By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
While hunting season is still months away, there’s another kind of hunting you can do in the outdoors: Spring is a great time to look for wild edibles. Common flavors foraged in the woods can complement the taste of your favorite game bird. Although I write from a Midwesterner’s perspective, specifically Nebraska and Iowa, the species mentioned below are common in many areas of the United States, and they are relatively easy to identify. If you are unsure about a species, always err on the side of caution. I recommend joining online foraging forums/groups for further education. Finding one that’s local to your area would be most ideal.
Here are some ideas and hints on how to cook and pair a few common wild edibles with some of our favorite game birds.
If you’re a frequent visitor to the outdoors, you’ve probably felt the burn of stinging nettles before you even knew what it was. It might be a surprise, then, to learn that this hairy plant is both edible and delicious. The taste and texture of stinging nettle is similar to spinach, and its bright, green color is stunning and holds up well even after cooking.
Collect leaves in the spring, both leaves and stem, when plants are tender. Snip the stem 2 or 3 levels of leaves down the plant, where the stem is no more than ¼-inch thick. Handle raw plants with gloves and/or tongs, blanch them for 30-60 seconds in boiling water—until wilted— and the sting goes away. Afterward, squeeze as much water from the blanched greens as possible, and use like cooked or frozen spinach.
My favorite way to enjoy this wild vegetable is simply pureed in soup, and I think this is where you should start to familiarize yourself with the flavor of stinging nettles; there are plenty of recipes online for stinging nettle soup. Afterward, try pairing it with wild game.
For quail, some ideas are cheese and nettle stuffed game bird breasts, quail and nettle alfredo pasta, seared quail with creamed nettles, nettle and artichoke game bird casserole … think substitution for spinach, and the possibilities become endless.
Pheasant Back (Dryad’s Saddle) Mushrooms
Morels are an obvious choice in spring, but pheasant back mushrooms are also abundant this time of year. The good news is few people collect them, so you’d be able to pick them to your heart’s content. Resembling the plumage on a pheasant’s back, these mushrooms feature a beautiful feathery pattern on their caps. The flavor is like cucumber and watermelon rind.
Pheasant back mushrooms can grow quite large, but before you get too excited, know that smaller specimens are preferable for eating; the larger the mushroom, the rubberier its texture gets. Choose mushrooms that are fresh and brown. Stay away from light-colored mushrooms, which indicates old age. To test for tenderness, try to scrape the spongy-looking pores underneath the mushroom with a knife or your fingernail. If it comes off easily, then it’s good enough for the table. Before cooking, cut off the tough back stem, if any, and proceed to scraping off the rest of the porous layer underneath the mushroom.
To cook pheasant back mushrooms, slice thinly and sauté in olive oil or butter— brown in batches and do not overcrowd the pan. From there, use it to make your own quail with cream of mushroom recipe, game bird stir fry, quail with mushroom gravy, or quail and mushroom pot pie. Whatever you can think to do with store-bought mushrooms, you can do with pheasant back mushrooms.
There are several species of wild onion, and they exist all over the country. The most prominent species among hunters and foragers is probably Allium tricoccum, also known as ramps, ramsons or wild leeks. Ramps occur in Eastern North America and are recognizable by their one to three broad leaves. They’re one of the earliest greens to appear in spring, usually harvestable from early April through mid-May, and identifiable by their distinct oniony, funky smell. There are poisonous look-a-likes, such as lily of the valley, so be extra careful when foraging ramps.
There are good reasons why wild game should not be sold and bought, and I believe the same should apply to foraged food. The popularity of ramps has increased over the last several years, and unsustainable harvesting is becoming a threat to populations. Considering that a single plant could take 7 years to reach maturity, I urge you to take only what you can eat. I dig up a few plants, but for the most part, I collect mostly leaves. Leave at least one leaf on the plant so that it can continue its life cycle. Also, scatter your harvesting to reduce your impact—try not to gather heavily from just one area.
Use ramps like you would onions, fresh or cooked. Mince the leaves to garnish your meals, or substitute white/brown onion as an aromatic in your recipes. I love the entire leaf browned in a pan with olive oil as a side dish or on top of pizza. I use onion in almost everything I cook, so adding them to your quail recipes shouldn’t be too tricky to figure out.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) originated in Europe and is one of the oldest herbs and spices used by humans. Unfortunately, it’s invasive in North America, threatening native plants and taking over forest floors. It is well-established in eastern United States and is steadily marching westward.
The good news is that the whole plant is edible, and when harvested in spring and early summer, before hot weather arrives, garlic mustard has a mild flavor that would work well in many recipes.
Add the leaves to a salad to serve alongside roasted quail. Or make pesto to toss with pasta, adding pieces of cooked game bird breast on top. I also enjoy it chopped up and added to marinades and sauces: For example, swap out cilantro for garlic mustard in chimichurri sauce, and marinate game bird pieces for 8 hours before grilling. Whatever recipe might benefit from the flavor of garlic, add garlic mustard.
Wild violet comes in many colors, and I use them for purely decorative purposes. The flowers and leaves don’t have much flavor, but they can turn a boring-looking dish to one that looks like a work of art.
Use the flowers to decorate a salad with quail. Add splashes of color to game bird spring rolls. Use them in meals where the aim is to impress. These colorful flowers are only available in early spring, so hurry and take advantage of that vibrancy.
Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley and her husband, Rick, runs the wild game cooking blog www.foodforhunters.com. She is also associate editor at Nebraskaland Magazine, published by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission since 1926.