Photography by Andy Sams
In previous years, my foraging experiences were mostly solo missions to collect as much food as I could for eating and storage. I’d take five-gallon buckets and harvest my share—a large share, to be sure. I had loads of free time back then, and spent many hours trying out wild-food recipes. I’d try to limit my dishes to only foraged ingredients—imagine no salt, no oil, no sugar!—and I tolerated some pretty bland and weird-tasting dishes. But I was satisfied knowing that I was eating pure, totally local and only-foraged food.
Then I had kids, and let’s just say more than a few things changed. With babies dangling off of me or crying in strollers, I’ve had to shift my leisurely foraging focus to five-minute lightning-round intervals between nursing, making snacks, cleaning up messes and changing diapers. I’ve adjusted my recipes based on what’s in my pantry and what my kids will eat—imagine anything with salt, oil and especially sugar! I forage more in my own yard, in parks, in vacant lots and on school grounds (gasp, I said it), and I have become a blatant foraging opportunist. I keep an eye out for a patch of wild greens along the roadside while I’m hauling my kids here and there, I fill up my stroller pocket with all kinds of yummy things and the back of my minivan is full of shovels, pruners, scissors and bags just in case I hit the jackpot.
Of course, having kids means I share what I forage, what I cook and what I eat, and it turns out that sharing with others is one of the best reasons to forage. It’s amazing just how much wild food lurks in the nooks and crannies of our city.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
• Always be prepared. Carry a trowel, scissors, pruners, kitchen tongs and harvest bags in your car.
• Don’t be afraid to harvest things from high-traffic, urban areas. As long as the area you’re harvesting from is not sprayed and is relatively pollution-free, it’s fair game. Plenty of folks eat vegetables grown in high-traffic, urban areas so why not eat wild foods growing in the same ground?
• If you can time it right and arrive before the mowers, places that tend to be full of wild things to eat include: vacant lots behind grocery stores (oh, the irony), the edges of community gardens and sports fields, the uphill side of roads and sidewalks (avoid the runoff!), library parking lots, areas around trails and overgrown yards (ask your neighbor for permission to forage!).
• Plan a regular meal, and then think about what kinds of foraged foods might complement it. Consider garnishes and dessert toppings, since finding a few sprigs of wild greens or a few wild berries or nuts will be easier than finding enough for an entire dish.
• Consider adding one foraged ingredient to each dish. Greens are easy to blend into soups, tarts, sautés, pestos and even cocktails. Berries look beautiful and taste delicious on top of meat and potato dishes.
• Include only one dish in your meal that is foraged. A side salad (with store-bought dressing) or a side of steamed wild greens would do.
• Make a simple soup and throw in some wild dandelions or dock. Call it dandelion or wild dock soup, even though your main ingredients might be onions and water.
• Find out where there’s a good patch of wild amaranth or wood sorrel and arrange to eat there. Take your favorite dressing and a pair of scissors.
• Include kids. Let them help you forage. They will LOVE it. It will make the experience more spontaneous, less intentional and richer in adventure.
• Make foraging a part of the meal. Invite the neighbor kids over for a walk around your yard or the park. Then crank out some homemade wild mulberry ice cream! If you allow your guests to participate in the foraging, it might end up being one of their most memorable meals ever.
• Even if you use only one wild ingredient, your guests will be impressed and interested to hear about your foraging experience. They’ll be shocked that they can actually eat the weeds they’ve been pulling out of their lawn.
A SIMPLE MENU FOR FAST FORAGING
Versions of these recipes will appear in my upcoming book on the wild edible plants of Texas. They all include one or two easy-to-find foraged ingredients with a couple of exceptions.
MEXICAN APPLE AGUA FRESCA
The amber color of this juice may trick folks into believing it is apple juice or Texas tea. But the earthy, cucumber-sweet flavor of the Turk’s cap red, berry-like fruit will be a pleasant surprise. Serve over ice with a few Turk’s cap flower petals floating in each glass for an added wild-edible experience. And don’t forget that some juices are meant to be spiked! Add some tequila, and you’ll have a cocktail on the rocks.
