Wild things: Clockwise, from upper left corner, mustard flowers, radish flowers, nasturtium flowers and seeds, wild onions, onion flowers, wood mint, wood sorrel and wild fennel flowers and seeds.
COOKS GONE WILD
Miner’s lettuce, wood nettles,
sorrel and how to find them
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
It was curly parsley in the ‘80s, skewers of rosemary in the ‘90s and a rainbow of microgreens at the turn of the millennium. Today the world of food styling once again enters into a new era: an obsession with wild foraged foods.
Like many trends, it started at the vanguard and is slowly working its way into mainstream culture. Ten years ago Michel Bras published a book documenting a cuisine largely inspired by the wild greens and herbs surrounding his eponymous three-star restaurant in Languedoc, France. In 2006 Noma of Denmark landed a spot on Restaurant magazine’s coveted World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at a time when chef Rene Redzepi was leading the way with unprecedented use of wild foraged foods. For the last two years, Noma has won the title of World’s Best Restaurant.
Of course harvesting wild foods is not simply contained within an elite group of restaurants—foraging is as old as eating itself—and it is nothing new to the Central Coast. Intrepid outdoorsmen and adventurous cooks have long made use of wild local ingredients, and within certain ethnic groups wild edibles are highly valued as part of traditional cuisine. More recently, groups like Forage Oakland and Forage SF have helped educate more people on the Central Coast about finding free food in both wild and urban environments.
The image of collecting wild foods is quickly evolving from a largely secretive subculture into a fashionable mainstream hobby. It may only be a matter of time until smart-phone apps will be available to lead people to once hidden foraging spots. Urban Edibles, a group based out of Amsterdam, has already developed an app called Boskoi that maps wild foods in Belgium and the Netherlands.
But wild foods are still part of today’s cutting-edge cuisine and it’s a strange paradox: primordial ingredients assembled with precise precision. Chefs utilize wild flowers and plants not only to enhance presentation, but also to add contrasting flavor elements like acidity, spice and texture.
There is an old saying in kitchens that “what grows together goes together” and this concept has been taken to new extremes. Many times chefs will compose plates based on pairing an ingredient with items from its natural surroundings. A popular dish at Noma features a mosaic of wild blueberries with spruce shoots and wood sorrel.
Closer to home, chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos creates an homage to the tidal pools along our coast with local red abalone and sea urchin accompanied by seaweeds and other seasonal ingredients. Neither of these dishes fits into the context of classical cooking—but both transcend traditional flavor profiles by creating a cerebral connection between the diner and a specific landscape. As food blogs and social media fuel these emerging culinary styles, restaurants around the globe are trying to catch up on the wild-food movement. Don’t be surprised if you see someone consulting an iPhone and loading weeds into a Prada bag the next time you hit your favorite local hiking trail!
STARTING TO FORAGE
Luckily the combination of a mild climate and an abundance of parks and trails here along the Monterey Bay keeps wild foods readily accessible year round. While fall and winter are often considered the most prolific foraging seasons due to an abundance of mushrooms, spring is when the forests are filled with tender young plants like hedge nettles, miner’s lettuce and sorrel. Seasonal streams irrigate beds of wild watercress and bright orange banks of flowering nasturtiums. You can easily gather enough to make an entire wild salad, or simply gather a few leaves to accent a dish.
Before you start there are a few things you need to keep in mind:
Know What You Are Looking For: You should never gather any wild food before learning proper identification from an expert. A field guide is a great reference and starting point, but it can’t replace hands-on guidance. There are numerous guides to wild food, but the most useful are those that focus on the smallest geographic region. One of my personal favorites, The Flavors of Home by Margit Roos-Collins, focuses specifically on the edible plants in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most importantly, no matter what, never, ever, eat something you can’t identify.
Hazards: Always be aware of your surroundings; many wild foods grow alongside patches of poison oak, so wearing a long-sleeve shirt and pants is imperative. If possible, wear light clothing and keep an eye out for ticks. If you are planning to go off trail you might consider treating your clothing with a permethrin-based tick repellent.
Plan, Communicate and Be Prepared: Before exploring remote areas, decide exactly where you are going and let someone know your plans. You should avoid traveling alone in the backcountry. Finding a few patches of wild edibles can easily lure you away from your intended path. Be smart and carry outdoor basics like water and a small first aid kit.
Getting Started: To begin, all you need is a small pocket knife, a pair of gloves (for nettles and other thorny plants) and a bag for collecting. Remember to be discreet and only take what you can use. As a general rule, try to pick items that are at least 50 feet from the nearest road or trail to avoid contamination, and to preserve the scenery. Just like any outdoor activity, don’t leave anything behind. If you are removing items from the ground, be courteous and cover the area before you leave. Unfortunately not everyone is so considerate, and if you find trash along the way, try to remove it.
Keep a Notebook: As you find your favorite spots and recipes, keep a notebook to record your discoveries. Some items like wild garlic flowers are only available a few weeks out of the year, so it is helpful to remember where and when they pop up. If you are not adept at drawing you might consider pressing a few leaves and flowers into your notebook to help with identification and add an artistic touch.
John Cox is the chef at La Bicyclette and Casanova restaurants in Carmel and is also actively involved in teaching kids about sustainable, local foods. He has cooked his way across the country from Montpelier, Vermont, where he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, to Hana, Hawaii, where was corporate executive chef for Passport Resorts.
