Eating Wild this Winter

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Something special for the palate and easy on the planet

By LAURA REEVES

So you spent the summer gathering and preserving wild edibles. You enjoyed learning about the wonderful world of plants and the amazing nutritional benefits of wild foods. You discovered things you didn’t know about your own yard, community and even your neighbours. It was a lot of work, but connecting with nature, discovering fascinating insects you’d never seen before and sharing your new experiences with others made it worth every minute of your time!

roasted dandelion, caraway, mortar and pestle (1280x853)Now you find yourself staring into your pantry or rifling through your freezer wondering what to do with all the things you harvested. Instead of grabbing the lamb’s quarters or stinging nettle, you push it aside and reach for the spinach you just bought. It’s just easier to stick with what you’re used to, and you won’t have to endure tiresome jibes from family members about eating more weeds. Besides, a fresh salad seems more appealing than dried or frozen greens, and you’ve got everything you need to make it right there, ready to go.

Old habits die hard. By gathering and preserving wild edibles, you’ve established that you’re more than a little interested in eating them. But sometimes we need to create a need to do things we’re not used to, regardless of how badly we want to do them, and that may require a shift in lifestyle.

I was introduced to wild foods at a very young age. As I got older, my interest in edible and medicinal plants grew, and I would often harvest small amounts to use for teas. When I left home and became solely responsible for my own food, I was struck by the absurdity of buying food from a store when nutritionally equivalent or superior food grew in abundance all around me.

As I found suitable alternatives, I started eliminating store-bought produce from my home, thus developing a personal dependency on wild edibles. Not only did this give me the kick-in-the-pants I needed to harvest and preserve enough wild produce to last through the winter, it also compelled me to find simple and convenient ways to incorporate my harvest into everyday meals.

morels in jar 1 (1024x683)In my kitchen, wild and cultivated foods are stored and preserved side-by-side, so there’s no separate thought process involved with using one or the other. For me, it’s just as easy to use acorn or buckwheat flour, cabbage or stinging nettle. If you’re not sure how much of your wild stash to use, start small and build up slowly until you reach your “saturation point.” If there’s someone in the crowd who claims they don’t like a certain food, try a different preparation method. I remember my sister, who detests mushrooms, helping herself to a second plate of spaghetti even after she saw me “accidentally” add powdered oyster mushrooms to the sauce.

I am often asked if I miss eating salad or fresh lettuce on my sandwiches in the winter. The truth is, no. I made a decision many years ago to live more in tune with nature and natural cycles. If people could live at this latitude for thousands of years without fresh produce in the winter, then so can I. I do not believe this automatically lowers my standard of living, as some would assume. At this latitude, “seasonal vegetables” takes on a whole new meaning. Putting fresh fruits and vegetables on our plates when the ground is frozen for five months of the year is very resource-intensive and involves a lot of wasted food – a high ecological price to pay for food that is often lacking in flavour and nutrients. I’ve also come to realize that the foods that make me feel good during the cold winter months are not raw salads and bowls of fresh fruit, but steamed vegetables, root crops and other “warming” foods.

The idea of “warming” versus “cooling” foods is deeply rooted in ancient healing practices, especially traditional Chinese medicine. Warm or yang foods are easy to digest and help to raise the body’s energy by increasing circulation. They include garlic, squash, cooked or dried fruits, nuts and seeds, most meats, and spices such as cayenne pepper, cinnamon and cloves. Cooling or yin foods, on the other hand, require more energy to digest and help to reduce the body’s heat, clear away toxins and slow metabolism. These include raw leafy greens, grains, sprouted legumes, tofu, yogurt, mints and cilantro. All foods are classified on a relative “temperature scale,” with whole grains, legumes and sea vegetables considered the most balanced or neutral.

Have you ever noticed that the ecological importance of any animal is always described in terms of what the animal eats? Likewise, what we eat is the single most important variable influencing our impact on the environment. Consider the direct impacts of altering or destroying prairies, forests, deserts and waters for human food production. Add to this the indirect effects of production, shipping and storage, and you’ll appreciate how far-reaching the impact really is. By eating more of the food that grows in our backyards, we can reduce our ecological footprints with equally far-reaching effects.

 

Laura with dandelionsThe founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, botanist Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. Laura also sells sustainably wild-harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit psbotanicals.com and like Prairie Shore Botanicals on Facebook.

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