1 c. ripe, red Mexican apples (Turk’s cap fruit), fresh or dried
2 c. water
¼ c. sugar (or to taste)
Wash the fruit and place it in a saucepan with the water and sugar. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the fruit softens. Crush the fruit with the back of a large spoon or a masher. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth, and gently squeeze out all the juices. Let cool and serve over ice.
BLACKBERRY BLACK WALNUT CHICKEN
You can make your own fresh and rustic blackberry jam for this recipe by adding a few drizzles of simple syrup to a cup of blackberries and mashing it all together with the back of a fork. Or, if you have blackberry jam sitting around, feel free to use it as well.
½ c. black walnuts*
¼ c. bread crumbs
½ t. salt
2 boneless chicken breasts
¼ c. blackberry jam
1 T. olive oil
½ c. wild blackberries
Preheat the oven to 400º. Grind the walnuts together into a fine crumb and place in a pie dish. Mix in the bread crumbs and salt. Rub each chicken breast with the blackberry jam, and coat them completely with the walnut mixture. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle the olive oil over the chicken breasts. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with a few fresh blackberries sprinkled on top.
WILD SIDE SALAD—FALL VERSION
Preparing a side salad of wild greens is easy and fun. It can contain whatever tender and tasty greens you can find and is absolutely gorgeous topped with edible flowers such as spiderwort, dayflower, yellow dandelion petals or Turk’s cap flowers.
2 bunches or handfuls wild spinach, chopped into bite-size pieces
2 bunches or handfuls amaranth leaves, chopped into bite-size pieces
2 c. wood sorrel leaflets
2–3 dandelion leaves, chopped into bite-size pieces
Your favorite dressing
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the greens together in a salad bowl and toss with the dressing and salt and pepper.
MESQUITE CORN BREAD
One of the easiest ways to incorporate mesquite meal into your menu is by baking. Mesquite meal is sweet and perfect for pancakes, cookies, cakes and quick breads.
¾ c. cornmeal
¾ c. flour
½ c. mesquite meal*
2 t. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
½ c. whole-milk yogurt
½ c. milk
4 T. honey
4 T. vegetable oil
¾ c. corn kernels
Preheat oven to 350º and grease an 8-inch square baking pan. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, blend the wet ingredients together, and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until combined. Fold in the corn kernels. Pour into the baking pan and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown.
30-SECOND GREENBRIER TIPS
The best place to find the thickest, most tender greenbrier tips is near water, where the plants have received adequate moisture. Gather as much of the tender, new-growing tips as possible for this vegetable side dish. Be sure to gather from greenbrier (Smilax species) that has both thorns and tendrils. There are look-alike plants lacking thorns and tendrils that are toxic!
2 T. olive oil
At least 4 large handfuls greenbrier tips with tendrils
¼ t. salt
Place the oil in a skillet and heat to medium-high. Throw in all of the greenbrier tips at once, sauté for 30 seconds, remove from the heat, sprinkle with the salt and serve immediately.
Makes 10–12 cupcakes
For the cupcakes:
15–25 common persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), or twice
as many Texas persimmons (Diospyros texana)
8 T. (1 stick) butter, softened
¾ c. sugar
¼ t. vanilla
2 c. flour (you can substitute whole wheat flour for half)
2 t. baking powder
½ t. cinnamon
¼ t. nutmeg
¾ c. chopped pecans or creative ingredient of choice
For the goat cheese frosting:
1 c. plain goat chèvre, softened
1 c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350°. Place cupcake baking cups in a standard-size muffin tin. Remove the skins from the persimmons and mash the pulp in a sieve or colander over a bowl. You can use the back of a wooden spoon, but squishing the pulp through your hands also works. Remove the seeds. Blend 1 cup of the pulp with the butter, sugar and vanilla together until creamy. Blend in the eggs, one at a time. Mix the dry ingredients and spices together in another bowl and slowly mix into the wet ingredients just until moist. Stir in the pecans with a few folds. Pour into baking cups and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool. To make the frosting, place the chèvre, powdered sugar and vanilla into a mixer (or use a handheld mixer) and blend until creamy. Spread on the cooled cupcakes and enjoy!
* Black walnuts and mesquite meal might be a little tricky to find or process, but you can always order these foraged foods online. Instructions on how to process mesquite beans can be found on my blog at wildedibletexas.com.