Renée Loth

Weeds you can eat

Foraging in the wild yields a meal and a connection to nature

By Renée Loth
June 4, 2011

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I HAD long heard that McDonald’s uses seaweed to thicken its milkshakes, and I have nibbled my share of nori-wrapped sushi. But until I combed Dolliber Cove in Marblehead with Russ Cohen, I had never considered eating seaweed right off the beach.

Cohen, by day a naturalist for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, is an expert forager of wild edibles who leads weekend forays into the woods and coves around New England. On a recent rainy Sunday he picked through tidal pools teeming with briny greens, gathering samples and explaining how he once cooked a fancy blancmange pudding on a camping trip to Maine made from berries and the red-brown algae known as Irish moss.

This common seaweed (Chondrus crispus) is full of vitamins and carrageenan, a stabilizer often used as a vegetarian alternative to gelatin. It’s the carrageenan that makes the pudding jell — and a McDonald’s shake thicken enough to stand up a straw.

Irish moss is only one of at least 150 edible plants growing wild in New England. Their roots, shoots, flowers, and leaves can be cooked into soups, sprinkled on salads, steeped as teas, and baked as pies. Even their pollen can be harvested.

There’s a definite “wow” factor to serving vegetables gathered from the wild. But for Cohen, learning to recognize edibles in the woods also creates an intimacy with the natural world. “Even if you’re not hunting and gathering, knowing these plants is like having old friends come to visit,” he says.

Modern Americans are so alienated from nature that we fear eating plants that have nourished humans — from Native Americans to immigrant newcomers — for centuries. If it doesn’t come with a bar code or wrapped in cellophane, it’s suspect. And yet food sources are everywhere: forests, coastlines, suburban backyards, even city parks.

Cohen wants to introduce weary supermarket warriors to the delicacies surrounding them — and to teach safe and responsible foraging practices. The risk of getting sick in New England is relatively rare, and most poisonous plants (with the notable exception of mushrooms) taste bad. “Don’t ignore that danger sign your taste buds are trying to send you,” Cohen says. Foraging isn’t permitted everywhere; Cohen’s guidebook, “Wild Plants I Have Known . . . and Eaten” is invaluable for anyone who wants to give wild harvesting a try.

In foraging, one man’s weed is another man’s delicacy. A little knowledge transforms a roadside eyesore, such as sumac or stinging nettle, into something fascinating and desirable. Cohen gives “extra credit” for eating invasive species like Japanese knotweed — a bane to ecologists but yummy when properly sautéed. Knotweed stalks are a good substitute for rhubarb, as one wide-eyed bite of Cohen’s sweet-tart “go-anywhere knotweed squares” attests. A bonus: knotweed is the commercial source of the antioxidant resveratrol.

Foraging heightens the senses, attuning us to the exquisite details in a black locust or shadbush leaf. For Cohen, responsibly harvesting buds or berries is a more visceral way to engage with nature than what he calls the “velvet rope” approach: look but don’t touch. Plus, it’s a small act of rebellion against the industrialized agriculture that dominates our food supply.

But don’t get him started on the subject of ramps (Allium tricoccum), those trendy wild leeks featured on seasonal restaurant menus. Although they aren’t endangered, they do grow in sensitive woodland habitat for trillium and other wildflowers, and mobs of amateur foragers — or worse, commercial harvesters — ripping them out by the roots creates an opening for invasive plants like garlic mustard. “People are just getting a little loony about them,” he laments, especially given all the tasty alternatives.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we first-time foragers, soaked and ravenous, were only too happy to repair indoors. There, Cohen served the most delicate creamy soup made from young dandelion buds and dulse (Palmaria palmata), a pinkish seaweed first harvested by Irish monks 1,400 years ago.

The farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry has written that the pleasures of eating are enhanced by “an accurate consciousness” of the origins of our food. “Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.”

Fruits and vegetables feed our bodies. But the connection is what we’re really hungry for.

Renée Loth is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages.