Going Wild for Berries with Forager and Author Teresa Marrone
“This is a prime edible,” says accomplished author and outdoor enthusiast Teresa Marrone. She reaches out and gently tugs the stem of the weed at her knee towards me so that I can view the powdery, spade-shaped leaves. “Lamb’s quarters,” she says. “Like spinach, but better.”
“I have that in my butterfly garden,” I say. And if it ventures beyond the borders of that, it’s a prime candidate for the weed whacker, I think. I felt an instant stab of regret for all of the lamb’s quarters I’ve ripped out and sent to an untimely demise atop my compost heap, when I could have been enjoying them steam-sauteed in butter and garlic or in baked in eggs and savory pies as Marrone describes in her book Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest.
“Well, there are a lot of things that look like lamb’s quarters,” Marrone says, “so you need to be sure.” She then points out distinguishing features, including rounded teeth on the edges of the leaves and the way leaves are attached, alternately, on hairy stems.
After spending only a couple of hours with Teresa Marrone, “Julia Child of the Wild” (as Brett Laidlaw, one of the organizers of the Midtown Farmers Market, calls her), or with one of her books, you’ll never look at your yard, or ordinary city park, the same way again. Fortified with what you’ve learned from Marrone’s concise, practical descriptions and her sharp, clear photos, where you once saw flowers, leaves, and stems, you now see “key features”; and, where you once saw scrubby meadows, abandoned farmsteads, and shady stream banks, you now see “habitat.”
Marrone, who has been gathering, cooking with, and writing about (including as Managing Editor of a series of outdoors-themed cookbooks) wild foods for more than two decades, wrote, and did the photography for, the recently-released Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan ($14.95, 280 pages, full color throughout, softcover with durable glossy cover finish, 4-3/8 x 6 inches, publisher Adventure Publications, Inc.) and companion book, Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan ($12.95, 176 pages, softcover with durable glossy cover finish, spiral-bound or traditional binding, publisher Adventure Publications, Inc.).
The field guide is a compact little book that fits neatly into a sandwich baggie, or into your purse, backpack, or glove compartment. Easy to thumb through, the book is indexed by color of the ripe berry and provides full-color photos of 165 wild berries — some edible, some not — found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In a concise and consistent format, the book describes each berry’s range, habitat, plant form, leaf arrangement, fruit, and season. In a section called “compare,” for each berry Marrone describes “look-alike” plants and provides a clear description of distinguishing characteristics of the berry and its impostors. Each berry is labeled delicious, edible, not edible, or toxic, with a bright red skull and crossbones image accompanying the latter, for emphasis. At the bottom of each page, when applicable, Marrone provides a cross-reference to the pages in Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits where recipes are found.
An exceedingly helpful “Ripening Calendar for Edible Fruit” appears at the front of the book, which lists each of the edible berries, from gooseberry to wintergreen, in the order in which the fruit ripens, and indicates which months the plant will flower, bear fruit (first unripe, then ripe), and if the fruit persists through winter.
Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits is organized in alphabetical order, by berry. For each berry, there is a general description, including information on how to prepare it for cooking, which is followed by several recipes. The book includes more than 150 recipes. A section at the back contains recipes for syrups, jellies, and jams, and fruit leathers that apply to many fruits. One especially useful feature of the cookbook is that it provides recipes for small-batch jams and jellies. It is not always possible or desirable to gather huge quantities of wild edibles. In fact, sometimes you choose your recipe based on how many berries you were able to gather on any given outing. If you haven’t collected enough, you can’t just go to Cub Foods and buy more gooseberries from the freezer case.
I found both books compact, well-organized, easy to follow, and thoroughly cross-referenced and indexed. The books are “written with the forager in mind, and especially for foragers interested in taking home their finds and using them in recipes and in the kitchen,” and it’s clear that Marrone brings all of her real-world, hands-on experience to bear in writing these books.
If you’re a food lover and an outdoor enthusiastic — hiker, cyclist, canoer, backpacker, hunter, camper, geocacher, angler, picnicker — in the Upper Midwest, I think a copy of the Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide belongs on your bookshelf, or, more importantly, in your Duluth pack. Sure, you can probably recognize raspberries or blueberries without it, but there are so many more delicious, wild berries out there, if you could only tell the good ones from the skull-and-crossbones ones.
