distinguish diminutive, snow-white, mountain candytuft in the midst of a hot, dry gravel patch; knobby, succulent bunches of pale-green stonecrop pinched from wide rock crevasses; and spidery fireweed springing from a jumble of grasses and weeds.

After a couple hours of meandering, we crawl under the shade of some tall stream brush and begin unloading our sacks onto paper plates. Answering perhaps a primal urge, or more likely a modern taste for aesthetics, we artfully arrange colorful flowers around leafy greens on our plates, then sprinkle on a few nuts and drizzle it all with a bit of light vinaigrette we carried with us. (Cheating — I know.)

The first bite is slightly peppery, surprisingly meaty and unequivocally crisp and fresh. No airplanes, trucks, refrigerator cases or days of slow expiration. This is salad in its truest, rawest state, beyond the common flavors of a home garden or farmers market.

This is wildness personified as a composite flavor. This is why people forage.

matthew@csindy.com

Spring wild plant salad ingredients

— Provided by Chris Frederick

  • 'Next locavore fixation' or not, foraging for food reveals the true taste of the wild.

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