I live in a magical place called Wisconsin. So many wonderful wild things grow here in abundance. Well known for whitetail deer, the foundation for my pho recipe, many interesting and useful plants are also to be found in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest that lend themselves to the traditional flavors of the Southeast Asian soup. Pho often has ginger, anise, and Szechuan peppers in it, and it just happens that these flavors, or close approximations, can be foraged in the woods and tallgrass prairies of my home state.
I’m an adult-onset hunter and gatherer. I started hunting whitetail deer about 15 years ago when I was a student in the Wildlife Ecology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I picked up Sam Thayer’s book, “Forager’s Harvest,” around the same time, and have been expanding my skill set in the field and kitchen ever since. Last year, I launched my business, Eagle Outdoor Skills, reconnecting people with nature through wild foods and primitive skills. I was excited to use both my hunting and foraging skills while making this dish.
For ginger, I gathered wild ginger (Asarum canadense) leaves and stems in the shady woods at the edge of Wisconsin’s Driftless region. While not closely related to the ginger commonly sold at the grocer’s, as its name implies, it has a ginger-like flavor and is used in Indigenous cooking.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a prairie plant found on ridge tops and tallgrass prairie restorations in my area. It has a pleasant anise flavor and beautiful purple blooms.
Common pricklyash (Zanthoxylum americanum) is an aromatic shrub that can be found in the upper Midwest and is a close relative to the Szechuan pepper plant. Both plants produce small fruit with a thin, Pac-man shaped skin. Both have a citrusy flavor with a mild numbing effect (another name for pricklyash is “toothache tree”).
Pulling these ingredients together, along with the venison, I realized I was a stone’s throw away from making a completely wild pho. To round out the dish, with usually calls for fish sauce, I used oyster mushrooms which can have a slight “fishy” odor to them.
In lieu of onions and noodles, I gathered wild nodding onions (Allium cernuum), another prairie native, and sliced the long leaves lengthwise. Traditional pho has a bit of cane sugar in it for a touch of sweetness. Maple syrup I boiled down from silver maple sap earlier this year was the final ingredient for Wild Wisconsin Pho.
Here is my recipe with suggested substitutions for those new to foraging or not living where these wild ingredients are to be found.
Wild Wisconsin Pho Recipe
- Bone-in cut of venison shanks, small neck, or femurs with scrap meat
- 2-3 lb venison backstrap trimmed
- ½ lb oyster mushrooms or 1 cup dried mushrooms
- 2 dozen green tops of nodding onion any wild or domestic member of the onion family will do
- 3-5 stems and leaves of wild ginger or ½ cup sliced ginger root
- 5-10 stems and leaves of anise hyssop or 3-5 pods star anise
- 1 tbsp dried pricklyash fruit or Szechuan pepper
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- Salt to taste
- Smoke, sear, or broil a bone-in cut of venison until browned, then place in a stockpot. Add 2-3 quarts of water and simmer, covered, for 3-4 hours. Coarsely cut the herbs (wild ginger and anise hyssop). Remove the venison from the pot and add herbs and prickly ash to the broth.
- Let broth barely simmer, covered, for 1-2 hours. After it’s cooled, remove meat from bones.
- Strain and discard herbs from broth and return to heat.
- Add deboned meat, mushrooms, and maple syrup.
- Cut onion tops (lengthwise for “noodles,” crosswise if preferred). Add onion tops and simmer 10-15min. Add salt to taste.
- Cut backstrap into thin slices and place in serving bowls.
- Remove soup from heat and ladle it over the raw backstrap (it will “cook” to perfection from the hot soup.
- Serve topped with chopped wild bergamot, cilantro, and/or jalapeños.