When it comes to produce, it doesn't get any better than free. People have been foraging for as long as the human race has existed; yet, for whatever reason, it has become somewhat of a lost art. As it happens, there is a whole world out there for the taking in the form of wild edibles. The best thing is that this stuff literally grows in back yards and, with a little bit of education, anyone can take advantage of it.
Erin Smith, culinary director for the Clumsy Butcher group, is one of a handful of chefs in the city who has embraced foraging as a form of both recreation and a source of premium free ingredients.
Could you share a memorable foraging experience?
Smith: There is so much stuff that is just there for the taking. I went foraging with my mom in Oregon with one of the leading mushroom guides in the US, and we found hundreds and hundreds of Chanterelle mushrooms. We got them back home and then spent nine hours cleaning them. There is value in the fact that we went out, found this stuff, and spent the time to prepare it, but there is a lot of work involved. There is no factory to clean it for you, but I enjoy the experience of it.
Do you think that the stuff you get out there is healthier?
Smith: Well, the stuff out there is obviously not subjected to any pesticides or chemicals, or anything like that, so I think the chances of it being healthy are a lot higher, but as far as nutrition, I don't think that there are more nutrients, there is just less man involved. When something grows in the wild it is growing where it can. It's not cultivated. It grows where it does because that spot has all the nutrients the plant needs. For example, like two months ago, I found a bunch of wild onions along Allen Parkway. Kevin Floyd (co-owner of Anvil, Hay Merchant, etc.) asked me what the difference was between the wild onions and the regular ones, so we tasted them and they spoke for themselves. It was like onions on steroids.
Sean Carroll (Buffalo Sean), owner and operator of Mélange Creperie, takes advantage of foraged items whenever he can.
Carroll: I grew up in Buffalo so all those plants and vegetables and things that people normally eat aren't down here, it's a completely different environment so I had to re-learn what plants to pick. The great thing about Houston is that a lot of stuff is available year round. Obviously, with the crepes I'm usually after fruits and berries, but I started out with greens.
What are some of the things you've done with your foraged ingredients?
Smith: Well, in Oregon we got all those Chanterelles, and that was great because they're so expensive and they have such value. I took a bunch of them to my grandmother's and we made omelettes which were great. In Houston, as far as restaurant items, I've done sea beans; they are everywhere down there (Galveston), I can't really even call it foraging; it's more like just harvesting. It's hard sometimes to integrate foraged items onto the menu because of the volume, but I like to use them on specials when I can.
Carroll: Here just recently I got a bunch of mulberries from a tree right down the street. They were perfect for crepes and I made about two quarts of mulberry jam and used that for a whole week. But you can get a lot out of trees that people just don't pick whatsoever. I've found bitter oranges, a Spanish variety of oranges, just totally planted cause somebody thought ahh its just a tree, then years later the grandson or the new person that bought the house goes, "ugh these oranges are horrible." No, it's just a different kind of orange.
Is there anything you have to watch out for when you're foraging?
Smith: I still don't trust myself with mushrooms yet, just because all it takes is one mistake to make someone sick. I used to go out to Sam Houston Park and walk the trails; a lot of times you can find stuff out there, but you have to be careful because a lot of wild edibles have mimics, poisonous plants that look like edible ones. It's important to educate yourself before you go out and start picking stuff.
Carroll: I don't do mushrooms. They would be great, but its just too dangerous for me to put them out to the public. All it takes is one time, someone gets sick, it's just not worth the risk.
While foraging can be a great way to reconnect with nature and pick up some great free ingredients, one still must be aware that nature is not a grocery store. There is no one there to separate what is good and what is not. A great tool for up and coming foragers is Merriwether's Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Texas and the Southwest. It provides instant access to hundreds of pictures and descriptions of almost anything that is edible and grows wild in the area. Check it out, do some research, and get out into the woods. Searching for stuff to put on the table for dinner is as great way to spend a few hours with friends, family, or even all by oneself.
- Wood sorrel: Not to be confused with clover, Wood Sorrel likes shade and is likely to be found in patches close to wild violets, cleavers, etc. It only takes a little bit to spice up a salad, don't over do it as the oxalic acid could upset your stomach.
- Wild onions: Pick em'. Clean em'. Eat em'.
- Pony's Foot: A mild green besst used to accent other wild edibles in a salad.
- Dewberries: Very similar to a blackberry, while this one is a bit under ripe, the ones that are ready are black.
· Merriwether's Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Texas and the Southwest [Official Site]
· Clumsy Butcher [Twitter]
· Melange Creperie [Twitter]