And, if you have the field guide, then eventually, if you gather berries in any significant quantity, you’ll want the companion cookbook. (On its website, Northern Trails Press gives you a small discount for buying the books together.) The only downside is that you’ll have to learn to control your new-found urge to think of the entire outdoors as your crisper drawer.
Instead of asking for an interview, I asked Marrone if she would take me out one afternoon to forage for gooseberries in their green stage, to which Marrone cheerfully consented — after having consulted the weather forecast to see when the next rain-free day was, of course. Marrone added that she needed to gather gooseberries for a recipe, “Cattail Pollen Crepes with Gooseberry and Strawberry Sauce,” which she was demonstrating on Saturday, June 27 at the Midtown Farmers’ Market. (If you missed the demo, Marrone includes several cattail pollen recipes in Abundantly Wild. Marrone said on Saturday that now is the time to go out and gather cattail pollen, which adds a corn flavor and golden color to dishes.)
When rain threatened our outing, Marrone said, “Welcome to the life of a forager! We are controlled by weather.”
Marrone also offered some tips on foraging attire, especially for the scrubby, shelter-belt area in which we would be gathering gooseberries, to guard against poison ivy (pictured in the photo below, as well as featured in Marrone’s Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide on page 256, if you don’t know how to recognize it.) “Regardless of how hot it is, you’ll definitely need long pants, sneakers or some sort of shoe that can go into the woods, and socks. No sandals, no bare legs. You may want to just plan on throwing your jeans and socks directly into the laundry afterward; the active compound in poison ivy can get onto your clothes, and if you’re sensitive to it, you can get a rash just from handling the clothes.”
To guard against prickly plants and mosquitoes, Marrone says, “a long-sleeved shirt helps with those. If it’s “too warm to tolerate a long-sleeved shirt, I always bring bug spray.”
For berry gathering, Marrone suggests a plastic grocery bag. “It’s easy to crumple up and keep in your pocket, in case you don’t find anything.” If, in your zeal to gather berries and avoid poison ivy, your concentration lapses and snag your bag, as I did, shouting in panic, “Teresa, there’s a hole in my bag!” “Tie a knot in it,” Marrone called back.
Marrone says, “Any wild food food has to be taken at the proper time, at the proper season. Gooseberries are unusual because you can gather and cook with them when they are green, and tart. They taste a little like rhubarb. Later in the season, as they ripen, they are less tart. When green, they have a lot of pectin in them.” In fact, if you come up a little shy on the quantity of gooseberries you were hoping to gather, Marrone suggests supplementing with rhubarb, chopped to the size of a gooseberry. “Try to pick the gooseberries that look a little translucent, not the dull, solid green ones, which aren’t ready yet.”
The gooseberry plant is very prickly, even the fruit itself, in the case of the Canadian “prickly” variety. Fortunately, the prickles on the gooseberries cook down to nothing and are still edible. And, on the topic of edibility, Marrone says, “Just because one part of the plant is edible doesn’t mean it’s all edible. Just because it’s edible at one stage or season doesn’t mean it’s edible at another. There are some wild foods you have to be careful with. Even though we’ve been eating wild foods for millennia, we don’t have a lot of information about how people react to them. You really have to be careful when eating a wild food for the first time. For the first time you eat a wild food, just eat a small amount and see how you react.”
Marrone says there is etiquette among foragers. One is that you should “always be concerned with foraging not to damage the plant, not to damage the resource. Harvest only 10 percent of each patch you find, and pass by small patches entirely. Berries are an exception: gather as many as you like, though, leave the small, unripe ones for someone else to gather later. I prefer berry picking, which is very non-damaging to, say, digging roots.”
