Foraging has become more than just a culinary fad, for many it has become a steady way of procuring many of the ingredients in their daily diets. You can even sign up for one-day seminars with experts who hunt the wild vegetables, herbs and mushrooms that grow in local parks and public green spaces. Many of these intrepid cooks have found ways to round out their pantries from ingredients found literally in their own backyards.
Finding the basis for one's supper is not something new. It has been practiced by mankind since time immemorial. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pushed aside by the domestication of animals and crops, but I guess old habits and instincts don't die easily.
My grandfather Phil Smith hailed from rural County Cavan in Ireland. He would tell us stories about his humble upbringing and one that I always remember was that his mother would send him out in the early spring to collect nettles, which grew wild in the fields. He said that she would make them into a type of a soup of which he had very fond memories. As a child I always wondered how you could eat a nettle with out it first stinging your mouth, then your throat and, eventually, prickling your stomach. It was a scary thought. I just received an e-mail from one of my produce providers telling me that a fresh shipment of stinging nettles would be arriving this week at a tidy $9.50 per pound. They are one of the must-have ingredients of the moment for trendsetting restaurant chefs.
A number of years ago I had the good fortune to work at one of the pillars of modern French cooking, Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France. The frères Troisgros, Jean and Pierre, were at the forefront of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement. Their signature dish is "Saumon a L"Oseille," which is essentially a seared escallop of salmon surrounded by a silky beurre blanc in which the lemony spring herb wild sorrel was roughly chopped and wilted at the last minute. The dish became so popular that they had to secure year round sources for the humble early season green.
Closer to home, when I was a boy growing up in Riverdale every spring we would see people foraging in Van Cortland Park. My father would explain that they were harvesting dandelions, the bitter, spring sprouts, and searching for cardoons, a rugged relative of celery. I thought that it was really strange to be eating something that grew in a public park, but I can now appreciate just what those urban gatherers were sourcing. The tiny dandelion greens are great in a salad and the more mature leaves can be sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil as a mildly bitter foil to a spring menu.
The vast majority of Westchester County homeowners spend an enormous amount of time, effort and resources on the appearance of our lawns. No expense is spared to eradicate those bothersome tiny wild onions, garlic, sorrel and dandelions from our man made living green carpets. These wild bulbs and herbs have become integral ingredients of the spring harvest for local chefs and home cooks alike and are often available at our greenmarkets and gourmet produce sections.
We have a few regular customers at the Iron Horse Grill who annually arrive at the restaurant bearing young ramps that they have just plucked from the edges of the Saw Mill River or wild mushrooms harvested from closely guarded, top secret locations around the county. We prepare these indigenous ingredients for these dedicated, iron willed and stomached foragers as part of their locavore inspired dinners.
Mushrooms, nettles, dandelion, sorrel, ramps and wild chives and garlic are the once humble, and once free, ingredients the have gone decidedly upscale. Restaurant menus will be exploding this season with these trendy and pricey spring greens. Maybe during these trying economic times we should let our lawns go to weed and lower our food budgets by foraging for these ingredients in our own Westchester back yards. Phil Smith would certainly have a good laugh knowing that what he harvested in the wild as a poor boy and that his mother lovingly cooked for him every spring back in County Cavan has made it to the tables of Westchester homes and restaurants alike.
STINGING NETTLE SOUP
1 cup sliced onions
2 cloves garlic sliced
1 tbs. olive oil
2 cups packed cleaned tender nettle leaves
1 cup diced Idaho potatoes
4 cups water or stock
1 cup heavy cream
Coarse salt and fresh pepper to taste
Heat the oil over medium flame, add the onion and garlic and sweat until soft. Add the nettles and wilt. Add the potatoes water or stock and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Puree in a blender or food processor, check the seasoning and serve hot with a dollop of Greek yogurt or goat cheese if you like.
If you can't find nettles, a mixture of half spinach and half sorrel or dandelion will give you another tasty variation of this spring soup.
Philip McGrath owns and operates the Iron Horse Grill, which is housed the historic former train station building in Pleasantville. He also owns Pony Express To Go, an all natural fast food restaurant just across the park from the Iron Horse. You can learn more about both by visiting their websites at www.ironhorsegrill.com and www.ponyexpresstogo.com. His Local Chef columns appear here weekly.