Stinging nettles

Foraging with Langdon Cook

May 8, 2013 | 1 Comment.

“Let’s go foraging with Langdon Cook,” my adventurous friend Paige coaxes.

“Ok, sounds good,” I reply, as I sign up for the two-day foraging and cooking class offered at The Pantry at Delancey. It was quick to sell out.

Driving up to our foraging meeting spot, I turn to Paige and say, “He will probably be eccentric, don’t you think? Anyone whose name is ubiquitous with foraging like Langdon Cook has gotta be a bit odd. ”

“Ya, and he may be snooty and introverted,” Paige adds.

“Well, at least we will get a nice walk out of it, and maybe learn something?”

Forager profiling is what we were doing, and we couldn’t have been any further from the truth. I would like to note though, Langdon Cook, who has even spent time picking morel mushrooms in the Yukon Territory, confirmed my hypothesis/stereotype about people who are drawn to living and working in the remote wilderness: “They do all smoke weed.”

Enthusiastic (yet easygoing), captivating, adventurous, and good-humored are key words to describe Langdon Cook.  As a former reporter, Cook is a gifted storyteller and a good relater, making foraging seem accessible even to someone who mistakes weeds for plants and waters them (yep, that is me).  As he kicks off our foraging excursion, he says he didn’t even know how to chop garlic in his 20’s, but foraging and wanting to impress his girlfriend at the time (now wife) unleashed his culinary prowess.

Geeky, no. But brainy, yes.  The author of Fat of the Land can spot a perfectly ripe fiddlehead fern, rattle off its formal scientific name, and tell you how to best cook it all in the same sentence, while quickly segueing to the next sentence where he is rattling off the name of the songbird (Wilson’s warbler) that is reciting a melody to us on our journey.

His pal and fellow forager, Jon Rowley(oftentimes referred to as the Oyster Whisperer and also one of the most knowledgeable and interesting people I know), says about Cook, “Langdon is one of my mushroom pals.  Good man, but I have to say spot prawn fishing out of a canoe is just plain nuts.”

What the class was about: Equal parts hiking, science and cooking  

Last Sunday, 17 of us met up with Cook to go on a three-hour adult field trip around Tiger Mountain, where we learned how to find fiddleheads (which originate from the root of lady ferns, not to be confused with bracken which are carcinogenic), miner’s lettuce, wooded sorrel, and stinging nettles (which have as much histamine as a fire ant).  We learn that tightly-coiled fiddleheads are a sign the wild vegetable is young and still tasty, while the loose strands are too old.

We also learn nettles start emerging in February and can be found in lowlands such as Discovery and Tiger.  Cook tells us these perennial green flowering greens are the most nutritious plant in the entire plant kingdom and the backbone of any spring time culinary forager as they can be substituted for spinach in any recipe. Cook even prefers nettles to spinach as he says the plant leaves have a more complex taste. I agree.

Searching for stinging nettles with protective gloves and long pants in tow. To get rid of the sting on the leaves, you boil them for a minute

We also get a primer on how to assess a habitat, as Cook tells us identifying your surroundings is an important foraging tool to help deduce what treasures are and are lurking in the vicinity. For instance, Cook tells us lots of dying Washington alder trees or cottonwoods mean oyster mushrooms could be lurking close by.

If you spot a white blooming trillium, morels could be in the near vicinity. When the trillium turns pink, it signifies porcini mushrooms are nearby.

We talk ethics, aka – don’t be a hoarder: 1/3 wildlife, 1/3 for regrowth, 1/3 for yourself. We approach one loan baby puffball mushroom (the size of a button mushroom) that a few of us are tempted to pocket. To save the little puffball from our greedy eyes, Cook diverts our attention by telling us a story about his first radio appearance on KUOW. He didn’t know what to expect and was naturally a little bit nervous. On the way to the radio station, he finds a big ol’ puffball mushroom, slightly smaller than the circumference of a hula hoop. He decides to bring it to the station with him as a security blanket. In the event conversation ran dry, he could have this mega-sized mushroom as a talking piece. The staff at the radio station loved his show-and-tell piece, and he ended up cutting chunks of it off and sharing it with the staff.

Fiddlehead ferns waiting to be pickled

When students ask Cook how to get started with foraging, he oftentimes tells them to start with their own yards. “Weeds are the most nutritious. When people talk about the best way to rid their yard of weeds, I just tell them, I eat my weeds.”

On Monday, we regroup in Ballard at The Pantry  to cook up the goods we hoarded…I mean, foraged: Asian-style pickled fiddleheads, elephant ear pasta with stinging nettle pesto, and stinging nettle soup. I went to work the next day glowing from all the nutrients.

Green is the theme of our communal dinner with Langdon at The Pantry


After taking Langdon Cook’s cooking class, my friend Paige and I officially have the foraging itch.

If you are as intrigued as we are, check out Langdon’s website for information on upcoming foraging tours he will be leading.  Cook also recommends joining the Puget Sound Mycological Society, which organizes foraging hikes.  They even have an expert onsite at the end of each excursion to identify and validate your finds.

I just picked up Langdon’s book, Fat of the Land, and cannot wait to read his new book, The Mushroom Hunters, where he immerses himself in the clandestine commercial mushroom industry. The book is due to come out in September and is currently available for pre-order.

As research for his second book, Cook embeds himself in a tent city in Central Oregon, where Laotian immigrants set up rustic residence for two months to round up matsutake mushrooms. He also goes way out into the remote Yukon to pick morels alongside commercial mushroom harvesters for 16 hours a day.

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