Food Foragers Dine on the Wild Side

(This article was published by the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on November 17, 2011.)

Some people are getting so close to nature that they can taste it. Literally.  Instead of disposing of the dandelions in their yards, they’re sautéing them with a little garlic. They reject plastic-wrapped supermarket fish and catch their own in Northern California’s teeming waters. And hikes into the woods are turning up a lot more than pretty views.

Foraged ingredients — primarily wild mushrooms — have been on restaurant menus for years but now a growing, passionate subset of Bay Area residents are stalking the wild asparagus themselves, with a little help from local experts.

“Nothing is more local, more seasonal — and, when done responsibly, more sustainable — than incorporating wild food into your diet,” says Hank Shaw, notable forager-blogger and author of the recently published “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast,” a wild foods guide with recipes.

Forager-hunter-fisherman-author Hank Shaw with some foraged items.

“Yard weeds are a great place to start,” Shaw advises. Besides dandelions, one can often find wild lettuce, chickweed, plantain, wild mustard, lambs quarters, purslane and dock thriving along with the landscaping.

Golden chanterelle mushrooms grow around oak trees in California and can be found in spring and summer.

The Bay Area is about the best place in the country to gather wild edibles, he says, like blackberries, tender miners lettuce, asparagus-like sea beans, nettles, edible flowers, fiddlehead ferns, bay leaves, and mushrooms, of course. For the entree, our natural bounty includes wild boar, duck and all kinds of seafood.  It’s no wonder foragers and hunters like Shaw don’t spend much money on groceries.

Wild blackberries thrive in California’s coastal area, with prime picking time during the summer.

Those interested in foraging and living off the land — even if it’s in suburbia — or just sampling wild foods can get guidance from seasoned experts like Shaw through books, blogs, wild food walks, underground dinners and even iPhone apps.

Available through the iTunes store is Bay Area Forager, an application that helps users identify 40 common plants that live in the wild or in their lawn, also offering cooking ideas.  It was created by naturalists, teachers and writers Kevin Feinstein — known as Feral Kevin — and Mia Andler.  The two just wrote a book on the topic by the same name and independently lead popular guided hikes that regularly enlighten would-be foragers.

Teacher and forager Mia Andler leads wild food walks.

According to Andler, “Pretty much any time of year here in the Bay Area is a good time of year” for foraging.  But wearing her environmentalist hat, she urges nascent foragers to focus on invasive and overabundant species like thistle (it can be eaten raw or cooked), Douglas fir tips (used in teas, syrups or as a dill substitute) and fennel.

“Wild fennel is everywhere,” says Andler.  An invasive weed, its stalks, fronds, flowers and seeds deliver a haunting anise flavor.  Wild fennel pollen costs up to $34 per ounce, but foragers need only stroll through many open spaces to gather armloads of fennel for free.

Wild fennel, an invasive plant, is abundant;  its stems, fronds, flowers and seeds are all worth foraging.

Many people can forage in their neighborhood by what’s called “gleaning.”  Assisted by community organizations, websites and iPhone apps, this asset is “something that’s been grown that isn’t needed anymore. It could be a tree that’s been abandoned or overproduction of something,” explains Andler.  “That resource is really abundant right now.”

Gleaning excess farm-raised cantaloupes.

When it comes to abundance, fisherman and guide Kirk Lombard believes the Bay Area is a seafood wonderland. “We have so many different great and catchable fish resources on the coast,” he says, which he explores on his tours with budding foragers, also explaining what he calls the “byzantine rules” to keep things legal.

Forager-fisherman Kirk Lombard leads seashore trips and is well known for catching local eels with a simple pole.

The depth of our ocean largesse “always shocks people,” he says. “We have Dungeness crab right off Baker Beach, Muir Beach, Ocean Beach, Stinson Beach — every single beach in our whole area.”  On the fish side, Lombard regularly takes his bountiful catch home — from smelts to salmon — to his wife Camilla, who has perfected many simple, delicious preparations.

Kirk Lombard urges foragers to fish from kayaks.  This Bay Area kayaker caught a sturgeon weighing more than 100 pounds.

While wild foods walks and tours with guides like Lombard, Andler and others are well-patronized, many Bay Area residents prefer going wild while not doing the work of gathering and preparing.  Thus underground dinners put on by groups like the Foraging Society and forageSF are immensely popular — particular with foodies who still demand a transporting eating experience.

ForageSF founder Iso Rabins collecting wild greens.

“The point of the dinners is to show people that foraged food isn’t just salad greens thrown on a plate with oil.  You can make really, really interesting stuff with it,” explains forageSF founder Iso Rabins, whose eight-course monthly dinners held in a SOMA loft quickly sell out.

Called the Wild Kitchen, at these dinners Rabins and crew have prepared dishes like wild fennel flan, Drakes Bay oysters with tempura-fried sea beans and wild huckleberry macaroons. “We look at what’s abundant and fresh in the season and build courses around that,” he says.

Wild Kitchen dinners, held in a SOMA loft, feature eight magical courses that include foraged ingredients.

Whether people learn how to forage themselves or just taste the largesse at an underground dinner, this trend is striking a chord. According to Hank Shaw, “It’s about the desire to take charge of what people put in their own bodies.”

After all, it’s not such a wild idea that food doesn’t grow in the supermarket.

Miners lettuce, which has a sweet, delicate taste and is great in salads, grows all around the Bay Area every spring.

See recipes and sources in following posts.

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