BELLINGHAM - 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" ($21.95, paperback).
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."
WILD FOOD EVENTS
Bellingham resident, wilderness guide and forager Jennifer Hahn, author of "Pacific Feast: A Cook's Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine," has upcoming wild food events that include:
Thursday, April 28: 7 p.m., "Pacific Feast - Spring Wild Edibles Slideshow, Reading and Wild Samples."
Where: Village Books, 1200 11th St. in Bellingham.
Details: Village Books, 360-671-2626.
Wednesday, June 1: 6:30 to 9 p.m., "The Wild Side."
Where: Ciao Thyme Catering & In the Kitchen, 207 Unity St. in Bellingham. An evening of wild foods at two family-style tables. Sample nettle pesto on Breadfarm bread, a shepherd's salad of wild and farm-fresh greens (wood sorrel, dandelion, miner's lettuce and local mix) and oyster mushroom pizza with white truffle aioli. Top it off with Hahn's famous chocolate ocean pudding, which is said to rival truffle ganache. Hahn also will share a slideshow on Salish Sea wild foods.
Cost: $35 per person.
Register: 360-733-1267 or ciaothyme.com. Click on "Courses," then "June Classes" and select the second slide on the right.
Monday, June 13: 6 to 8:30 p.m., "Wild Seaweed Cuisine." After a slideshow on seaweed identification and harvest from local waters, Hahn will create sunomono (cucumber/seaweed salad), cream of sea veggie chowder, kelp-wrapped baked salmon, ginger-sesame rice with wakame, and chocolate ocean pudding that is thickened with red Turkish towel seaweed.
Cost: $35 per person.
Where: Cordata Community Food Co-op kitchen, 315 Westerly Road in Bellingham. The class is one of the cooking classes the college puts on in partnership with the co-op.
Register: (Opens May 1). Call (360) 383-3200 or go to whatcomcommunityed.com.
This recipe is courtesy of chef Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Ore., and a James Beard Award winner.
Found in her book, "Pacific Feast: A Cook's Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine," Jennifer Hahn writes that Higgins' variation has a distinct Pacific Northwest flavor that is "more wild and earthy than traditional pesto." Here, stinging nettles take the place of basil, and hazelnuts replace pine nuts.
2 cups nettle leaves, lightly blanched*
2 cups Italian parsley leaves
2 cups feta cheese, crumbled
2 cups hazelnuts, toasted
1/4 cup garlic, minced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Rough-chop the nettle and parsley leaves. Combine in a mixing bowl with feta cheese, hazelnuts, garlic and oil. Then pulse in batches in a food processor or crush with a mortar and pestle until thick and saucy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve on pasta or as a sauce or dip. The pesto also freezes well.
Yield: 6 cups.
* Blanching removes the sting of nettles. To blanch, use tongs to put the leaves in a pot of salted, boiling water. After 30 seconds, transfer the nettles to a bowl of ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. Then squeeze out the excess water with your hands.
Boiling, drying or pulverizing nettles also will remove the sting.
Author Jennifer Hahn's website is at pacificfeast.com.