By Kim Motylewski
By Kim Motylewski
On a patio overlooking a field of corn stubble, not far from the Topsfield Fairgrounds eight city folk and exurbanites have gathered to share a day of foraging. The last day of April has turned up sunny, warm and beautiful by any springtime standard. The group of winter-worn Bostonians relishes the new warmth and the prospects of the day.
We've come to see what can be had from land that's been left to it's own devices. We've come on the promise of a meal made largely of ingredients that have never seen the inside of a supermarket or processing plant, or any sort of truck, food that had never been touched by machine, or hand tool or even a farmer's flesh. We come to experience the nearly lost art of gathering and eating wild food.
"Good Morning everybody, I'm Russ Cohen." We are greeted by our guide, a bearded man with a warm voice. More than 30 years ago, an enthusiastic teacher at Weston High School captured Cohen's imagination with a mini course on edible botany. "For me, foraging is just a great way to enrich all the time I spend outdoors," he tells us.
Ever since then, Cohen has been "nibbling on the landscape" and teaching others how to do the same. He is the author of Wild Plants I have Known and Eaten, published by the Essex County Greenbelt Association.
"Whether I'm biking through the countryside, or hiking in the woods, or walking along the rocky coastline, there are edible wild plants all over the place. So it's great way to connect with the outdoors through your taste buds as well as all your other senses."
Contrary to stereotype, Cohen continues, wild foods are actually choice and tasty morsels. As evidence, he produces a basket of nicely browned and chunky looking muffins studded with garnet-colored cranberries.
Murmurs of pleasure follow the plate around the circle, as muffins meet one mouth after another. The flavor is nutty with acorns and hickory, tart with cooked cranberry juice, and hearty as a whole grain loaf. Cohen collected the nuts and berries last fall.
"Wonderful," declares Marsha Frankel. She is social worker from Brookline who has just begun to think seriously about food choices. "Delicious, chewy, not overly sweet. Just the right texture. They taste like they must be healthy."
The muffins make a persuasive first argument against the idea that wild foods are all bitterness and fiber, unfit to eat except in an emergency. Our curiosity is piqued along with our appetites.
By day's end, we'll taste roots and shoots, mushrooms & fruits, flowers and nuts all gathered from nature'snature's produce aisles. But first we must search and gather. Acquaint ourselves with plants and people we have never met before. Chop and shell, peel, wash, sort, grind, combine and cook. There are hours of effort ahead.
WHAT'S FOR DINNER?
It's early in the growing season, but Cohen assures us there are at least 10 things that can be harvested in late April. He has drawn up a tentative menu based on the date. We'll be looking for a variety of greens, onions and flowers for an entirely wild salad. If stinging nettle can be found, we'll prepare a cream soup. For the main course we hope to harvest dandelion buds and something called wintercress that can be added to a pasta primavera and a cheesy egg puff. Dessert sounds promising too. A rhubarb substitute called Japanese Knotweed is in season, and Cohen has brought along some black walnuts he gathered last fall, for a baklava.
For our group of city dwellers and suburbanites, with easy access to supermarket fare, the uncertainties of our search add an element of adventure to the day. But of course it was not always so. The capriciousness of weather or plain bad luck might have meant hunger for earlier gatherers. At stake for most American foragers today is not food, but knowledge and pleasure.
What is growing around us? About 150 edible wild plants in New England alone, says Cohen. When, and how, and under what conditions can they be harvested, cooked and eaten? Equipped with garden gloves, trowels and pockets full of plastic bags, we climb into cars and set out to learn about a few of them.
Indeed we are soft-bodied, modern foragers heading to sites beyond walking distance.
GETTING TO KNOW THE PLANTS
At Green Meadows organic farm in Hamilton, the grower has given permission for us to wander along edges of fields and through uncultivated areas picking weeds and blossoms, and digging roots. Cohen leads us to an unremarkable grassy swath between a field and the road. We are about to meet the dandelion anew.
He begins by saying that dandelions are probably responsible for turning more people off of eating wild plants than anything else. He kneels down and quickly trowels up the so-called weed by it roots. "And it's a shame because dandelions are great if you eat the right part at the right time."
The trick, he tells us, is to harvest tiny leaves and the flower buds before they open - which means noticing the unassuming weed before its showy yellow flower stage. Once those flowers have blossomed, the leaves turn bitter. That's just when many people decide to try them.
