by Jennifer Brizzi – Resources abound for mid-Hudsonites wanting to learn how to forage
If golf is a good walk spoiled, then foraging is a good walk made better – way better.
Like most kids, I used to love to run around in the woods, but I had no idea of the treasures that lurked there – the free food: morels and nettles and weeds, and the world of possibilities in picking and eating them. The fun of foraging can range from gathering young dandelion leaves to add their tonic bitter bite to a salad to finding clams on the beach that divulge their location by squirting up water from tiny holes in the sand. Foraging comes in countless forms; even tapping a maple tree for its sweet sap to boil down to syrup is a kind of foraging, reaping nature’s offerings for our own nourishment and delight.
More recently I’ve discovered the pleasure of finding well-camouflaged morels riddled with holes and putting them into a sumptuous pasta sauce with asparagus. Although those beach clams, deer and even garden snails fall into this category of wild food, today I’m talking about the plant kind that you’ll find in wood and roadside, that appear to be merely wild weeds but are a source of organic, unsprayed, natural, highly nutritious foodstuff.
In other countries, this is nothing new. Greece has a tradition of gathering greens, or horta, for boiling and dressing with fruity olive oil and lemon, or for layering with phyllo dough and tangy sheep or goat cheese. But here, hunting for wild greens has only gotten trendy lately, with burgeoning interest in this very pleasurable sport.
Our interest began in the ‘60s with Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, where he waxed rhapsodic about huckleberries and milkweed, poke and purslane and ramps, which he called “wild leeks.” Later, “Wildman” Steve Brill of New York City showed urbanites how to find food in public parks. Katie Letcher Lyle wrote a couple of books about foraging, and so have several others. Hank Shaw helped make it famous on the Internet with his award-winning blog, “Hunter Gardener Angler Cook” (http://honest-food.net), which is full of wisdom and expert recipes. He also has a book out called Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast (Rodale, 2011).
“Wild edibles” is a world too big and varied to cover here, and I am far from expert at it. I have a passionate interest, and can identify maybe a half-dozen or so edible weeds by the side of the road or in a yard, but there is still so much that I don’t know yet.
Gathering sustenance from nature, rather than what’s cultivated, raised or farmed, has a timeless, universal appeal. But like cultivated or raised edibles, wild ones have a season, too. “Most lawn edibles are not very tasty once they flower,” says Hank Shaw. As of this writing, tender fiddleheads have unfurled into ferns. Poke – a tasty green only good in its infancy – is quickly turning into a large, leafy, inedible and toxic plant. Due probably to unusual weather, the morel harvest was extremely scarce this year, with morel-hunters finding little to nothing. The seasons for wild asparagus and the trendy ramp are on their way out.
But there are still nettles, lemony sorrels and wild mustards. Violets are out, with their leaves and flowers lovely in salads. Spinachlike lamb’s quarters are abundant everywhere, as are wild strawberries. Daylily buds will be out there soon, along with mushrooms like dryad’s saddle and chicken-of-the-woods; later, chanterelles and black trumpets. Burdock root and omega-3-rich purslane are out throughout the summer, remaining deliciously edible. Acorns will be around. Mulberries and elderberries are not yet ready.
My inclination for foraging was kicked into high gear a couple of years ago by a walk organized by Meghan Murphy (now Borland) of the Hudson Valley Food Network. My notes and the column that I wrote about it were lost in a hard-drive crash, but I remember learning how to identify burdock, tasting scrumptious cattail stalk and wild nuts and getting nettle burns that were entirely worth it. I learned a lot.
Local resources abound for forage-ortunities in and near the Hudson Valley. Clinical herbalist Dina Falconi offers a series of wild plant identification classes in Stone Ridge called “In the Wild Garden.” The weekly one-hour classes are suitable for beginners as well as the more advanced, covering culinary and medicinal uses for wild plants, with detailed instruction on harvesting and preparing them (no lab, classroom or cooking time). The current series has already begun, but more are upcoming; Falconi is also available for private and group foraging classes. Call her at (845) 687-8938 or see www.wildearthprograms.org for more information.
“Wildman” Steve Brill leads inexpensive walks over a wide geographical area, which includes Manhattan’s Central Park. Closer are walks in Saxon Woods in White Plains on Sunday, May 27; at Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills on June 10, July 8, Aug. 19, September 23 and November 4; in Tarrywile Park in Danbury, Connecticut on June 30; at the Appalachian Trail in Pawling on August 11; and many more. See www.wildmanstevebrill.com for updated information; register for walks 24 hours ahead by phone at (914) 835-2153. Brill even offers a smartphone app.
For mostly mushrooms, although you will surely see many a wild plant along the way, get with the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, a busy and lively group. Join up and get more details at www.midhudsonmyco.org. Walks are scheduled for Sunday, May 27; Sunday, June 24 (members only, undisclosed location); Sunday, July 1 at Colgate Lake in Greene County; and Sunday, July 8 in Hyde Park.
The Hudson Valley Food Network is an excellent resource for information on foraging events. See it at www.hvfoodnetwork.com, where there is also a subset called Hudson Valley Gatherers. Or just find a screening of Now, Forager, a new feature film about a young couple who sell foraged stuff to New York City restaurants.
For me, getting outdoors always has been great fun; but now that I can sort of grocery shop as I go, and make delicious dishes from my finds, makes it all the better. It’s an adventure fraught with risks like nettle burns, poison pokeberries and lookalike mushrooms, so it’s necessary to be armed with knowledge and the experience of your own seasoned self – or an accompanying expert.