Gone are the days of living entirely off the land, but there is a growing trend around foraging for your own food. Minnesota lakes, rivers, woodlands and forest floors offer many edible ingredients to complete a field-to-fork recipe. Delicious options range from wild game and fish to mushrooms, ramps and black raspberries to even some plants typically labeled pesky weeds. When was the last time you whipped up a dandelion salad, for instance?
Spring is a great time to forage. There is a learning curve when it comes to hunting and gathering, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a try. When foraging, it’s critical to know how to identify edible plant species. Thankfully, there are many local experts who are more than willing to share their knowledge on where to go and how to be safe and successful. Here are 4 of my favorite wild Minnesota foods that you can harvest yourself (or find in your local grocery store). Happy hunting!
If you’re unfamiliar with the official state fish, you might not be a true Minnesotan! Considered a holiday here in the North, walleye season opener is eagerly awaited by roughly half a million anglers each year — which tells you just how delicious they are. If you’re new to the sport, the DNR can help you get started or find a fishing guide. The bragging rights for catching this trophy fish are not only because of its size but also for its flavor. The white and flaky fish is so mild and works well in a wide variety of dishes. Many people like the traditional shore lunch preparation, but I think walleye deserves a more gourmet touch, like in the recipe below.
Although it looks like rice, this native species is actually an aquatic grass seed. One of my favorite ways to use wild rice is grinding it into a flour. This is easily done by first dry roasting the rice in a sauté pan to bring out its flavor then grinding it down to a flour-like consistency in a coffee grinder. You can use it to coat walleye, pheasant or any other fish or poultry. Minnesota residents are allowed to harvest wild rice, but there are strict regulations (including a season, usually in late August and September), license requirements and restricted areas. Or you can support a Native American tribe by purchasing hand-harvested wild rice directly from them; Red Lake Nation Foods even lets you shop online.
Did you know Minnesota has a state mushroom? Morels are considered a delicacy, thanks to their rich nutty flavor. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out. With their unique shape, hollow interior and spongy texture, they are somewhat easy to identify. But when it comes to mushrooms, you want to be 100% certain what you’re picking, which is where an identification guidebook comes in handy. There is a thrill to the hunt as finding morels in the woods is akin to spotting a leprechaun. This is why fungi fanatics rarely give up their go-to spots. Prime morel season here is April and May, when the soil is warm and moist. If you’re a mushroom lover, there are 50+ edible varieties found in Minnesota. You can learn how to safely identify and forage for fungi by taking a class with a local expert like Mike Kempenich, aka the Gentleman Forager.
Otherwise known as wild onions, ramps resemble a green onion with a flavor that’s equal parts garlic and green onion. You can taste the essence of both in a ramp, and the garlic scent is actually how you identify them in the wild. Abundant growth of ramps in woodland areas is indicative of a healthy ecosystem. They are one of the first native plants out of the ground and start popping up in April. As always, it’s important to know what you’re foraging as there are a few ramp look-alikes that are actually toxic. A cluster of coveted ramps will enlighten your senses when added to any springtime recipe.
Wild Rice–Crusted Walleye with Ramp Aioli and Morel Brown Butter
Makes 4 servings
1½ to 2 lbs. boneless, skinless walleye filets
1 cup canola oil
3 oz. wild rice
½ cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. whole-grain mustard
½ lb. ramps
6 Tbsp. salted butter
4 oz. fresh morel mushrooms
¼ cup white wine
1. For walleye, prepare crust by crisping wild rice. Heat oil in a sauté pan to 365°F and carefully add 1 oz. wild rice to hot oil. Rice should puff and float to top within 20 to 30 seconds.
2. Once wild rice is puffed, pour through metal strainer into a heat-safe container. Shake excess oil from puffed wild rice. Season with a pinch salt and drain on a paper towel. Return hot oil to pan and reheat to 365°F. Repeat process until all wild rice is puffed. Using a clean coffee grinder, grind puffed wild rice to a powder and set aside.
3. For ramp aioli, combine mayonnaise and whole-grain mustard in a mixing bowl. Slice white parts of ramps thinly and whisk into aioli, reserving green parts for morel brown butter sauce. Zest lemon and add to aioli. Squeeze ½ lemon into aioli and mix. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
4. For the morel brown butter sauce, melt 2 Tbsp. butter in sauté pan and lightly brown. Add mushrooms and sauté. Once soft, add green parts of ramps then deglaze with wine. Reduce until nearly all liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining butter 1 Tbsp. at a time. Season with salt and pepper.
5. To prepare walleye, heat oven to 350°F and spray a sheet pan with nonstick spray. Spread a thin layer of aioli over walleye and top generously with wild rice flour. Place on prepared pan and bake 15 minutes, until cooked through and flaky.
6. Using a long fish spatula, place walleye in center of a platter. Spoon remaining aioli in dollops around fish and drizzle with morel brown butter sauce. Squeeze over remaining ½ lemon. Enjoy!
Laura Schara is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast and cohost of the television series Minnesota Bound.