Peggy Hogan, follows Cohen's lead, digs up a plant and turns it over as he has shown us. She is a coordinator of Slow Food Boston, a group promoting the virtues of locally grown, handcrafted cuisine. She's a gardener as well. In the last few days she has been digging dandelions out of her own yard, but she is astonished by what she now sees. "This dandelion must have 50 or 60 little buds, all tucked down in the center, that I'm pulling off. I've never looked this closely at a clump of dandelion plant before, I've only looked at the root."
It seems that when we go outdoors to eat we look at plants in a whole new way. The familiar is not as well-known as we thought. The lowly dandelion has appealing parts and peak moments.
Like any good foraging foodie, Hogan pops one of the buds in her mouth and swiftly declares it good - mild, chewy & succulent. Cohen claims to have found as many as 200 hundred buds on a single plant. He describes the taste as a cross between corn, spinach and Brussels sprouts. "They are among my favorite vegetable of any, wild or cultivated."
The little buds will be tossed into tonight's salad, raw, he tells us. The bigger ones, we'll blanch for 60 seconds in boiling water, then fold into the egg puff, and the pasta primavera.
A few yards from the dandelions, we walk into to a slightly damp area where ground level subsides. Somewhere in here, Cohen tells us, are the perennial roots of the groundnut plant. "Right now it's not showing above the ground and the only reason I know that it's here is because I ran into it last summer when I ran a foraging walk here."
The vine, once it sprouts, looks like those of peas and beans. But that greenery isn't yet here to guide us. All we have to go on is Cohen's memory of the spot, and any dried out remains of last year's vines that we might find. The element of mystery in this sparks a bunch of questions about the size and shape, color and habit of this plant.
Groundnut, we learn, is related to peanuts and peas. The so-called "nuts" are actually tubers, starchy swellings just like potatoes that grow along the roots of this plant. They can be harvested any time the ground is soft enough to dig.
Cohen tells us it was groundnut, not corn that is believed to have sustained the Pilgrims in 1620. "They occupied a village where Native Americans lived at one point and they found a cache of ground nuts the Native Americans had stored, and it was a major food source for them in that first tough winter."
Cohen's favorite way to eat them is sliced and fried, like potato chips.
With those two images in mind - settlers' sustenance, and contemporary junk food- we begin to dig, eight of us on hands on hands and knees, troweling away at the dirt.
We come up empty, move over a few feet, and try again. Cohen reminds us of their habit, "they're only an inch or two below the surface, and the roots are growing horizontally."
Then, an excited chuckle escapes him. "I found a little one" he says, his voice rising. "This is what we're looking for." All of gather round to see a dirt-covered, egg-shaped tuber the size of a pearl onion. "They can get bigger than a golf ball," he promises "and you see, the swellings happen every 2 to 3 inches on the underground stem here."
He slices through this first find and shows us the cream-colored interior and milky dew on its flesh. We all gasp, "Oooh."
Cohen's discovery has strengthened our resolve. We kneel once more. The uncertain scratching turns more primal. Now we are rooting in earnest. Though snoutless, we are as determined as pigs on the scent of buried truffles. This is a treasure hunt!
Before long, Peggy Hogan shouts for joy: "Look it look it look it!! Look at this one!" She's pulled up a run of four. "Beautiful!" someone exclaims. We all admire her groundnuts.
Some of us reach for comparisons to other forms, both natural and not. "It's a strand of seaweed with those floaters on it," I say. "It's like a string of pearls, and almost as hard to find," says Marsha Frankel. Enthralled by the search, Hogan declares, "It's like panning for gold!"
Soon all of us are striking pay dirt. We load a plastic bag with the soiled swellings, toss back the little ones and tidy up the dig site to keep this stand of groundnuts growing strong. We climb to our feet, smiling. Buying a bag of potato chips was never so much fun.
All this digging and excitement has made everyone thirsty, a bit hungry too. Our trusty guide has just the thing, some Japanese knotweed, growing just a few feet from the groundnut patch. "Some call it Japanese bamboo or Mexican bamboo," he tells us. The stalks are flagpole straight and banded the way bamboo is, with a tuft of leaves at the top. But the green of the Japanese knotweed stalk is speckled red. It has no botanical relationship to bamboo. It is rhubarb's sweeter cousin.
Cohen breaks off a piece at ground level. The strong looking stalk is hollow inside and yields easily in the spring, but the plant's roots of "many knees" persist and are difficult to eradicate. Japanese knotweed is non-native, invasive species, Cohen says, that may have been brought to this country by none other than Frederick Law Olmstead, the venerable landscape architect who build Boston's Emerald Necklace.
