BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Jennifer Hahn hasn't walked all that far down the driveway of her home when she stops in front of a small Indian plum tree that's starting to sprout green, plucks a leaf and pops it into her mouth.
It tastes like bitter cucumber, she says, adding: "They're really the first signs of spring."
The Bellingham resident is standing on the edge of her six-acre wooded hillside, where she'll forage for greens to add to an early spring meal made from recipes featured in her book, "Pacific Feast: A Cook's Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine."
Part natural history, part foraging guide and part cookbook, Hahn's goal in writing "Pacific Feast" was to entice people to care about wild foods found on land and in the sea in this part — their part — of the world.
"Let's bring about conservation through the palate," says Hahn, a noted naturalist, wilderness guide and kayaker who teaches on the region's wild foods at Western Washington University.
"If people can fall in love with these plants and shellfish and fish that are local, then they will preserve them," she says.
Hahn's love of foraging stretches back to childhood camping trips and has been nourished in adulthood by long kayaking trips in which she forages — be it fishing for salmon and ling cod or harvesting red nori, which is 35 percent protein — to keep her kayak's load light.
But Hahn wants people to go wild responsibly, not belly up to nature's table expecting a never-ending buffet.
Forage but not so much that native wild populations are depleted, which also harms the critters that depend on wild eats like huckleberries or seaweed that you're taking. Make sure to harvest sustainably so wild things can reproduce and prosper for years to come.
Toward that end, Hahn presents an ecology of the wild foods in the book so people can understand, for example, the impact of not picking chanterelle mushrooms too soon. (The wild foods include introduced and invasive species.)
And though she's concerned that people eat responsibly, Hahn prefers to impart a sense of wonder and knowledge of the big picture to make them care. And to tempt by featuring recipes from some of the region's finest chefs and restaurants.
Other recipes in "Pacific Feast" come from foragers of note and well-known chefs and eateries in Whatcom County.
In the book, Hahn also pays homage to the First Nations people and their knowledge of traditional ingredients and shares essays that impart her own sense of wonder and whimsy over wild foods.
Hahn stands on the edge of the wooded acres of the Bellingham home she shares with husband, and potter, Chris Moench.
After she plucks the Indian plum leaf, she embarks on a two-hour forage, with plenty of stops along the way to teach about this native plant, that weed or this invasive, all of which are part of the day's meal (and found in her book).
On the menu for Hahn's early spring meal and the noted chefs that contributed the recipes:
- Shepherd's salad, courtesy of Cathy Whims of Nostrana in Portland, Ore.
Oysters with wood sorrel sauce, from Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy in Seattle.
Pasta with nettle-hazelnut pesto, from Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant in Portland.
- Roasted dandelion root ice cream, from Ron Zimmerman of The Herbfarm in Woodinville.
She leads the way to a patch of wood sorrel, bright green and with a lemony-tart flavor, and snips them for the creamy sauce that will top the oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Bow.
Later, Hahn bushwhacks up a hill and pulls on gloves to cut nettles sprouts, explaining that they should be harvested before the flower buds appear because older plants are a kidney irritant.
She teaches about cycles: "One of the signs for the morel mushroom is when the trillium blooms," and May is the peak for spring greens.
She gathers licorice fern, more specifically part of the sweetish root, by carefully searching under moss for a pencil-shaped piece. It takes longer to feel her way instead of pulling it back and away from the fern, but she does so to avoid harming the moss.
Hahn snips dandelion greens and red dock weeds, both of which are bitter, to augment the spinach and red-leaf lettuce that make up the salad. Also going in is cat's ear she plucks from the lawn area.
"What's good about this is it's not bitter," she says of the cat's ear.
On one side of the house, she kneels next to some lady fern, reaches in and snaps their shoots, known as fiddleheads.
"I'm going to harvest two of these per plant," she says, explaining that restraint will help the plants reproduce and prosper for decades. "They're beautiful little vegetables."
Back in her kitchen, Hahn is a whirlwind.
She blanches the nettles to remove the sting, then throws them into a food processor for a vibrantly green pesto.
The wood sorrel go into a pan and are cooked with butter, heavy cream and shallots.
She makes a tea that includes needles from the Pacific Western hemlock and the licorice fern. The fiddleheads are boiled to remove thiaminase, an enzyme that takes vitamin B from the body, then added to the sweet-tangy vinaigrette for the shepherd's salad
The food is delicious. The pesto is hardy, the oysters creamy, the salad both bitter and sweet. The most surprising of the flavors is the dandelion root ice cream, reminiscent of coffee and molasses.
This taste of the world outside is what nourishes Hahn.
"When I walk into the woods I look around and there's food and medicine everywhere," she says. "It's a calming feeling."
Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.