Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wild Greens Walk with forageSF at Golden Gate Park



At home "Eat your greens!" is soon to become "Eat your weeds!" thanks to a walk I went on to with Fred Bove of forageSF. forageSF is a typical San Francisco concept that includes people picking wild foods where they grow (in city parks, people's yards's, anywhere you see weeds you'd like to pull out) to serve them on your plate. Crazy? No. Revolutionary!

I used to think of seasons in terms of planted veggies and fruit, save for the stray August blackberry that I enjoyed as a rare gem. However I did not go out of my way to examine the green underbrush of our hiking trails to supplement our sandwiches or create fancy green casseroles. Now, I may actually change that and look forward to the seasons ... in terms of wild foods.
I first heard about forageSF on the California Report in May 2009. It sounded great. Urban foraging, wild foods coming in CSA boxes, underground dinners. It stayed in the back of my mind until recently when I thought it'd be a great topic for my green parenting column with the San Francisco Examiner.

First I signed up for a Pescatarian Box, the one box in their foraged food CSA that includes locally caught wild fish. I'm getting it next week and I'm quite excited. Then I contacted Iso Rabins founder of forageSF and asked him if I could join their next guided forage. Two days later, I was in front of the South Mill at the Golden Gate Park with a dozen other people, food-savvy urbanites or seasoned cooks like Jerome Waag, Chez Panisse chef and OPENRestaurant project co-founder.

Besides being the former education director for the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and a permaculture expert, Fred BovĂ© our guide knows his plants inside out. He'll snap a stem open, show you the inside and explain how that confirms that it's not edible. Deadly nightshade can't fool him! If any, this was an indicator we'd make it out alive - the release we signed at the beginning was pure formality. We got started.

First, Fred laid out with the three golden rules of foraging, namely:
  • you can't expect anything. It's always a surprise.
  • it's a gift from the earth to you
  • you need to respect nature and not take everything in sight. If there are three plans, take one and leave two.
Foraging in the winter will give you winter greens. Lots. And mushrooms if it rains but for that you need to find the Mycological Society of San Francisco.

A few feet away from our group, Fred showed a lush green dirt mound.

Without knowing it, we had four edible greens at our feet: oxallis (tastes lemony, the thing that people hate in their backyards), stinging nettles (that Irish people make into ale), chickweed (lush and succulent leaves, blood purifier, great in salad with a mild grassy taste) and Good King Henry (same family as quinoa, diamond-shaped serrated leaves).

Fred's walks are not just botanical excursions. He'll tell you cultural anecdotes on plant uses through the ages, he'll describe how California Ohlones used plants as medicines, he'll share his philosophical thoughts and culinary tips with a zest of humor. "People remove plants that want to live to plant plants that want to die," he said and it's true. Landscaped gardens rarely pay attention the local flora.

On we went and sure enough, other edible greens were paving the way: wild oats growing next to New Zealand spinach. Now, NZ spinach was a discovery for me because I found it relatively easy to identify and later that night, it gave a delicious nutty crunch to our dinner salad. It does look like spinach - in a way - and can be cooked and used as spinach.

To the unavoidable question about dog urine, Fred recommended to always wash wild foods before eating because dog urine doesn't go in the plant but stays on the surface of the leaf.

As we veered right to a dirt trail, fields of miner's lettuce spread before us. Miner's lettuce is very common in California and some fancy restaurants even have it on the menu.
Speaking with the ardor of a gourmet stomach, Fred showed us the heart-shaped young leaf and the blooming adult leaf, raving on what a delicious salad they make with mozzarella, olive oil and sea salt. We all nodded.

There was stinging nettle nearby. One of our group bent down and before anybody could prevent her, she picked a leaf and chewed it raw. We stared, waiting for blood-curling screams. Nothing came. That's how we learned that raw stinging nettle leaves can be picked from underneath, folded like a taco and enjoyed without pain. It's actually the only way to preserve its anti-oxydants. Amazing.

The rest of the walk included some great discoveries like wild sorrel (sorrel's cousin from the hills, full of oxallic acid, lemony taste), mellow (slimy texture similar to okra once cooked), dandelion (leaves are edible, root can be roasted to make coffee substitute called chicoree), more miner's lettuce, nasturtium (whose seeds you can pickle like capers, or whose leaves you can eat, spicy taste like wasabi) and even this bleuet mushroom with a lilac stem (good butter & garlic fry).

Concerning mushrooms, Fred reinforced the fact that you have to be absolutely 100% positive about them. Further down the slope we found some strong smelling wild onions (taste like chive and earth), wild radish (described as prime yummy spring green by Fred), poke salad (berries toxic, root extract used to fight breast cancer, spring shoots edible), acacia (flowers are edible and taste like honey), plantain (seeds very high in proteins) and my favorite of all, the salt bush that tastes like salt.

The silvery leaves tasted so good that I came back later to pick some more for my dinner salad. It reminded me of glasswort (otherwise known as salicornia), this crunchy salty succulent that grows in salt marshes and that I used to pick in Gruissan in the south of France.

The walk was nearing its end and we were in for a surprise. We sat around a picnic table by the windmill and Fred brought out of his car a pot full of sauteed wild greens, pita bread, oxallis memonade (hot and cold), and tabouleh with wild greens. I was not particularly hungry but I came back for more than seconds of the delicious sauteed wild greens. Graciously, Fred handed us a recipe list, a plant list and book references. Sadly it seems there are no proper websites about Bay Area edible wild foods. Too bad, someone should do it. I'd use it!

As Fred said, I wouldn't rely on wild foods for everything I eat but it's a great reminder of nature's bounty and hiddden treasures. Got to find that salt bush and NZ spinach again!

For more info: forageSF's Underground Market will be held on January 28, 2010 from 5-11pm at 199 Capp Street and you can check the next guided forages schedule & tickets here.

2 comments:

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Thank you for taking us on this foraging trip through GG Park. It is very educational. I wish we were still living in the Bay Area. We would have loved to go on this kind of foraging walk!

Sould you like to enter this post in our Grow Your Own roundup this month? Full Details at

http://chezannies.blogspot.com/2010/01/rambutans-plus-grow-your-own.html

Laure said...

Thanks Nate and Annie. What a cool website you have. Yes the walk was a treat but I wish I remembered more about each plant. I'm going to have to go on a new walk!

I'll be back with the recipe of the wild greens moroccan stew when I find it. It was delicious.