Think of it as the ultimate cheap way to eat local: enjoying the wild plants growing in your yard, nearby parks, forests and other green spaces.
Foraging has become trendy. Chefs do it on their days off. Professional foragers (yep, it can be a full-time job) supply ingredients for restaurants, shops and home gourmets. Foodies can take weekend classes and tours to learn the ropes.
From a financial perspective, it’s a strategy that can help any shopper stretch her budget. It’s free, adds a staggering variety of goods that make the supermarket produce section look skimpy, and can be accomplished even in urban settings. Asked what his New York City-area tours collect, “Wildman” Steve Brill recites a litany of herbs, greens, mushrooms, fruits, seeds, nuts and even seaweeds. Who knew you could find oyster mushrooms, wild ginger and heirloom apples in Central Park at various times throughout the year?
Try these tricks to successfully add foraging to your food-shopping repertoire. (See below for a few common spring foraging finds, with recipe suggestions.)
“Go with somebody who has some experience to have that positive ID on anything you’re picking and eating for the first time,” says Paul Lieggi, the executive chef at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., who learned to forage on camping trips as a kid. Colleges, native plant societies, professional foragers and nature centers offer a range of free and low-cost (under $20) tours.
Know the law
Undercover Central Park rangers arrested Brill in 1986 for eating a dandelion on one of his tours, alleging he violated a law prohibiting damage to or removal of park vegetation. The charges were quickly dropped, and the law — meant to halt more serious vandals — clarified. But it’s a good lesson for foragers, to know whether you’re on private property or in a park where harvesting plants might be frowned upon. “Ask permission if you can,” Brill says.
Bring a reference
Identifying edibles gets easier with practice, but even veteran foragers use a field guide with detailed pictures and descriptions to make sure they aren’t missing something tasty but unfamiliar, and to avoid collecting poisonous plants, says Craig Hetherington, the executive chef of the Seattle Museum of Art’s Taste, who has been foraging since 2002. (There’s an app for that, too. Brill has several pay-for iTunes apps with foraging flash cards, as well as a free version “Foraging Cards Lite” with common edible lawn weeds.) If you’re just not sure, many of the same groups that offer tours are happy to provide the occasional positive ID on plants you bring back.
Pick only common plants. Take only what you need, and leave plenty untouched. Not only is it polite to other foragers, but it also maintains that natural resource — you can reliably come back to the same spot in future years and collect more. Cut, rather than pull mushrooms out of the ground, Lieggi says, and place them in a perforated basket so spores dropping off mushrooms will end up back in forest.
Chat with other foragers
Most are happy to tell you where the best spots are for various plants, Brill says. The exception: mushrooms. Those spots are closely guarded, because many of the collected varieties would sell for upwards of $10 per pound. Ask, Hetherington says, and you’re likely to get very vague and general response. There are public resources, too, like the maps of public fruit trees at FallenFruit.org. Keep track of recommendations and your own discoveries, so you know where to return on future trips.
Prepare for the great outdoors
Even foraging in parks can require heading off the beaten path, so prepare with good hiking boots, weather-appropriate clothing, the right tools (collection bags, trowel, work gloves) and your own provisions including water and a snack. Travel with a buddy and a fully charged cellphone, wear bright colors to be visible to hunters, and mark your trail to avoid getting lost. “As with anything, ultimately, you want to be safe,” says Hetherington.
What to Pick: Spring Foraging Finds
Availability varies by area. Weather can also alter selection, with cool temps coaxing more common fall mushrooms into a spring appearance, for example, or ample rains speeding a plant’s growth. In other words, be prepared for a few surprises along with these usual finds:
- Chanterelles. Hetherington, who also collects spring favorites including morels, yellow-foot and porcini, suggests using the finds for everything from soups and risotto to pizza toppings and pickles.
- Japanese knotweed. It’s only in season for a few weeks, but abundant where it grows, Brill says. Use the tangy root like you would rhubarb, added to soup or jams. “It gives a spark to whatever you put it in,” he says.
- Miner’s lettuce. The thin, long crunchy stems are best eaten raw. “You can wrap those stems around scallops, steak, you can mix them in with a green salad,” Lieggi says.
- Ramps. You won’t have a tough time identifying these leafy spring greens. “They have an overpowering garlic smell,” Brill says. Use them as a garlic substitute, or an addition to a variety of sauces and soups. (Frugal Foodie purees ramps and then mixes them with butter to freeze. Presto: intensely flavored butter for use year round.
- Sea-beans. “It looks like a skinny little segmented green bean,” Hetherington says. Use them raw in salad. “You get these bright little pickle-y notes in there,” he says.
- Fiddlehead ferns. Lightly cook or pickle them for a different kind of green, Lieggi says.
- Cattails. These grow in swampy areas, with shoots starting to appear this time of year. Brill makes “cattatouille,” a ratatouille using cattails instead of zucchini. Shaken off the shoot, the pollen can also be used as flour substitute, he says.
- Burdock. The root, which tastes similar to a potato, is often used in Asian cooking, Brill says. The plant’s immature flower stalks are edible, too, and taste like artichoke hearts when boiled.
- Maple blossoms. Maple-tree flowers are great in salads, Hetherington says.
- Stinging nettles. Take the name to heart — coming into contact with this plant will make your skin welt up and itch, thanks to the hollow stinging hairs on each leaf. But they’re great to eat once you negate the sting, either by cooking the leaves or pureeing them. Lieggi uses raw, ground-up nettles in pesto. Hetherington blanches and purees them to use like spinach. “They lend a real green, earthy note,” he says. “It’s pretty fantastic stuff.”
- Douglas fir. Look for the new growth tips at the end of each branch. “You can actually eat the tips of those raw,” Lieggi says. Cook them down with honey into a glaze to serve with meat. They also make an intense, pine-y tea.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie http://www.twitter.com/mintfoodie.