Permaculture is one of the new terms making its way into conversations about food. The idea behind it is to work with all of nature’s diverse elements to create a sustainable system. One of the local groups exploring and promoting these ideas is the Resiliency Institute at the Conservation Foundation McDonald Farm in Naperville.
The institute offers many educational opportunities, including four class sessions that meet seasonally to give lessons in identifying edible plants. The sessions have clever names, including “Graze on Greens,” “Feast on Flowers,” “Sup on Shrubs and “Feast on Trees.”
“People who complete all four sessions and pass an exam receive edible plant certification,” says Michelle Hickey, one of the Resiliency Institute founders. “They have to identify between 175 and 200 plants to become certified.”
Institute members and supporters recently hosted a potluck dinner to celebrate five people who completed certification requirements.
Naperville resident Karen Vanek was one of the graduates. Vanek, 29, says that the class made her see the world differently.
“I no longer see things as weeds,” she says. “Like dandelions — once you get to know them, they are pretty interesting. Every part of the dandelion can be eaten. The roots can even be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions are even considered to be very healthy for you.”
Another weed that has taken on new meaning for Vanek are stinging nettles.
“They have a nutrient content similar to spinach,” she explains. “They can poke you when they are raw, but when they are cooked, they are very similar to spinach and are great in soups. I use them in scrambled eggs and quiches, which I make with farm fresh eggs, of course.”
Vanek says Naperville resident Patricia Armstrong, who teaches the class, brings in 75 different plants to each session and challenges students to learn how to identify as well as cook with each plant.
When Vanek takes a walk in the woods now, she sees potential ingredients around her. She brought a “Yard Salad” to the potluck, which included wild grape leaves and tendrils, two varieties of chick weed, blue violet leaves, creeping Charlie leaves and flowers, lambs quarters, nodding wild onion and wood sorrel.
She noted that areas commonly chemically treated cannot be used for gathering edible plants.
Anthony Minniti, 29, another graduate, brought his partner Stephanie and their 3-year-old daughter, Clio, to the potluck.
“Clio loves wild food events,” says Minniti, a Lisle resident. “Wild food has real flavor that she loves. We are on a food journey to find the most nutritious food. Being able to help her connect with her environment with nature-based learning is very exciting. Wild food offers more nutrition and medicine than cultivated foods.”
Minniti points out that many people start on a food journey by deciding to eat only organic or whole food.
“But that is not the end of a food journey,” he said. “It is only the beginning. It goes way beyond that into farmers markets, CSAs, growing your own food, permaculture and eating wild foods.”
Minniti brought a wild rice dish to the potluck, which he created. He included cattails among the ingredients in the dish.
“I used the stalk, which I peeled and blanched. Then I cooked it in homemade tomato sauce,” he says.
All of the dishes at the potluck included one or more “wild food” ingredients. The table was filled with breads, cookies, casseroles and salads like any potluck dinner spread.
Class members submitted recipes throughout the course of the year, which were gathered into a cookbook offered for sale during the dinner. Find two recipes from the cookbook for those who might want to give wild food ingredients a try.
Karen’s Culinary Cue
When substituting plant materials or nut flours into a recipe, be aware that the mixture will be denser and make adjustments as needed. The flavors will also be more intense.
Hazelnut Banana Bread
3 cups hazelnut flour (can use regular flour also)
3 tablespoons flax meal
3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 ripe bananas
1/3 cup maple syrup
Mash bananas in a large bowl. Mix together flax meal and water in a small bowl. Add this mixture, oil, soda and syrup to the bananas. Mix thoroughly. Grease a 9” by 5” loaf pan or an 8” square pan. Pour mixture into pan and bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.
— Karen Vanek
2 cups wild rice
Low-salt chicken broth
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
7 eggs, divided
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3/8 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided
1/4 teaspoon tajin seasoning
1/3 cup wild hickory nuts, finely chopped
75 grams diced pancetta
15 wild leeks
50 grams stinging nettled
½ cup chicken of the woods mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
50 grams grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup whipping cream
Parmesan cheese for topping
Line muffin tins with paper cups. Cook wild rice in chicken broth until tender. Mix together rice, Parmesan cheese, one egg, butter, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, tajin seasoning and hickory nuts. Press 1 tablespoon firmly into the bottom of each muffin cup.
Render fat from pancetta until crisp, reserving fat. Chop the bulbs and green tops of wild leeks. Add to reserved fat and cook until caramelized. Set aside.
Cook stinging nettles in water until soft and drain. Set aside. Slice mushrooms and cook with butter and shallots until tender. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix leeks, pancetta, mushrooms, stinging nettles, Gruyère cheese, whipping cream, eggs, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Combine thoroughly and fill each muffin cup to the top with the mixture. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until filling is set and top is lightly browned.
— Lisa Stuart
Details about the Resiliency Institute’s certification program can be found at www.theresilencyinstitute.net. People may start that class four times a year at the beginning of each season.Tags: food, Naper Eats