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Cooking with items straight from Mother Nature can be a holistic dining experience

A selection of spring foraged vegetables used by Nyanyika Banda in her recipes. From left clockwise: rhubarb, oyster mushrooms, spring onions and dandelion greens. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 4
Nyanyika Banda spreads homemade ramp pesto on a slice of rye toast. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 4
Rhubarb stalks make an excellent spring forage. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 4
Oyster mushrooms like these make for a choice edible. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 4

DULUTH, Minn. — While growing vegetables and raising animals for food is a rewarding process, I find foraging to be more holistic. Consuming a meal composed of found foods gives me a feeling of connectedness to Mother Earth.

As the ground thaws, I'm noticing those in the culinary world are becoming excited over the arrival of wild-spring vegetables. Ramps and other spring onions, fiddleheads and mushrooms are all beginning to pop up, and soon following will be rhubarb and dandelion greens. Getting outside after an enduring winter is joyful intoxication all on its own. That, combined with a day in the woods searching for edible treasures, can all prove quite prolific.

My earliest foraging memory, aside from picking wild berries with my grandmother, was a Sunday morning when I accompanied a friend from children's choir to her Quaker meeting after a Saturday night sleepover. We were elementary school-aged, and our group went out for a long walk on a warm sunny day. We strolled through fields of tall green and golden grass, and the teacher pointed out and helped us harvest the rhubarb that was growing wildly in fields. Upon return, we made rhubarb lemonade. It had never occurred to me that plants that grow wildly could be eaten.

Dandelions are believed to have evolved into the plant world 30 million years ago, and for as long as human history has been documented, it has been said that people have been consuming the plant. Eating dandelion greens adds considerable amounts of nutrients to diets. These greens are high in calcium, protein, iron and antioxidants and contain lots of minerals like copper and potassium. Not only do they grow wild, but also for those who may be concerned with who is walking on their lawn, they can also now be found in grocery stores.

Proper identification is needed when hunting for edible mushrooms, which is why I've yet to forage them successfully on my own. Many years ago, before smartphones, I had friends who would take me on hikes in Duluth, and they would always have books in tow for identifying fungi. I fed off their excitement for correctly identifying a species.

The first foraged mushroom meal I was offered was also my first experience letting go and trusting nice hippies from Northern California. When I was 21, I left Madison with a backpack's worth of belongings, a skateboard, a one-way ticket to San Francisco, $200 and no plan. I was so broke, I only ate instant Ramen and whatever food was given to me.

I managed to get connected with some friends of a friend, and that was how I ended up at the Salmon House — a household of pot-trimming 20-somethings who, in my mind, seemed to be living the dream. They worked a harvest season and saved enough money to travel the rest of the year. They had been kind enough to let me stay a few nights in their home in Arcata, Calif., while I looked for work and a home.

One day, one of the roommates came home with a brown paper bag of mushrooms he found on a walk. He speculated as to what he thought they could be and admitted he was uncertain. I desperately wanted a meal besides instant Ramen, and so I consumed my bowl of pasta with mystery mushroom sauce in slow trepidation. To my surprise, no one got sick.

Ramps are also known as spring onions or wild leeks and have a flavor that combines both onion and garlic. They grow in close groups with small bulbs rooted just below the soil and large flat green leaf stalks. I like to separate the stalk from the bulb and make pesto out of the leaves. The bulbs can be grilled, sautéed or pickled.

Ramps are celebrated across the country, and ramp festivals can be found in many southern states. The city of Chicago was named after ramps — the Potawatomi Native Americans called the plant shikaakwa — and they grew abundantly near Lake Michigan and what is now called the Chicago River.

Two springs ago, I went foraging by myself for the very first time in my life, along a trail very familiar to me and within the city limits of Duluth. It was not until I came home with my bounty of freshly dug ramps and snipped fiddleheads, an afternoon of solo frolicking behind me, that I understood how much Mother Earth provides for us.

That night, I ate a dinner consisting of my found foods: ramp pesto tossed over pasta and buttered fiddleheads and ramp tips. The experience of eating that meal was inexplicably holistic. Never to be repeated, only tried.

Ramp Pesto

1 bunch cleaned ramp greens

½ cup walnuts, toasted

½ cup olive oil

1 cup grated Parmesan

1 lemon, juiced

Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, combine greens, walnuts, Parmesan and lemon juice. Turn on medium speed and slowly add olive oil until fully incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve on toast or with fresh vegetables.

Sauteed Dandelion Greens

1 bunch cleaned greens

½ cup olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saute pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and greens and saute. Add balsamic vinegar. Simmer for 6-8 minutes.