Marrone describes several occasions where she returned in spring to a patch of morels or ramps that had that had been a favorite for years, only to discover that it had been completely wiped out by someone who gathered everything, instead of leaving enough for the patch to regenerate. “Market foraging,” where people forage for commercial, rather than personal, use “is very controversial in the foraging community,” says Marrone. On the one hand, it is what enables restaurants such as Lucia’s to offer wild foods on their menus for people who may not otherwise get to taste them. But, it can be destructive if not done carefully.
Another matter of etiquette, according to Marrone, is to respect the foraging spots. “You may know that foragers are very protective of good spots.” Foragers don’t want people to descend on their spots, especially if the small ones, because they have heard about the stuff that is there. Says Marrone, “If they find it on their own, that’s another matter; but you don’t want to hang a shingle out.” Marrone says she is careful not to forage in areas along roads or the perimeters of public parts, partly because the chemicals and pollution from nearby roadways or landscaping may be unhealthy additions to your foraged foods, but also so that she doesn’t attract attention from passersby.
Also, foraging is not officially sanctioned in many parks in the Metro area. Marrone has places she’s been gathering for years where she’s never been hassled, even when she hasn’t asked for permission. “Many parks don’t mind foragers, especially if all that’s being picked is berries or something like that which doesn’t damage the park (by digging etc).” However, Marrone says that the City of Minneapolis will crack down on anyone foraging around the lakes or Minnehaha Creek.
Marrone says: “Foraging is generally tolerated in state parks if all one is picking is a reasonable quantity of berries or something non-destructive. They would not want anyone to go and dig up roots, or to cut greens, but they don’t get excited, in my experience, if one is out picking berries for personal use (not enough to sell at the farmers’ market).”
“National parks rules vary within each unit. In general, it is permissible to pick berries for immediate consumption or a small quantity to take home — again, not so much that it could be constituted as commercial harvesting. Some national parks and national forests sell permits for commercial foraging; in Minnesota, those are up north. Superior National Forest, for example, sells foraging permits.”
I asked Marrone how she finds her spots: “Do you just pop in to every little park or open area you see and scout it out?”
She replied, “Basically, yes. Sometimes, when I’m looking for something specific, as I was when I was writing my book, I am looking for a particular habitat — near a river or something.” And when she finds a spot, particularly a good one for morels, she makes a note of it for next year or for later in the season. “It’s seems like all of the good spots get housing developments built on top of them,” says Marrone.
After about an hour and a half of gathering (and chatting), I had gather what I thought was about two cups of gooseberries, some smooth, some prickly, mostly green, but a few ripe. As Marrone suggested, I kept them unwashed in the fridge for a couple of days until I was ready to cook with them. Marrone says of wild foods that often, “picking them is just the start of the work,” and, she was right, as it took me about an hour to slice off the stems and pigtails of the gooseberries I’d gathered. The final output was about six ounces, which was just enough to try the Green Gooseberry Filling recipe, which I used for Marrone’s Fruit-Filled Muffins recipe (both recipes appear at the end of this article). As Marrone predicted, the gooseberry filling was tart and rhubarb-esque. It was delicious in the muffins and nice over vanilla ice cream and as an addition to my yogurt.
The muffins, the jucy lucy of berry-stuffed baked goods, were sweet and tangy and a fair reward for the effort that had gone into them. I only had one small struggle with the recipe, and that’s that I wished Marrone had indicated a measure for the amount of batter to scoop into each muffin cup before adding the filling. I asked Marrone for clarification: her strategy is to divide the batter in two portions, and then just scoop an equal amount (using one half of the batter) in each cup. The remaining half of the batter gets divided among the cups after you’ve added a dollop of filling to each. If you are an avid or patient baker, you probably know how to eyeball it or pour the batter carefully. If you’re me — and we have ample evidence that you are not — you end up with beautiful, golden muffins of slightly varying sizes. All delicious. None, surprisingly, over or underbaked.
I also tried Marrone’s Mixed Greens with Strawberries, Honey Pecans and Blue Cheese recipe, using strawberries from my CSA and some pungent and creamy Northern Lights Blue Cheese I’d picked up at Grass Roots Gourmet at Midtown Global Market. Because it requires almost no cooking and takes advantage of summer greens, this was a perfect hot-weather recipe, which included directions for making the honey pecans (I baked mine in my toaster oven) and the vinaigrette.
