Foraging for a Native Nebraska Larder
By Abigael Birrell
Photography by Fischer Jex
As a chef who has built a career celebrating the flavors of place, moving from the Pacific Northwest to Lincoln, Nebraska, has meant starting all over again. This transition has been an adventure in learning what a native Nebraska larder looks like, finding flavors that are specific to this place and, most importantly, how I can use them for maximum deliciousness. To me, eating local means not just eating food that was grown here but also learning about and sourcing the ingredients that belong here.
Foraging for wild foods is simultaneously an ancient pastime and one that seems to be rediscovered every 15 to 20 years. The current explosion of interest in all aspects of gastronomy has focused attention on the native ingredients that set American cuisine apart from its European forebears. Previously neglected regional species of plants are now regularly featured as the trendiest new ingredients, with dishes of Jerusalem artichokes, fiddlehead ferns and ramps becoming almost commonplace in some restaurants.
Nebraska presents a wealth of foraging opportunities for those who care to explore. One of the best things about foraging for wild foods is that it can be as easy as bending over to harvest the purslane growing through the cracks in the sidewalk or as adventurous as a long hunt in the damp woods for morels. Wild edibles are all around us, often in the most mundane places.
As I began to delve into the world of Nebraska’s native wild foods, I was happy to learn that one of my all time favorite weeds, the stinging nettle, grows as abundantly here as it did in the Pacific Northwest. For anyone that has been stung by as a child, there is a special satisfaction in harvesting and devouring them as an adult. Call it payback time. While thick gloves, long sleeves and pants are required wear for nettle gathering, they are remarkably easy to identify for novice foragers. They are most often found along waterways and shady trails. They love rich soil and compost piles and favor areas disturbed by human settlement. Look for plants two to four feet tall with dark-green oval leaves featuring jagged edges, pointy tips and fine hairs along the underside of the leaf. They have been called a superfood due to the remarkably high levels of calcium, iron and vitamin C they contain. For me, they are a spring tonic, one of the first green arrivals on the scene after a long winter.
Nettles need to be quickly blanched in a pot of boiling water to remove the sting and then shocked in an ice bath to preserve their vibrant color. After that, the sky is the limit. Use them as you would spinach or chard. Make nettle pesto, spanakopita, puréed soup, lasagna—the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Other notable Nebraska wild greens include purslane, a succulent weed with a lemony flavor that has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. It’s featured prominently in recipes from southern Mexico and Greece but can also be used by simply tossing in a green salad. You can find it everywhere, spreading like the weed it is over sidewalks, gravel paths and flower beds.
But what does the Midwest have to offer in the way of homegrown spices?
Perhaps the most exciting answer is the ubiquitous smooth sumac. Those cone-shaped, rust-red clusters are a common sight on prairies, fields and trails throughout Nebraska. They are easily differentiated from their poisonous cousins, which produce clusters of white berries instead of the perky red cones. Sumac was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat a host of ailments. In the Middle East, a variety of sumac is used as a key component of the famous spice blend, Za’atar. The tiny red berries are covered in malic acid, which gives them a tart flavor that lends itself to a variety of uses in the kitchen. One of the most common and delicious preparations is making summertime sumac-infused drinks. The clusters of berries are given a short soak in water, then strained. The resulting pinkish, tart liquid can be sweetened to taste for locally sourced “lemonade.” Dry berries can also be pulverized in a spice grinder to make a tangy red powder that is wonderful sprinkled liberally over popcorn, on hummus or on anything else that could use a pop of bright flavor. Experts recommend not harvesting immediately after the rain, as the malic acid temporarily washes away and the berries are less flavorful.
Another intriguing inclusion in the native Nebraska spice cabinet is cattail pollen. Cattails produce vibrant saffron-hued pollen when they flower in the late spring and early summer. This pollen is often used in baking breads, but it is even more fun added to homemade pasta dough to create a rich golden noodle that looks striking on the plate. If you happen to find some flowering cattails at just the right time, the easiest way to harvest is by wrapping a plastic bag over the head of the flower and giving it a few hard shakes to dislodge the pollen.
