July 18, 2012 at 9:27 AM

Food Foraging

"Known as wild crafting or urban foraging, foraging the great outdoors is like loading up your plate at a giant salad bar."

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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Food foraging has become trendy around the world. Top restaurants like Noma and The French Laundry feature ingredients plucked from the wild, whether mountains and meadows or urban neighborhoods, by acclaimed chefs eager to ramp up their food.

Restaurants and grocery stores devoted to foraging have opened  around the country. But the practice has been around for years. Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' revered restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., had a forager on staff in the '70s.

Known as wild crafting or urban foraging, foraging the great outdoors is like loading up your plate at a giant salad bar.  From chickweed and prickly lettuce to mallow, shepherd's purse, snow thistle, nettles, mustard greens, ramps, dandelion greens, sassafras root and more, nature's bounty is seemingly limitless.  Other popular ingredients harvested in the wild include mushrooms, snails, apples, pears, apricots and, if you're lucky to live near the beach, clams.

Serious foragers know that in any place you live, there may be as many as 75 different wild foods that are not only edible but also good for you.  Wild greens, for example, are more nutritious than store-bought spinach and lettuce. Mustard garlic is loaded with nutrients, for example, including vitamin A, zinc, manganese, beta carotene and fiber.

Foraging dates back to the earliest humans, who were hunters and gatherers collecting nuts, berries, fruits and greens.  Residents of the island of Crete consumed mass amounts of greens, and they were among the healthiest people in the world.

New Mexico has a unique crop of foods perfect for foraging. Pinon nuts, dandelion, stinging nettles, cholla buds, lamb's quarter, prickly pear, miner's lettuce are just a few ingredients growing in the wild. Matt Yohalem has been serving pinon nuts and porcini and other mushrroms purchased from local professional foragers on his menu at Il Piiatto for years. He enjoys adventuring outdoors in New Mexico, fishing , hunting and finding edible ingredients for the meals he makes at home.

"One of the reasons I moved here was to go back in time," Yohalem says. "I like the cowboys and the Indians and I like the way that things taste natural. And i like the way that the mountais are so dry here that you don't think anything can grow, and then things do grow and they taste so much better."

A note of caution: In the wild, it's easy to mistake one thing for something else. Wild carrot, for example, looks exactly like poison hemlock, and some mushrooms are fatally poisonous. It's best to forage with a guide on your first trek, so you can learn what plants to avoid. And use guidebooks to double and triple check every plant before you eat it.

Also, it's best to forage in the mountains in New Mexico far from the use of pesticides and herbicides as well as pollution from cars and industry.

Here are a few recipes featuring ingredients found in the wild of New Mexico.

Recipes for the Forager

The Pink Adobe's Piñon Rice (Serves 4)

From "In the Pink: Southwestern Menus from the World Famous Pink Adobe"

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 green onion, chopped

1 cup uncooked white rice

¾ cup piñon nuts

2 cups water

1/8 teaspoon salt

In 2-quart stockpot, heat oil and butter. Add onion, rice and piñon nuts. Sauté until the nuts start to change color. Add water and salt. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice is cooked and the water is absorbed.

Edward's Field Greens: Serves 4

From "Cooking with Cafe Pasqual's"

Salad

1 pound assorted greens

2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley

8 fresh basil leaves, torn

2 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped and minced

2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves stripped and cut into julienne

4 fresh chives, freshly minced

One-half of a fresh pomegranate, seeded, or two star fruits

 Sliced into 1/8-inch stars, or 3 kumquats, sliced into thin rounds

¼ cup toasted whole hazelnuts, skins removed and coarsely chopped or piñon nuts

Dressing

2 shallots, finely minced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

6 tablespoons walnut oil

Zest of 1 orange

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Toss all the salad ingredients in a bowl. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl with a wire balloon whisk until emulsified. Toss the dressing with the salad ingredients and serve.

Apricot Nut Bars: Makes 5 dozen

From" Santa Fe Kitchens"

4 eggs, beaten

1 ½ cups brown sugar

1 10.5 ounce can of evaporated milk

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 ½ cups sifted flour

1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup dried apricots, chopped

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1 cup flaked coconut

Confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2 15-10-inch jelly roll pans.

Combine beaten eggs, sugar, milk and juice in large bowl. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Add flour mixture to egg mixture all at once. Stir just until blended. Fold in apricots, walnuts and coconut. (Do not overmix). Smooth batter evenly into the jelly roll pans and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool in pans before sprinkling with confectioner's sugar. Cut into bars and serve or store in an airtight container.

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