FARMbloomington chef Daniel Orr grew up roaming the woods in Columbus, Indiana. His parents instilled in him a love of wild-grown food by harvesting raspberries, apples, black walnuts, and other forage-worthy items on their land. As an Eagle Scout, he learned to identify edible plants and roots—a habit that has stayed with him and helped shape his career. Finding fresh food locally can seem like a big undertaking, so we talked to Orr about his favorite items to look for and where to find them.
Squishy persimmons are Indiana’s claim to foraging fame. Looking like a cross between a tomato and a nectarine, this fruit is pretty easy to harvest from the low branches of the tree it grows on. Pluck it when it turns a translucent orangey purple and feels like an overripe peach. Don’t let the texture freak you out—this gooey fruit is sweet enough to be eaten raw, or mashed and cooked into puddings.
Paw-paws (aka the Indiana Banana) grow at the edge of the woods, thriving in muted sunlight. Tasting like a cross between a banana and a mango, this tree fruit is perfect for cookies and bread, or a breakfast smoothie. The paw-paw is ripe when black and brown spots splotch the skin, but, if picked too early, will ripen on a sunny windowsill.
Not afraid to get dirty? Dig around for pungent ramps, found in moist soil and shaded areas in Southern Indiana. Ramps have two flat, wide leaves and add an aggressive oniony flavor to savory dishes. Although smaller and more intense, they can be used in cooking similarly to leeks, says Orr.
Though edible wild mushrooms are plentiful, sprouting up on trees and in moist areas, Orr suggests taking your load to a farmers market to be looked over before eating, as some types can be fatal. If you want to take your fungi knowledge to the next level, The Hoosier Mushroom Society also offers classes to become certified in identifying the things, covering topics ranging from morel recognization to edible-fungi training classes. Common varieties that are safe to eat and grow in most Indiana forests are morels, which are spongy, with a nutty flavor; hearty hedgehog mushrooms, whose spiny underbellies resemble their namesake animal; and white oyster mushrooms that look like undersea coral.