Ask a Chef: Foraging For Ingredients

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The last time I ate something I foraged myself, I was about eight and had planted myself in my grandparents' back yard, plucking honeysuckles and delicately pulling the stamen out to catch the drop of nectar at the end. I probably ate some grass too just to see what it was like. But I was a trendsetter, clearly, as foraging for wild produce has become incredibly popular.

Chef Paul Shoemaker of Firefly in Los Angeles is an experienced forager, though he admits that Southern California has an abundance of wild riches. There's Miner's lettuce, "an amazing lettuce filled with Vitamin C that grows in creeks and on the side of mountains in the shade." Shoemaker suggests serving it with a dressing of lemons, olive oil and fleur de sel "to help bring out the freshness and amazing natural flavor." There's also purslane, a sweet, succulent-type plant with edible leaves and flowers; and plenty of grasses and mushrooms.  Of course, each region is different. Start by researching what grows near you, whether it's ramps in upstate New York, cactus in Texas, or wild asparagus in Minnesota.

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Mushrooms are the thing that give most hypothetical foragers most pause — it'd be cool to come across a grove of morels, but eating poisonous mushrooms could result in serious health consequences. As a Chef, Shoemaker has developed a familiarity with a lot of mushrooms, but he still does his research, and suggests taking a guidebook to help you identify what’s edible and what's not. "It's also important to talk to the foragers out there, because they can help you, too," he says, and there are plenty of foraging meetup groups popping up these days. But if you’re new, maybe start with some greens before graduating to things that could make you sick.

I live in an apartment building in Queens, so to my mind the only way I could successfully forage is by becoming a freegan and promptly losing all my friends. But according to Shoemaker there's plenty to eat that grows in more urban areas. "Wood sorrel, purslane, and garlic flowers" are all native to more urban areas. "Check out your local creek, and you can often times find a lot of things, such as watercress." And I've definitely seen plenty of edible dandelions sprouting between sidewalk cracks. A word on foraging etiquette though: Don't steal from your neighbors' yards! Even if their cherry tree is hanging over their property line just waiting to be picked clean, that’s not good manners. And if Shoemaker is to be believed, there’s still plenty out there waiting to be claimed.

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