"He saw it growing in a botanical garden in England. And he liked the way it looked. So he brought it and got it established in the Back Bay Fens. It became exceedingly at home in that habitat and now has spread. Actually it's a problem plant throughout the world. But it's a wonderfully edible. So if you can't beat it, eat it!"
He peels away the speckled skin, which is too stringy to eat, and reveals a beautiful apple-green interior. "Whoever has cleaner hands than I do can lop off some pieces of that so people can try it." We fumble around for a moment, wiping hands and searching for a knife. Then Peggy Hogan just reaches for the stalk and takes a crunchy bite.
"Nice! Very crunchy. Full of wonderful fluid, Umm, more." We are laughing now. "It has a slight asparagus taste," she says. "I should share. It's delicious." The juicy stalk is passed around the circle.
Jody Clineff, a North Reading resident who wants to add wild food to her diet, says the taste reminds her of celery in its consistency. Alison Hardy, a window restoration expert, notices "an apple overtone," and recalls seeing these plants growing in her yard. Ilene Bezahler, editor and publisher of Edible Boston, calls it "citrusy" for its palate-cleansing quality.
The taste and hollow shape of the knotweed quickly inspire ideas for appetizers: "You could stuff it with cream cheese," suggests Hogan. "Raw tuna would be fabulous," says Bezahler. Cohen says he has served it stuffed with salmon mousse. "They loved it."
As we head off toward another part of the farm, we are amazed that within perhaps 10 yards of a non-descript border zone grow three edible plants if only one knows what to look for: all of them high in nutrients, two of them easy to find and good tasting, and one darn fun to dig.
People like Russ Cohen, are keepers of a remarkable body of botanic and ecological knowledge that is lost to most of us. The significance of that knowledge are multiple, some tangible, others spiritual. Cohen will certainly be eating better than the rest of us if, say, a bird flu pandemic closes down grocery stores, but not only that. His life is already richer in the pleasures of being outdoors, and tasting flavors available only where he finds them, altered by sun and soil and water alone. He's a 21st century city-dweller, but one connected to the past and to the natural world.
Also noticeable, our motley crew of social workers, book editors, foodies and curiosity-seekers no longer seem like strangers. After rooting around in the dirt and gnawing on knotweed together, the conversation and laughter have begun to flow. The group is coalescing, if only for today, into a party of hunter-gatherers building the social connections that come only from shared experience.
In fact there was still lots to learn and do. In another area of the farm we plucked a balloon-sized bunch of dooryard violets to add to the salad. We donned gloves to snip aptly named, stinging nettle greens for the evening soup. The formic acid and other skin irritants in this plant's hairy greens, go from painful to proteinaceous once cooked. We decamped to the Cox Reservation in Essex and dug up wild onions to flavor the pasta primavera and the soup. Still more for the salad, we plucked tender daisy leaves, and the plump rosettes of a succulent plant, charmingly called Live Forever. Back in Topsfield we waded into a marshy depression in search of the of the water-loving Calamus plant. Finally, we trekked across a field lumpy with tire tracks snipping a broccoli-rabe look-alike called Wintercress to enrich the pasta primavera. In short, we picked until we dropped.
Back on the patio at Alison Hardy's house, glasses of wine, and crackers spread with wild mushroom duxelles, prepared earlier by Cohen restores us. Time to cook!
Cohen bustles around assigning tasks to each of us. Peggy Hogan will trim the wild onions; she will remove the roots and outer skin from the fingertip-sized bulb, then cut it from the leggy, green chive. Unfortunately for her, the recipes call mainly for the bulbs.
Just joining the party is Chef Robert Harris, owner of Season to Taste catering. Cohen asks him to peel the speckled skin from the mound of Japanese knotweed. He settles into a patio chair, a pairing knife in one hand, a glass of wine close by. Inside the kitchen Alison Hardy begins to measure dry ingredients for the knotweed coffee cake.
Ilene Bezahler washes dirt from the salad greens: Dandelion buds, daisy leaves, Calamus hearts, wintercress, violets, and Live Forever leaves. She pulls out stray twigs and grasses as she goes. Next, with the Live Forever rosettes in front of her, she sets to breaking some of them into individual leaves.
