Originally created 05/07/02

Digging for dinner



CONCORD, N.H. - The only time most people forage for food is when the cupboards are bare and they find themselves scrounging through the refrigerator, struggling to turn a can of peas, moldy bread and ketchup into dinner.

"Wildman" Steve Brill prefers to do it the real way.

This self-taught foraging expert heads back to nature daily to find his food. And when he goes out to eat, he isn't bringing back burgers and fries. He's feasting on plants most people consider weeds.

Now he's ready to teach you to do it, too. His new book, The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $29.95) contains more than 500 recipes using plants you're not likely to find in a grocer's produce section. He lists more than 150 of such wild plants in detail.

Mr. Brill is talking about milkweed (tossing it with pasta), acorns (serving them refried, similar to beans), and purple-spore puffball (a type of mushroom he serves fried and baked with dairy-free Parmesan).

For Mr. Brill, the world is full of food. Most people don't realize that many of the plants they try so hard to rid their yards of not only are edible, but can be turned into delicacies with little effort.

Foraging for food may not be common in the United States, but Mr. Brill says people around the world rely on it for stocking their pantry with seasonal greens and other goodies.

"Anywhere but America," he said recently, talking by phone from his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y. "The Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Indians. Any culture ... where TV and entertainment aren't the only ways to live, foraging is still common."

Mr. Brill, who has been vegan since 1990, got turned on to foraging back in 1979.

"I was bicycling, riding past a park in Queens, New York, near where I lived, and there were these ethnic Greek women picking something in the park," he said. "I asked them what they were doing and it was all Greek to me. But I came home with grape leaves and I was excited to have something I could cook with."

From there, Mr. Brill's fascination with found food flourished. But grazing on public property wasn't always easy.

In 1982 he began giving foraging tours in downtown New York. Four years later, he made national headlines when he was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park. The charge? Removing vegetation.

A month later the city dropped the charges and, instead of prosecuting, offered Mr. Brill a job as a naturalist, to lead teaching tours showing other New Yorkers the bounty that grows around them.

Mr. Brill acknowledges that not everyone will be comfortable foraging. That probably has to do with the fear of eating something that will cause a slow, painful death.

But, he said, common sense and a good field guide are all that are needed for safe and succulent foraging.

"Learn a small number of easy-to-recognize plants really well and you will build up your knowledge and do this safely," he said. "Don't pick near heavy traffic or near railway rights of way where they spray, and always wash everything first."

There is one area where Mr. Brill's book, chock-full of tempting and unusual recipes, is lacking - there are no illustrations to help the novice forager differentiate between the yummy and the deadly.

He has written a field guide, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not so Wild) Places (Morrow, 1994, $21.95), which he recommends for this purpose.

Not everything in Mr. Brill's book, which is organized by season, is unusual. Some of the recipes call for ingredients such as berries that can be found just as easily in grocery stores as in the back yard.

For an easy early-spring dish that doubles as great weed control for the lawn, try Mr. Brill's curried dandelions. Be certain not to use dandelions from lawns or fields that have been sprayed with herbicides or insecticides.

Dandelion leaves are best when they are very young. Bitter even then, they become distastefully so as they age. The best leaves are harvested well before the plants flower.

CURRIED DANDELIONS

(Preparation time 25 minutes)

3 tablespoons oil (corn, peanut, sesame or olive)

9 cups common dandelion leaves

4 1/2 teaspoons chopped garlic

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cups drained soft, silken tofu

2 tablespoons mellow (light-colored) miso

1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder

Heat the oil in a large skillet over a medium flame. Add the dandelion leaves and garlic, and saute for 10 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent the garlic from burning.

Combine the remaining ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Add the puree to the skillet and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Makes 6 servings.

For another wild spring edible, try cattails, which grow in marshes and wetlands and look like, well, cats' tails.

Mr. Brill said the immature flower heads on cattails can be harvested when green in the early spring and cooked like corn on the cob. Because this comes out a little dry, he suggests serving it with a sauce.

Try eating the tender white shoots in the following recipe, too.

CATTAIL FRIED RICE

(Preparation time 15 minutes)

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1/2 cup peeled and chopped cattail shoots

1 cup shallots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3 cups cooked brown rice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon chili paste or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat the sesame oil in a large skillet over a medium flame. Add the cattails, shallots and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook until the rice is hot. Stir frequently to prevent sticking.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipes taken from "Wildman" Steve Brill's The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $29.95)