Foraging season has begun.
Perhaps you’re ready to give this new (old) trend a try, excited by a lecture or what seems to be the endless forest bathing lifestyle of foraging influencers. After all, it is a BIT like gardening. It’s nature. It’s dirt. It’s quiet and thinking and referencing and observing.
Perhaps you’ve already come back with your basket of spring goodies after a gorgeous day sourcing flower, shoot, ‘shroom, and root.
Exactly. Half the enjoyment of foraging is using the items you’ve carefully gathered; but with unfamiliar ingredients, the newish forager-cook can be forgiven for defaulting to the ubiquitous butter and garlic sauté and feeling well-served.
Well, it’s time to up your game. In her new book, The Forager’s Pantry, Ellen Zachos takes the hands of both beginner and seasoned foragers and guides them through the woods AND the kitchen – providing master recipes, flavor profiles, availability charts, and an encouraging, witty voice to help you adapt the familiar dishes you love to the hobby you may find yourself pursuing for the rest of your life.
I speak from experience on that last bit. Though I am first and foremost a gardener, in my early twenties, a friend introduced me to the pleasures of foraging food for free (which is after all, handy in one’s twenties). I’ve been doing it ever since – whether it’s chickweed from the garden beds or oyster mushrooms from the woods, it still gives me a buzz to harvest crops sown and grown by the bountiful hand of Nature.
Master Recipes Make The Forager’s Pantry Stand Out
I was thrilled to get this book, not because I need to add to my cookbook collection (which is quite frankly absurd at this point), but because Zachos beautifully illustrates and promotes a technique I heartily endorse – the use of master recipes to allow you to adapt what you’ve collected to what you have in the pantry. If more people cooked like this generally, the grocery stores and gas stations might see a drop in profits, but our household budgets and carbon footprints would be the all the lighter for it.
So, you’ll find a master recipe for Chocolate Nut Candy, not Chocolate Walnut Candy, because it might be hickory, pine or California bay nuts you discover on your walk. You’ll find a master recipe for Summer Pudding or Clafoutis, so you can incorporate ALL the free and fabulous berries you find, not just a precise amount of several high-end berries that might have you running to the store. And you can make Puff Pastry Swirls with your choice of foraged greens such as chickweed, lamb’s quarters, purslane or nettles – whichever one happens to be in season.
Don’t know which greens to use? Zachos conveniently provides summaries of flavor profiles to help you match the dish to your taste, and also provides charts of when to look for certain ingredients during the year. Including the mysterious and misunderstood mushroom.
Forage Through the Seasons
Seasonality features big in this cookbook, for although Zachos gives instructions on preserving, freezing and drying many ingredients, foraged ingredients are always at their peak of flavor when used fresh. I am currently waiting for my magnolias to fully open so I can sneak a few blossoms for her Flower Cream Cake, but I could use redbud, or wait for late spring roses if the cruel freeze tonight zaps those magnolias. Zachos gives the forager-cook flexibility, and the encouragement to take a chance on a new flavor by setting easy to follow parameters.
However, should the freedom of substitutions alarm you, there are also specialty recipes in the book, for Zachos has spent much time perfecting the pairing and proportions of certain flavors, such as cattail flowers with parmesan and eggs to create a special breakfast dish that lets the ingredient – not the filler – shine; or Deep-Fried Lotus Root with Sumac and Field Garlic to meld many foraged flavors expertly (one of which you can simply forage in your local world market if you don’t happen to have a lotus-smothered pond nearby).
Gardener. Forager. Cook.
Zachos is an experienced horticulturist and author with many titles to her name, but her first foraging title, Backyard Foraging is a book I recommend and lend over and over to friends who want to dabble and might not have a great deal of property at their disposal. I’ve lent it so many times I’ve had to rebuy it twice (you know how that goes).
If you’re concerned about foraging, her experience and enthusiasm is infectious, and will help you dip your toes into all the things that make foraging so addictive: the fresh air…the quiet contemplation and observation… the discovery of treasure on a glorious spring afternoon.
It’s addictive alright, and The Forager’s Pantry will make that kitchen of yours a lot easier to discover too.
Thumbs all the way up. I guess I’ll have to buy a second lending copy. – MW
The Forager’s Pantry. By Ellen Zachos. Gibbs Smith, 240 pages, $24.99
While this sounds right up my alley, I’m wondering if it is focused on any particular region? There are so many climate zones in the US, so much diversity in our plants, especially regarding what can be found in the wild in different areas.
I’ll probably buy it even if it does not apply 100% to my area. The recipes sound like they’ll still be applicable with what I can forage here. Heck, I might buy a second copy for a friend of mine who is all about foraging.
After many years in the Northeast United States, Ellen now lives in the Southwest, and wished to make the book as accessible as possible. From her introduction: “Most of the plants and mushrooms in this book can be found across a wide range of locations. I’ve chosen them to make the book as useful as possible to as many people as possible.” She also lists further resources for you to explore, so you can adapt those ‘master recipes’ to your own region’s plants. I think it would make a superb gift! – MW
Reading Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart cured me of any desire to forage.
Ah…a shame! Wicked Plants is a wonderful book, but it can skew the narrative when most of the known toxic plants are carefully and succinctly showcased in such a clever, readable way. Think of The Forager’s Pantry as the “other side of the story” – All best, MW
Not to be a negative Nellie but…Be careful prancing off into the woods and fields with your basket. Unless you own it. Good way to get shot at. You get into someone’s morel spot and oh boy. Or you might come across somebody’s weed. Always amazes me the people that think land in the countryside is open to all. Ask first. And I don’t think foraging is allowed in state and federal parks?
In ALL of her books on foraging, Ellen Zachos begins with specific instructions about safe foraging, land use, pesticides, roadsides, public parks, private property, and of course, permission. She is 100% about safety first and makes no bones about it. Sadly, foraging is still a culturally unusual activity in America – even many of those who have a great deal of property would not consider it on a spring walk – even if it is their own chickweed upon which they tread. Zachos seeks to de-mystify the process and I thoroughly admire that. – MW
Does Zachos cover over-foraging in her book? In my area, certain botanicals require a permit to forage which limits the amount collected, because the ecosystem, animals and insects in the area depend on these plants, and/or they will die out if over-foraged.
As I mentioned above, Zachos is the epitome of a responsible forager – she is, after all, a horticulturist and very aware of the delicate balance of many ecosystems. I would gently suggest if you have such fears, to begin with her book The Backyard Forager, and I think they will be put to rest. And it is helpful to remember that human beings were hunter-gatherers long before we were agrarian, urban, and suburban. When I look at the damage that native browsing deer do to the landscape and the tiny saplings in my woods, I am not particularly worried by my occasional forage of sassafras or other wonderful edibles. – MW