Chef’s often find inspiration in supermarkets, seasonal farmers markets, and even from their cultural heritage to create delicious and unique dishes. But, what many chefs and home-cooks often overlook is the inspiration that can come from the forest or your backyard.
On a recent sunny but cold Saturday afternoon, Steve “Wildman” Brill led a group of Professional Culinary Arts + Farm-to-Table program students through Prospect Park to get a hands-on foraged-to-table experience. Wildman Steve is one of the preeminent foragers working in America today, foraging for more than 35 years. Foraging on one of Wildman Steve’s tours is an amazing way to connect with nature and learn about ingredients that you can find in the wild to bring to your table.
Within minutes of entering the 526 acres of park in Brooklyn, Wildman Steve was pointing out what students could bring back to the kitchen to add to various dishes. Learn about what we found in the city’s backyard of Prospect Park below, and be sure to send pictures to an expert before ingesting anything you find while foraging!
The bright yellow hue of ginkgo leaves in the Fall helps to distinguish the tree from others and points the way to the edible part of the tree, ginkgo nuts, found on the branches.
You’ll know you’ve found the right fruit when you see the fan-like leaves and smell a pungent scent when you break into it. Many sidewalks are littered with the strong-smelling fruits of ginkgo trees and can be easy to miss since the nuts themselves, found inside the fleshy fruit, are small. At first, they don’t give off much smell, but once the fruit is exposed, the stench often reminds people of strong cheese. The fruit pulp can also cause skin blisters to people that may be allergic to it, so it is best to wear gloves when harvesting the fruits.
Once you look past the smell, and the potential skin rash, the cooked nuts—always be sure to roast them—have a flavor resembling edamame, potato and pine nuts. The Asian culture considers them a delicacy and uses them in desserts, soups and meat dishes. It is best not to consume more than a few seeds at a time as the toxins can build up in a harmful way. Also, be sure not to consume the fleshy part of the fruit as it is poisonous.
Perhaps the most familiar find of the day, field garlic is everywhere. Found on lawns, backyards, open woods and yes, even Prospect Park, it is common throughout the continental US. Even in the coldest winter months, field garlic can be found poking through the snow, ready to be harvested.
With hollow stems and a distinct garlic/onion smell, it is difficult to mistake field garlic. There is a toxic lookalike plant that has no smell, so be sure to sniff out the garlic smell and consult an expert before eating. The leaves grow in bunches and look similar to a chive or a green onion, and in the Spring sprout a beautiful purple flower.
Once pulled from the ground, the green stems end with a small, edible bulb. The leaves can be used wherever a chive or green onion would normally be used and are a delicious substitute. The flavor of the bulbs can vary between patches, so it is important to try them before cooking with them, as it is with any ingredient.
Bright red-orange and resembling a pom-pom, the paper mulberry was the sweetest thing found in Prospect Park all day. Typically blooming from April to June, it was extremely late to find paper mulberries in the park, but it was a treat not to be missed!
Composed of many cylindrical seeds coming out of a hard ball, the seeds are edible, crunchy and explode with a mild honey-like sweetness. Picking them right off the tree is the best way to eat them, as they do not store for long.
One of the more difficult ingredients to forage for, mushrooms can task even the most seasoned foragers with a difficult hunt. Some familiar-looking species have poisonous lookalikes, while others can trigger hallucinations. As with anything that is foraged, it is important to send many pictures to experts before ingesting anything. Do not try to identify any mushrooms based on these pictures. Be sure to have a good firsthand familiarity, as well as experience eating and preparing foraged mushrooms, as it can be extremely dangerous to eat a foraged mushroom without that knowledge. Generally speaking, beginner foragers should avoid all mushrooms with “gills” underneath the mushrooms.
Although foraging for mushrooms can be quite dangerous, if you are with an expert like we were, it can be quite exciting! Mushrooms can be found everywhere from the forest ground, trees, and even grassy fields. Keep your eyes peeled for a delicious mushroom, as they really can grow anywhere!
Shaggy Mane mushrooms are very easy to find, and a great choice for beginner foragers. Extremely delicate and easy to break, Shaggy Manes resemble a squid and can vary in size. They excrete a black ink and are also commonly referred to as an inky cap. The ink can even be used to color dishes as a natural food color as it gives off a deep, black color.
You can typically find them in late summer and fall, so we were extremely lucky to find them in November in Prospect Park. Although late in the season, it does sometimes happen that they grow during the late fall. It is best to forage for shaggy manes when they’re young and to cook them within a few hours. It is rare to find them in restaurants because of the quick decomposing process, but they are great in a creamy risotto and add a subtle earthy flavor.
According to experts, Puffball mushrooms are one of the “foolproof four,” also known as the four most easily identified mushrooms, along with chicken of the woods, chanterelles, and morels. There are many lookalike species that can be poisonous, but puffballs, when cut open, are pure white and have no mushroom gills.
It’s important to put puffballs into the fridge after harvesting as they can spoil quickly. Once harvested, they are extremely versatile and can be used as a substitute for tofu, on a pizza or even in a delicious plate of pasta.
Foraging takes years of experience and knowledge to be able to safely ingest harvested ingredients. While it can be time consuming, it is rewarding and filled with hidden treasures around every corner!
Throughout our trip to Prospect Park, we were guided with knowledge from our expert, Wildman Steve. Finding, identifying and preparing edible wild food is a great way to use the resources around you and to connect with nature. But, be sure to consult with an expert and attend one of Wildman Steve’s tours to help you get started!