Although nearly unknown to the health-conscious public, edible wild herbs, greens, berries, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms abound in local natural habitats throughout the US. Fighting for survival, wild plants concentrate more flavor and nutrients than do commercial varieties.
If foraging appeals to you as it does to me, remember you must identify wild foods with 100% certainty to avoid poisonous species. Attend foraging tours or use an accurate guidebook, and start with a few easy-to-recognize species that have no poisonous look-alikes. Avoid sprayed or contaminated grounds within 50 feet of busy traffic or rail lines, and eat small amounts at first in case of adverse reactions.
Combined with the judicious use of health-food-store ingredients, wild foods can transform mundane recipes into delicious, wholesome dishes. If foraging doesn't sound like your cup of tea, here's a variety of wild foods that are also available commercially:
• The common dandelion's jagged leaves are best when very young, (early spring and late fall in the eastern states). Use them raw, or sauté with seasonings, or take them one step further and simmer in a sauce, which may downplay their inherant bitter taste.
• Smooth, fragrant, beige to white oyster mushrooms, layered on dead wood, with blade-like, broad white gills running down the stems, aren't safe foraging targets for beginners, but you can buy them at many food stores. Cooked with traditional "seafood seasonings", they'll replace and outshine any shellfish.
• Wild blackberries, superb in any fruit dish, look like the commercial ones. Growing in thickets and trail sides, these thorny, bushy plants have deeply serrated leaves divided into radiating segments. The fruits aren't hollow like raspberries.
• Various edible wild mint species, traditionally used as a seasoning, often found in wet habitats, have opposite (paired) leaves and square stems, and smell minty.
• The wild parsnip, escaped from cultivation, has two-foot-long, raggedy leaves divided into segments, and tiny yellow flowers arranged like an umbrella on a five-foot-tall stalk in its second (final) year. In its first year, the single, sweet, white taproot is perfect for soups, stews, and sauces.
• Amaranth is a coarse-looking field plant, with long-stalked, unpaired, oval to lance-shaped leaves, and spikes filled with thousands of tiny black seeds you can cook like grains.