Recipes: For John Cox’s recipes for Beef Tartare with Wild Mustard and Nasturtium and Wild Herb Dressing, please go to www. ediblemontereybay.com and find the “Recipes” tab.
FAVORITE SPRING EDIBLES
Wild Radish: The wild radishes that grow along the California coast are interesting in that they are actually a hybrid of a weed called jointed charlock and a cultivated radish. Both of these plants were introduced in the late 1800s but have completely hybridized over the last hundred years. Today it is believed that both original plants have been completely replaced by the current invasive hybrid.
Classified under Brassicaceae, wild radish is in the same genetic family as wild mustard and such cultivated plants as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other flowering cabbages. The radish is a versatile plant and has a number of culinary applications. Young leaves and stems can be prepared by quickly blanching or sautéing in the same manner you would prepare rapini. (Do not eat raw leaves as some sources say they may cause indigestion.) When you can find tender green seed pods they can be either sautéed, added to a salad raw, or pickled and put away. The radish flowers make a beautiful and peppery addition to any salad or cold presentation. Though less popular—and too earthy and bitter for my taste—the roots from larger plants may also be harvested and can be roasted like a traditional root vegetable.
Local radish flowers cover a broad spectrum of colors, including white, cream, yellow and purple. The variegated flowers have four petals arranged in a cross shape.
Black Mustard: Legend has it that Spanish missionaries scattered mustard seeds along popular routes to mark them, hence their abundance along California roads and highways. Wild mustard is very similar in appearance to the wild radish above, with the exception of the flowers, which grow in bright yellow clusters and are similar in shape but much smaller.
You can treat the flowers and leaves the same as the radish. For a truly tedious labor of love you can collect the wild mustard seed and make your own mustard. Look for a plant whose pods have just begun to open.
Nasturtium: True to its Latin name, which literally means “nose twist,” every part of the nasturtium has an intense peppery heat reminiscent of arugula. Originally from Peru, the nasturtium traveled to Europe before making its way to the United States in the late 1700s.
Young round leaves can be used as salads or to make a spicy pesto or aioli. The bright orange and yellow flowers are always a nice addition to salads. A frequently overlooked part of the plant is the seed pod, which can be either dried and used in a similar way to black pepper, or pickled whole like a caper. Nasturtiums are in the genetically diverse order of Brassicales, which encompasses both of the plants above, was well as more exotic edibles, like papaya and capers. (More on this later.)
Miner’s Lettuce: Not only is miner’s lettuce one of the few local wild edibles that is indigenous to the West Coast, it was so highly regarded by explorers as a dietary supplement high in vitamin C and iron that it was subsequently planted around the world, from Europe to Cuba. The name refers to the California gold miners who depended on its nutritional properties to fend off scurvy. But long before miners discovered it, native populations are said to have left piles of miner’s lettuce outside of red ant hills so that as the ants traveled across the leaves they would excrete formic acid to mark their trail and thereby season the delicate greens.
While many local edibles can be somewhat spicy or astringent, miner’s lettuce is very mild and tender, with a taste and texture similar to domestic spinach. The plant itself is easy to recognize, with a slightly oblong leaf completely surrounding a slender stem that continues upward to a white or pink flower.
Wood Sorrel: Like its more commonly cultivated European cousin, wood sorrel has a refreshingly tart acidity reminiscent of lemon. The plant has long been valued for its medicinal properties and was once used to treat mouth and throat ailments. Some indigenous tribes chewed the leaves while traveling to alleviate thirst. The heart-shaped leaves closely resemble a three-leaf clover.
Since acidity balances bitterness, a few sorrel leaves added to a salad will help balance other more assertive greens like watercress or nasturtium. Another classic preparation uses sorrel leaves to make a sauce for fish. This can be as simple as pan-roasting a piece of fish with butter and then adding some garlic and chiffonade sorrel to create a quick sauce.
Fennel: The wild fennel that grows here on the Central Coast is genetically similar to the fennel in Sicily and along the coast of Southern Italy, and just like its Italian cousin, it is highly prized as a culinary ingredient. From the bright yellow pollen of new flowers to the dried winter stalks, each part of the fennel plant has a sweet anise flavor and aroma.
You need to be careful with proper identification, especially when gathering the dried plants, because they bear a similarity to poison hemlock. When fresh, the fennel plant has fine green fronds and a distinctive smell that makes it easy to identify. Dried fennel seeds are easy to store and are a great addition to fresh sausages or as a seasoning for meat. You can also collect the dried stalks for smoking or use the fresh fronds and local salmon to make gravlax, or cured salmon.
Wild Onion/Three Cornered Leek: These small wild onions grow in bunches and resemble grass, though each blade is slightly angular and has three points. During the spring a strong aroma of garlic is common along local trails where the plant grows.
The small white flowers with yellow accents are one of my favorite spring ingredients because of their simple elegance and clean flavor. I think that wild onions are most similar in flavor to a garlic chive. The flowers are perfect just the way they are, the stems can be substituted for chives or green onions, or tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and then quickly grilled or roasted in a wood-fired oven. The bulb, while small, is excellent either pickled or shaved and used like garlic.
Wood-Mint/Hedge-Nettle: This plant is in the mint family even though it is commonly referred to as a nettle. It seems that most people overlook it as a culinary ingredient, but I find the aroma to be an interesting cross between apple and mint. I have blanched the leaves and incorporated them into pasta and used them to flavor roasted lamb. The aroma is unique and may not be for everyone, but when used sparingly it can add another flavor dimension in place of traditional mint.