Marsha Frankel sorts a quart of cracked black walnuts into piles of shells, and nutmeats for the baklava. The pieces are small and the colors rather similar.
Cohen sets up his pasta maker and pulls out wild Jerusalem artichoke flour that he ground himself, to add to the noodles. Then he turns his attention to washing and steaming the stinging nettle. "The safe way to do this is with tongs," he remarks.
Indeed, we are going to be eating a vegetable which cannot be handled raw without gloves or tongs and which, according to Cohen's book, was used to make uniforms for the German army during World War I! There is a long history of eating this plant, which is highly nutritious and may have medicinal value too, but one really wonders about the first person to have done so.
How's everybody doing? Cohen wants to know. Our onion trimmer reports slow progress. "I'm so meticulous I've done one in about five minutes. I'll get better," Hogan promises. Knotweed preparation is also a slog, "If only I had a restaurant peeler, I could go to town," laments Harris. But the company is fine and the evening, beautiful. Everyone keeps working.
After a while Frankel, from the nut sorting detail, reports a shortage. To reach the required quantity, more Black Walnuts must be cracked. Cohen demonstrates how.
He's brought along a freestanding, metal nutcracker the size of a toaster that would look more at home in the garage, than the kitchen. Cohen positions a black walnut, between two, nut-sized bookends, then gives his weight to the large lever that ratchets pressure onto the nut. With a loud crunch the deed is done. A jumble of walnut and shell tumbles from the vice, ready for sorting. We do this two dozen more times and we have enough for baklava.
Cohen gathered these nuts last fall, peeled away the hairy, brown husk and stored the unshelled cache on his porch. He says a more common way of cracking these extraordinarily tough nuts is to spread them on a driveway and run over them with a car.
By now, Harris has finished with the knotweed and turns his attention to the nettle soup: sautéing onions and Jerusalem artichokes, seasoning them with peppery spicebush berry - also foraged earlier by Cohen. Frankel works on the egg puff, cracking eggs, grating cheese, tossing them with dandelion buds, ostrich fiddlehead ferns, and porcini mushrooms. Cohen's pasta maker squeezes fresh fettuccini into a pan. Our hostess sets the dining room table.
After about three hours of preparations, the energy of the group is flagging. The question hangs in the air: Will we ever eat? The journey from field to table is slower than slow. It's fun for today, but thank goodness eating isn't always this laborious. The logic of a dinner consisting of frozen fish, packaged tortellini, and salad from a bag reasserts itself. Our supermarkets can be discouraging places, laden with junk calories and adulterated foods, but thank goodness for them too. Bagged bread, hulled nuts, and frozen peas sure do make life easier.
Finally we sit. Wine is poured, as well as wild grape juice that Cohen squeezed and froze last fall. Both beverages are a deep purple, one of several vivid colors that distinguishes this meal. The Cream of Stinging Nettle Soup pools bright green in our bowls. The salad is stunningly accented with yellow dandelion petals, violets and red, partridge berries. It smells divine.
We eat with both pleasure and exhaustion, sharing reactions to the flavors. The soup evokes split peas for some, and for others, cream of spinach or the nuttiness of artichoke. The salad is delicate, surprising Harris who expected more peppery and bitter flavors. The wild vegetables are harder to detect in the pasta primavera and egg puff, but both dishes made hearty and delicious fare.
Japanese knotweed and black walnuts make a splash at dessert time. The fragrance of cinnamon precedes the coffee cake and the knotweed adds a "sour apple, acidy brightness" to it. It would be great for breakfast too, says Frankel.
Lastly, the baklava made with native walnuts, was judged "smoother and warmer tasting" than recipes made with commercial ones. The black walnuts lent a "slight allspice flavor" and none of the bitterness often associated with walnuts.
Conversation swirls happily around food-related topics: the challenge of developing a shared language of taste; the difference between organic and biodynamic wines; where to buy real lard.
In the end, the experience was certainly worth all the effort. Everyone enjoyed being outdoors, learning about plants, and the introduction to a craft that has faded from American culture. Beyond that, some of the group have begun to see foraging as more than a novel activity, but one of those personal food decisions with political implications, right up there with growing your own garden, shopping at the farmers' market and subscribing to a community supported farm. If incorporated into our habits, foraging can be a gesture of independence from the monocultural-industrial food complex, a stake in the local food shed.
And as Peggy Hogan remarked, "It was fun! We didn't know each other before the day began and we've had a great evening together, all around this delicious food."