Family foraging: the best kind of treasure hunt
Story and Photography by Isa Eaton
When our first child, Samuel, was six weeks old, my husband and I took him camping in Big Sur. (We like to break our kids in early.) I remember walking around the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park camp- ground with our newborn nestled in a fleece sling, sipping glasses of wine and remarking how life hadn’t changed for us—the parenting thing wasn’t that hard. Much later, around midnight, we lay tacoed in the middle of a sagging air mattress, freezing our butts off. I ditched my husband in the tent and transferred my inconsolable baby to the back of our car. Maybe we had been a tad overconfident.
Samuel fell back asleep just as the sun came up. After my husband and I fortified ourselves with gallons of coffee, homemade banana pancakes and a morning campfire, the weekend camping trip transformed back into the best idea we ever had. Under a canopy of redwoods, we were captivated by Samuel performing extraordinary feats of kicking and smiling in his bouncy chair atop the picnic table. On that first adventure, we knew absolutely nothing about parenting, but we learned that kids and car camping are a fun mix despite musical beds at midnight.
And so, we happily stashed away our two-person backpacking tent and purchased a three-bedroom family tent. We were finally recognizing that kids do change life a little bit. We introduced our second child, Otis, to the tent when he was three months old, at Big Basin Redwoods State Park north of Santa Cruz and our third, Story, at two months on a desert camping trip. We have not only embraced the joys of family camping, but also relish the extras that you don’t get on a backpacking trip.
For example, it’s just not practical to carry a pack-n-play, two- burner stove, wok, griddle, and coffee kettle in your backpack, not to mention space-hogging bags of marshmallows and boxes of graham crackers.
A highlight of our family camping adventures is foraging. Searching out edible plants, fruits, and flowers is like a treasure hunt; it entertains us all and infuses our camp meals with color and whimsy. What’s more, the hunt has the added benefit of piquing small appetites. My middle child Otis is frustratingly picky—a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables—but even Otis will try plants that he can pick himself.
I plan in advance to see what plants are in season and select a few to hunt for on our slow, meandering hikes. I carry a regional na- tive plant book and stick to easily identifiable edibles that I know well. (It’s important to teach your wildlings to never touch or pick a plant not identified by a knowing adult.)
One of our favorite trail treats is wild fennel. Growing in grassy areas, the lacy green, fragrant leaves dry in the summer, leaving im- pressive high stalks with seeds on star-shaped tips. Giving my children a few fennel seeds to chew has helped propel them up hilly trails with minimal whining. [Just be very careful, especially if the plant is dried out, that you are not mistaking it for poison hemlock.*]
Finding wood strawberries and California blackberries is especially exciting, but I’ve given up hope of ever gathering enough berries for dessert back at camp; the kids pick the bushes clean before I get a taste. My husband, always up for a challenge, eats another wild fruit, gooseberries, with the kids. The prickly spines require a sporting attitude, gloves and a pocketknife to dig out the sweet purple flesh.
My all-time favorite wild edibles are miner’s lettuce and nas- turtium. My parents first introduced me to miner’s lettuce in Big Sur when I was six years old, and I’ve been foraging for it ever since. I also helped my mother forage for giant nasturtiums from her secret spot whenever she wanted to make stuffed nasturtium leaves—her version of Greek dolmas. At home, I use highlighter-yellow and or- ange nasturtium flowers to brighten salads and top birthday cakes.
Miner’s lettuce also grows abundantly in shady areas, often near oak trees, and has round leaves that are tender, mild and crisp. Sim- ilar to baby spinach, this West Coast native works well for salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Even Otis and Story—who refuse salad at home—will gobble up handfuls of miner’s lettuce—and with that, lots of vitamins A and C and iron. (The green was named for the Gold Rush-era miners it saved from scurvy.)
Miner’s lettuce and nasturtium blossoms are the star ingredients of the penne pasta dish opposite. This perfect camp dinner is quick and easy to make, is equally delicious hot or cold and uses ingredients that travel well.
Cooking and eating good food, along with naps (mine, not the kids’) are the cornerstones of our family camping trips. I don’t believe that bad food tastes good outdoors, but good food tastes extraordinary. Dishes like this are best served on a picnic table under an open sky and eaten with people you love.
Isa Eaton is a writer, designer and native Central Coast resident. She can often be found in the garden, wrangling her three exuberant children, or hiding in the closet, working on her first novel.
EXPLORE: For more on foraging for wild greens and flowers, see “COOKS GONE WILD” by John Cox, EMB Spring 2012. In his photo, above left, fennel is at 10:00 o’clock and nasturtiums are at 1:00 o’clock. For a reference to foraging in our area, Cox recommends The Flavors of Home, by Margit Roos-Collins. And for foraging close to home, seed for both miner’s lettuce and nasturtiums can be readily ob- tained for growing in your garden.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: While we hope this article provides lots of inspiration for your camping cuisine, be sure to never eat a wild food unless you are absolutely certain that you have identified it accurately. And be especially careful of plants that have poisonous “lookalikes.” Wild fennel, for example, is in the same family as poison hemlock and resembles it, especially when it is dried out. There is no substitute for being taught identification by an experienced forager; when in doubt, don’t eat it.
Penne with Miner’s Lettuce, Sundried Tomatoes, Nasturtium Flowers and Wild Fennel Seeds
Courtesy Isa Eaton
1 pound penne pasta
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
8 large garlic cloves, slivered
Scant 1/8th teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
1⁄2 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned
1⁄4 cup toasted California pine nuts
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups miner’s lettuce, stems and flowers removed Handful nasturtium flowers, petals separated Salt and pepper to taste
Heat salted pasta water to boil. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, 5–7 minutes, then add garlic, fennel, sundried tomatoes and remaining olive oil. Cook penne until al dente, then drain. Combine penne with onion and garlic mix. Turn off heat and toss in Parmesan, pine nuts, miner’s lettuce, nasturtium, salt and pepper.
For a spicier version, replace miner’s lettuce with nasturtium leaves.