Finding your food
Foraging — hunting and gathering wild plants, mushrooms, and animals — is a culinary buzzword these days, and fall is a prime time to see what it’s all about. Chefs are taking to the woods or connecting with foragers to bring mushrooms, game, and edible greens to their tables. Meanwhile, budget-wise home cooks are taking advantage of nature’s free pantry.
I’ve gone foraging with wild-foods experts, so I know personally the thrill of finding truffles, snapping tender fir tips, or plucking exotic wild greens. Each foray is a treasure hunt, yielding new finds and encounters with nature. Suddenly, your eyes are opened — there are edible foods all around you, if you only know how to look. The payoff continues as you prepare, preserve, and eat your bounty.
So just how do you learn to forage — or sharpen your fledgling interest in it?
I culled advice from three experts: Connie Green, the co-author (with chef Sarah Scott) of The Wild Table; Hank Shaw, who chronicles his foraging adventures on his award-winning blog and in his new book Hunt, Gather, Cook; and my own foraging mentor, Jack Czarnecki, a mushroom guru, truffle-oil producer, restaurateur, and James Beard Award-winning author whose books include A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms and Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery.
Not sure whether foraging is for you? Thumb through these authors’ books to see if the delicious results of their adventures whet your appetite. Eager to plunge into the woods already? Check out the tips below.
- Get connected. If you’re inexperienced, foraging isn’t something you want to do alone — and besides, it’s more fun sharing your discoveries with others. “People can make terrible mistakes,” warns Green about misidentifying and eating toxic foods. Find an experienced forager or group in your area and sign up for a foraging trip or outing with a professional. Good sources are the local agriculture commission; mycological and native-plant societies; university extension services; fish and wildlife departments; foraging blogs; and food publications.
Read, carry field guides, and keep a foraging journal. Foragers are a passionate lot, and their enthusiasm is infectious. You’ll find plenty of books and blogs on the subject. When you’re in the field, guides can help you identify plants and mushrooms. Shaw suggests field guides by Roger Tory Peterson and Samuel Thayer. Czarnecki likes David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified and All That The Rain Promises And More, as well as Gary Lincoff's National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.
Chanterelles, just harvested.
- Be prepared and dress the part. Good sturdy shoes, protective clothing, and a hat are a must for a day in the woods or along the shore. The woods can be disorienting, so be sure to bring a compass and map (as well as a GPS and a cell phone if you have them) and mark your route. Equip yourself with sturdy knives, collecting bags, and open-weave baskets (which allow mushroom spores to fall to the forest floor for propagation). Plenty of water and food will keep you going and add to the fun. (Czarnecki typically fortifies his foraging companions with a tailgate picnic of gourmet food and wines.)
- Know your territory. Stay out of polluted areas and off private property unless you have permission to explore; Czarnecki always secures an OK ahead of time. While berries along golf courses or roadsides are tempting, be mindful of noxious pesticides and car exhaust. “Start in your own back yard,” says Green, adding you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find around you. You’ll eventually know spots for your favorite foraged foods or hear about them from other foragers. Czarnecki keeps a logbook to see patterns and changes in hunting areas. “You’re constantly astounded by what nature does and how it acts,” he says.
- Pace yourself. If you don’t know it, don’t eat it. In other words, be sure that anything you put in your mouth is safe to eat. When you’re trying new foods, go slowly, says Green. Give your system a chance to adjust to wild edibles or detect allergies or reactions.
- Enjoy your surroundings. One of the rewards of foraging is the focus it provides and the opportunity to get away and truly immerse yourself in nature. Czarnecki, who mushroom-hunts several times a week and fishes, clams, and collects nettles, is hooked on the way foraging puts him in the moment with a solitary goal and provides a “feeling of connectedness to the earth.” He describes it as “a vacation for the mind.” Foragers speak of it as a spiritual experience, a way to be a part of nature’s life cycle, especially as you return to foraging grounds each season and prepare and eat foraged foods.
- Leave some behind. Shaw likes to practice the boxer’s technique of “strike and move.” When he comes to a fertile patch, he strikes, but won’t denude the area. He moves on. It’s tempting to gather as much as you can carry — especially if you’ve traveled a distance or devoted the day to your outing. But take only what you can process and eat, and leave the rest for the animals.
- Pass on the tradition of foraging, and preserve your treasures with friends. Czarnecki has taught me his technique of blanching and freezing mushrooms in their own broth for use throughout the year. Green devotes a section of her book to preserving wild edibles. “Putting up food together links you with thousands of years of human tradition. And it’s a blast,” writes Green. The same could be said of foraging.
Joan Cirillo is a freelance journalist and cookbook and guidebook author. A former Associated Press writer and New York University assistant professor of journalism, she enjoys foraging from her home in Portland, Oregon.
Grilled Quail with Chanterelles, Pancetta, and Soft Polenta;
Ragout of Hedgehog Mushrooms with Tangerines and Curry;
Nettle or Wild Greens Risotto;
Wild Rice with Chanterelles and Apricots;