A lot’s changed since my college days when my friend, Lisa, and I would hitchike up into the George Washington national forest of SW Virgina for a weekend of wilderness camping with a bottle of water and a bag of pecan sandies.
Now, I know how to grab a few friends, and find good things to eat on these eastern mountains come spring. My friend, Effie, born in 1914 in our Madison County mountain cabin, taught me about collecting branch lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia). You collect the tender leaves in the mountain streams in April before the plant sends up a flower stalk. You eat branch lettuce “kilt” with a little bacon grease, sauteed ramps and a drizzle of cider vinegar. Or in fresh in a salad works, too.
And then there are morels. My favorite of the wild mushrooms. They grow where they grow, and for us, they grow in Effie’s very old apple orchard and among the poplars on the side of the steep steep STEEP mountains. Right here, they’re hanging out in a ramp patch that I planted from unststainably harvested ramps that I bought at a roadside stand a couple years ago. Here’s how you should harvest ramps.
Earlier this week, my girlfriends and I collected branch lettuce, nettles, soloman’s seal shoots (not false solomon’s seal!) violets and chickweed for our supper salad. Then we hiked up the mountain to the special secret wildflower grove where the trilliums are just singing their sweet spring song.
It’s so steep, you have to pull yourself up by the tree trunks to get up the mountain. Perfect place for a glass of wine. Make that two glasses of wine.
Back at the cabin. It’s our foraged salad and a mushroom and nettle risotto with grilled asparagus. (It’s aparently cookstove risotto season!) And good friends chatting. Lots of all of it.
I talked about harvesting nettles here. To make a mushroom risotto with nettles, you just follow any old mushroom risotto recipe and add the blanched, chopped, lightly salted nettle leaves in the last few minutes of the risotto stirring.