Black walnut trees offer a wealth of creative possibilities for foragers beyond the arduous process of cracking and sorting the nut meats. Nocino is an Italian walnut liqueur that is made in early summer when the nuts are still green. The whole walnuts are quartered and soaked with aromatics in vodka for six months, creating a deliciously complex digestif that makes a great present for the holidays. In England, pickled whole green walnuts are a traditional accompaniment to a ploughman’s lunch. The walnuts soften in the brine and become almost spreadable; perfect with a strong Stilton cheese.
Common milkweed and butterfly milkweed are typical prairie plants that may be best known for having the silk-filled seedpods that are impossible to resist scattering in the fall. In the early summer they offer food for monarch butterflies and the occasional forager. The broccoli-like bud clusters are the easiest part to harvest and are delicious sautéed with garlic and butter. Make sure to rinse, blanch and shock them before cooking to remove alkaloids. For the more adventurous, the young pods can be harvested. After steaming them until tender and removing the seeds, they make a beautiful vehicle for any filling you can dream up. Try stuffing them with a nettle pesto and local goat cheese filling and frying until crisp for an addictive appetizer. Because milkweed is the sole food source for monarchs, a hardy native and a delicious treat, consider using it in planting beds around your house. You’ll create butterfly habitat and have a patch of unsprayed, readily available milkweed buds and pods close at hand.
The best thing about foraging may not even be the food. The act of foraging requires slowing down and paying attention to the details of life around us. For me, foraging rambles are a way of rooting myself in a new place that I am slowly getting to know. For a life-long Nebraskan, it can be a process of seeing the landscape you thought you knew with fresh eyes. A simple walk in the park will turn into an adventure as you start to become familiar with the wealth of tasty weeds, berries, flowers and trees that we are unwittingly surrounded by. By incorporating wild ingredients into our meals, we create a true taste of home.
Foraging Fundamentals: Getting Started
Don’t Harvest What You Can’t Identify Take the time to educate yourself. Kelly Kindscher’s Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie is a great source of information. Gary Lincoff’s The Joy of Foraging is not Midwest specific but does have clear, color photographs and lots of helpful tips.
Know Where You Are Picking Avoid areas with potential hazards like pesticides and polluted water.
Learn Local Foraging Laws Be respectful of private property and talk with park rangers before harvesting on public land.
Tread Lightly Harvesting sustainably means at the minimum: never taking more than 5% of a plant population, not trampling sensitive ecosystems and collecting only what you need and will use.
Foraged Nettle Pesto
Yield: 4 cups
6 cups fresh nettles
⅓ cup toasted pine nuts or walnuts
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup roasted garlic
2 to 3 lemons, juiced
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
Fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Using tongs, submerge nettles for 1to 3 minutes, depending on size and age of nettles, to remove the sting. Larger and older leaves should be cooked 2 to 3 minutes longer. Remove and plunge into a bowl of ice water for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the nettles from the ice bath and squeeze out the excess liquid.
Place all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor and blend. Slowly add oil in a steady stream until emulsified. Taste and adjust seasoning. Nettle pesto will keep for two weeks in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer.
—Recipe by Abigael Birrell
Green Walnut Liqueur (Nocino)
Yield: 1 liter
25 green walnuts, whole in-the-shell, the size of apricots, quartered
2½ cups of sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod
Zest of one medium lemon, in ½-inch strips
1 liter of vodka or Everclear
Wearing latex gloves so as to avoid semi-permanently staining your hands, quarter walnuts and pack into a sterile 1-gallon glass jar with lid.
Add sugar, spices, lemon zest and alcohol. Ensure jar’s lid is tight, and shake to dissolve the sugar.
Allow liqueur to steep for 40 days in a dark cabinet, periodically shaking the jar to disperse any sugar that has settled. Strain liquid, disposing of solids, and decant into a clean jar. Nocino is drinkable immediately but does mellow with a couple more months aging. Use as an ingredient in cocktails, by itself as a digestif or, my favorite, drizzled over vanilla ice cream.
—Recipe by Abigael Birrell
Abigael Birrell is a farm-focused chef and all around bon vivant who has recently relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska from Washington State. She’s thrilled to have an opportunity to share her passion for foraging and cooking with the edible community here in Nebraska. When she’s not out hunting for wild foods, she can be found in the garden happily cultivating the tame ones.