Cooking Oregon’s Wild Edibles

May 6, 2016 (Updated July 26, 2016)

With thousands of miles of backcountry beauty to explore, Oregon is the perfect place for camping getaways. You can set up camp within earshot of waves crashing on the beach, sleep under the stars in wide-open high desert, or hike deep into a lush forest to pitch your tent. It’s no wonder Chris Santella, author of the new “Fifty Places to Camp Before You Die,” keeps coming back to this great state. The author of the popular ‘Fifty Places’ series lets us know what makes camping in Oregon so special and which campsites have him hooked.

What does the Pacific Northwest offer that other locations don’t?

We have everything in one place: awesome mountains, expansive high desert and majestic oceanfronts. I think it’s about diversity of landscapes and the fact that the people who live here genuinely appreciate and take care of the landscape.

I’m an Oregonian who prefers the roads less traveled! That is most likely the result of a childhood largely spent exploring Oregon’s sparse and vast high desert landscape. Couple that with abundant fishing and hunting adventures and the net result is a strong appreciation for the idea of “living off the land.”

This week’s outdoor adventure is right up my alley as we head to the kitchen with a wild edible expert and cook up a delicious wild foods feast.

John Kallas recently showed me that when the tide goes out the dinner table is set: from salty, crunchy seaweeds to digging abundant butter clams that taste just like the name suggests. We also, hiked through an Oregon rain forest to collect fresh salad fixings like cascade sorrel, salmonberry blossoms, lady fern fiddle heads and more.

“All the wild foods that we collect today,” notes Kallas, “is like finding treasure. These plants are valuable because we can prepare them for a dinner that’s delicious and fun.”

Kallas is a big believer that wild foods are just traditional foods that we have lost touch with through the passage of time and the conveniences that 21st century consumers expect such as mega mart grocery stores.

In my Forest Grove kitchen, Kallas directs an “all hands on deck” work force of friends who begin preparing a unique and delicious wild edible feast.

Everyone lends a hand in the sorting, cleaning and chopping to create a seaweed salad that included crunchy “angel-wing kelp,” spicy “teriyaki seaweed” and “sea lettuce” — the greenest of all the seaweeds.

We also create a wild green salad that included cascade sorrel, salmonberry blossoms and maple tree flower clusters; each is edible and delicious!

Kallas’ good friends and recent wild food devotees, Charla Ochse and Halina Lewandowski, show off their homemade dishes, including a tasty butter clam stir fry with fiddle head ferns, chopped red and yellow peppers and stinging nettles.

“Ouch,” I say at the thought of those nettles.

Kallas quickly notes, “Once they are cooked, they soften and are totally harmless and very delicious.”

The main entree of our feast is a huge pot of clam chowder that includes potatoes, onions, more fiddle head ferns and heaping bowls of chopped butter clams.

Kallas’ technique for prepping the clams was simple enough: par-boil the clams until they open, then he deftly and quickly slips a sharp knife blade between the shells and cuts the clam’s abductor muscles to pry it open.

I wonder aloud what made the butter clam such a fine centerpiece for a chowder. John replies that it’s all about its size, “When you open the shell of a butter clam, you can see that the shell is filled with meat. There’s absolutely no wasted space inside the clam shell and it’s all good to eat.”

Kallas calls many of the wild foods that we gathered “forgotten foods,” especially the plants that have been largely lost to time and lost cultures.

“Native Americans gathered all year long,” says Kallas. “They would process, process, process and then store most of it. They would be doing this all year long and eat off the diversity of the food sources. That’s how native peoples got a complete diet.”

Judging from the results of our wild edible feast, each dish is a big hit with the crowd.

“Oh, it is all so very good,” says Ochse. “I really love the seaweed salad with ginger dressing – that was delicious.”

Dining guest Bob Waldron adds, “There isn’t anything here that I don’t like and wouldn’t eat multiple times if given the opportunity. It was all so good and it was really fun going out and getting it.”

Kallas admits that while he enjoys making wild edible cooking experiences fun and satisfying, his ultimate goal is to get people closer to the planet so they’ll take better care of it.

“If you know that you are gathering your food from Mother Nature and you see people spraying chemicals it should probably be of concern to you,” he says. “The more people realize that food doesn’t just come from the supermarket, they’ll be more protective of their land and better off altogether.”

Kallas cautions that knowing exactly what you harvest is critical safety when it comes to collecting and eating Oregon’s wild edibles. He suggests taking a wild edibles foraging class or reading the right book – like his “Edible Wild Plants – From the Dirt to the Plate.” The text identifies most of the wild edibles you will find in Oregon and also includes gorgeous colorful photos to show you what each plant looks like. There are also plentiful recipes that explain what to do with your abundance.

A reminder: each clam digger must have an Oregon Shellfish License and must dig their own daily limit of 20 butter clams.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.