In her cookbook, Marrone says that you can’t “rely on per-cup measurements” when “using wild strawberries in recipes that were developed for domestic strawberries… Wild strawberries are so much smaller than their domesticated cousins that they pack more tightly into the cup, so you’d be using more strawberries (by weight) than the recipe probably intended. Domestic strawberries are also less juicy, so liquid will probably need to be reduced when substituting wild strawberries.” Because I was using domestic strawberries from my CSA, I used about double the amount of strawberries that Marrone’s recipe called for, which turned out to be about the right balance of sweet and savory. I can’t wait to find a patch of wild strawberries to try this recipe as Marrone intended, though I already anticipate the first problem Marrone cautions against in the strawberry section of the cookbook: “They’re so delicious that it’s tough to stop eating them on the spot, rather than putting them in the berry pail.” In fact, Marrone writes, “I’ve never made strawberry jelly because I’ve never wanted to sacrifice enough wild strawberries to make the juice.”
In Abundantly Wild, Marrone passes along advice she heard from Sam Thayer, an expert forager. “He suggests learning four or five new wild-food plants each year, rather than trying to learn everything all at once […] [I]f you learn four new plants in each year, in five years, you there will be 20 plants with which you are familiar and comfortable. Sam also talks about knowing a wild plant well enough to have absolute confidence in its identification […] If you’re not sure about the identity of a wild plant, or have the slightest doubt about its edibility, don’t eat it. Check with a knowledgeable person first, or pass it by until you have had a chance to learn more.”
Sunday morning, on my way to church, I climbed out of the passenger-side seat of my car and stepped onto a patch of lawn. I noticed tiny yellow flowers and heart-shaped leaflets the size of clover peeking out from under my sandal. “Yellow wood sorrel,” I said to my husband as I joined him on the sidewalk. “It’s nice in salads. Adds a lemony taste.”
Green Gooseberry Filling
About ½ cup; easily increased
This deliciously tart filling is a nice counterpoint when used in sweet or rich recipes.
6 ounces fresh or previously frozen green gooseberries (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons sugar, or as needed
2 tablespoons grated apple
1 tablespoon orange juice
Chop gooseberries coarsely by hand or in mini food processor. Combine chopped gooseberries, sugar, apple and orange juice in small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is no longer runny and looks like chunky applesauce; this will take 9 to 11 minutes. Taste for sweetness, and add a little more sugar if you like. Cool before using.
Use this to prepare Easy Bear Claws (pg. 20), Fruit-Striped Cookie Fingers (pg. 119), or Fruit-Filled Muffins (pg. 146). Refrigerate extra filling, and use to top oatmeal or toast.
From Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; © Teresa Marrone 2009
These make a nice, quick breakfast. Freeze any muffins you won’t be eating within a few days, wrapping them tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil.
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ to ⅔ cup sugar, depending on how sweet you want the muffins
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup whole or 2% milk
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup Strawberry Filling (pg. 145), or other wild fruit filling (see “Filling options” below)
Heat oven to 375°F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners, or spray with nonstick spray; set aside. Place wire-mesh strainer over large mixing bowl. Add flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; shake strainer to sift mixture into bowl. In measuring cup or small bowl, beat together milk, oil, egg and vanilla. Add milk mixture to flour mixture; stir with a wooden spoon until just moistened. Spoon half of the batter evenly into prepared muffin cups. Drop about 1 teaspoon of the filling onto the center of the muffin batter, keeping away from the edges; spoon remaining batter over filling. Bake until golden brown and springy to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes.
Filling options: This recipe works with any of the following fillings: Blackberry (pg. 14), Blueberry (pg. 23), Crabapple (pg. 45), Green Gooseberry (pg. 71), Ground Cherry (pg. 82), Mulberry (pg. 105), Nannyberry (pg. 111), Plum (pg. 117), Raspberry (pg. 121), Serviceberry (pg. 136), Strawberry (pg. 145), or Thimbleberry (pg. 154).
From Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; © Teresa Marrone 2009