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Forget the grocery store. Here are 5 Pennsylvania plants you can forage for dinner

Pennsylvania Daily Life
Gene J. Puskar
A couple walks through Pittsburgh's Frick Park surrounded by the changing colors of fall on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.

Pittsburgh and the surrounding region is home to all kinds of edible treasures, according to Melissa Sokulski, a natural food advocate, herbalist and the author of the blog Food Under Foot.

Sokulski leads foraging walks in Frick Park, where she teaches people how to identify edible and poisonous plants.

She said interest in foraging has recently grown in the area.

“I think it's really gained a lot of popularity because of the people just enjoying being outside and wanting to learn more about their environment, and also having more control over their food supply and knowing what's around them,” she said in an interview with WESA’s The Confluence.

Garlic mustard, ramps, and lamb’s quarters can be found around Pittsburgh and used in cooking.

When foraging, Sokulski said people should only take part of the plant and leave the rest of it to grow back.

“There’s a lot of ways to be sustainable and environmentally friendly about it,” she said.

It’s important to understand the differences between edible plants and poisonous plants.

“On my walks, I really steer people toward things that don't have poison lookalikes, so they can feel confident in what they're getting and feel safe about what they're eating,” Sokulski said.

Here are a few of the edible plants found in the Pittsburgh region:

1. Onion grass

Onion grass looks similar to chives and both share a mild oniony flavor. Onion grass has flatter green leaves and white flowers. The flowers and bulb, which are also edible, are more garlicky.

Onion grass is considered a weed but can be used in any recipe that calls for onions, garlic, shallots or other onion flavors.

Sokulski said new foragers should keep their eyes peeled for onion grass.

“Almost all kids will instinctively know onion grass,” she said. “It’s one of the first things that comes up [in the spring].”

Its distinctive onion smell also helps differentiate onion grass from potentially non-edible plants.

2. Dandelions

Gardening-Bee Lawns
Dean Fosdick
This March 31, 2012 photo shows dandelions on a lawn near Langley, Wash. Dandelions can be an asset if you're trying to bring pollinating insects to your yard. They're attractive to foraging honeybees because they bloom at a time when little else is flowering.

Yellow dandelions typically begin to sprout in early spring. For some, they’re a nuisance weed to be plucked and thrown away. But they’re also edible and abundant.

Dandelion greens can be bitter or peppery and taste like arugula. They can be stir fried, sautéed or used as a garnish. Dandelion flowers are slightly sweet and are often used in salads or made into dandelion wine or vinegar. The roots of the plant can even be thoroughly cleaned and used to make dandelion coffee or tea.

Sokulski recommends that people interested in foraging start by looking for dandelions and other edible plants commonly found in their neighborhoods.

“I stay away from native plants, and I mainly forage things that are considered weeds,” she said.

3. Purslane

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classified purslane as a “noxious weed” but don’t let that fool you. It’s also edible and tastes similar to watercress or spinach.

Purslane is a low-growing, succulent that can grow almost anywhere: in sidewalk cracks, garden beds, and even in places where grass is thin and soil quality is poor. It has shiny green leaves, and its stems are reddish near the roots and greener near the tops. Later in the summer, it will sprout small yellow flowers.

Thanks to its mild taste, purslane is often used in salads and on sandwiches in place of lettuce or spinach.

Purslane and other plants that are typically considered weeds have popped up at farmers markets recently, Sokulski said.

“People are seeing it all over the place,” she continued. “It’s kind of exciting and people want to know how they can find them themselves and where to find them and how to forage them.”

4. Fiddleheads

Dean Fosdick
In this April 18, 2011 photo a Fiddlehead curled up frond is seen in early spring in New Market, Va.

The young, coiled fronds of the Ostrich fern, also known as fiddleheads, are a springtime delicacy for foragers and farmers market devotees alike.

Fiddleheads are the first growths of new ferns. Sokulski said they look like the curved handles of a violin, and they’re only available in early spring before the ferns mature. Their taste is often described as a mix between asparagus and broccoli.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension recommends boiling or steaming fiddleheads prior to cooking them in other ways, such as sautéing or stir-frying. Eating raw fiddleheads can make people sick.

Sokulski warned people not to collect too many fiddleheads.

“One fiddlehead is the entire leaf of the fern,” she said. “If I’m foraging something like fiddleheads, which are native [to western Pennsylvania], I’m very careful and I usually only eat them once a year because it’s a little hard on the environment.”

She said that if foragers harvest less than half of the fiddleheads on a plant, the plant should continue to grow.

5. Morel mushrooms

The morel mushroom season in Pennsylvania only lasts a few months, but Sokulski and other foragers make the most of it. The distinctive honeycomb looking fungi are also prized in commercial markets and can sell anywhere from $20 per pound to hundreds of dollars per pound.

Morel mushrooms are typically found in dark, moist soil, and they have an earthy, nutty taste. Morels are more closely related to truffles than other mushrooms. They can be used in sauces and soups or sautéed on their own. However, be on the lookout for "false morels," which look similar to morel mushrooms but can be toxic.

“Morel mushrooms are just starting to come out, and that is one of my favorites,” Sokulski said. “I’ll be out in the next couple days looking for morel mushrooms.”

In Pennsylvania, morel season usually lasts from the middle of April to the middle of May.

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