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Don’t Shop! Save the Environment, Become a Forager

Rural Intelligence Food Section Image

Photos below courtesy of Russ Cohen.

By Betsy Miller

Food forager Russ Cohen has a shopping list that’s a little different.  This week he’ll be looking for Dame’s Rocket Flower (left), which is currently rife along the margins of fields edging wooded areas.  When he finds the white or purple flowers, he’ll pick some to liven up a salad or serve as an attractive and tasty garnish.  But he’s just as apt to pop a few flowers in his mouth right there.  The flavor, he says, is a little bit of radish with some garlic undertones—one of his favorites.  “Don’t confuse these plants with phlox,” he says.  “Dame’s Rocket has four petals.  Phlox has five.”

Rural Intelligence FoodIf Cohen comes across pokeweed shoots, he’ll grab those, too.  By the end of his forage, his rucksack will also bulge with grape leaves for stuffing, and black locust flowers that he’ll use to make fritters.  Then, if there is any room left, he’ll harvest the developing flower stalk of the burdock plant.  Once it’s peeled and chopped, he’ll boil it for 5 or 6 minutes, then use it in any artichoke-heart recipe, especially “that dip with parmesan cheese, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs,” he says.

Strawberry knotweed pie (above), is a favorite of his, too.  His guests like it better than the strawberry-rhubarb variety.  And sulphur shelf mushrooms (basket below) are a great substitute for the breast meat of chicken.  Says “chef” Cohen, “Cook at low temperature with oil, then, treat it like chicken.  Make Sulpher Shelf Paprikash, Fajitas or Sulphur Shelf Tetrazzini.”

Rural Intelligence FoodWelcome to the wonderful world of wild edibles, as lived by foraging expert Russ Cohen, left, author of Wild Plants I Have Known …and Eaten and guest speaker at the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Field Study/Workshop on June 4th.  (He also will appear at a Columbia Land Trust event at the Hawthorne Valley School that has already sold out.) The Arlington, MA resident has been wandering the highways and byways for over 40 years, “shopping” for his own food, and teaching others how.  Early on, his students were hippies, seeking to live off the land.  Today, would-be foragers are more likely to want to know how to find wild food so they can sell it to restaurants.

Always eager to lead folks away from the garden path, Cohen is also mindful of preserving indigenous plants and fragile species, whether they make good pasta or not.  “I don’t like the fact that restaurants are paying top dollar for huge amounts of wild plants, without regard to foraging techniques,” he explains.  “Selling wild edibles to chefs only makes sense if the foragers leave the roots intact for the next guy, or the next year.”

He’s less protective of invasive species, such as the aforementioned Dame’s Rocket, and promotes harvesting them as aggressively as possible, encouraging restaurateurs to join the cause.  “A few years ago in Kalamazoo, MI, they had a problem with Garlic Mustard Weed,” Cohen says.  “We have it, too.  Somebody on the staff of Sanctuary Magazine approached local chefs and asked them to start experimenting with this plant to see what dishes they could come up with.”  The results appeared in a recipe book, From Pest to Pesto.  It’s now in its third printing and Garlic Mustard is less of a threat.

Rural Intelligence FoodAt home, Cohen’s freezer brims with foraged foods: stinging nettles (both raw and par-boiled), Japanese knotweed crumb cake, strawberry-knotweed pie, shortbread-knotweed squares with custard on top, and milkweed egg puff—a cross between a soufflé and an egg casserole, made from the milkweed flower bud.  Then there are all kinds of nuts—shagbark hickory, black walnut, hazelnut.  Recipes are included in his book. For example, here’s what he says about the giant puffball he’s holding at right.  “Cut it open…., Cohen with a puffball.  “Cut it open, and it should be chalk white inside.  Then, cut into 1/2” slices, dip in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs, and fry in butter or olive oil.  Presto!  Pan-fried puffball steak.” 

The only drawback to foraging is the time it takes.  “Shoppers” need to clear a few hours in their schedules to tread through fields and woods, harvest fresh cuttings, roots and mushrooms, then, once back in the kitchen, clean and prepare them for cooking.  If this is a sacrifice, the results are worth it.  As Cohen says, “There is a sensuality about wild edibles.  They connect the outdoors to the taste buds.”  Somehow, that’s not an image that leaps to mind when shopping in a supermarket.

Berkshire Botanical Garden
Lenox, MA
Saturday, June 4; 
1 – 5 p.m.
Members/$35, non-members/$42

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 05/23/11 at 04:10 AM • Permalink