Monday, June 14, 2010

Prospect Park foraging

This past weekend, I took a fantastic foraging tour of Prospect Park with Leda Meredith. She shares information in a very low-key, effective manner that's more like taking a walk with a very knowledgeable friend than the spectacle of shtick that another (also knowledgeable, harder to take) local foraging educator puts on. Plus, in a move I was extremely charmed by, she brought a snack for everyone to share at the end of the tour that used some of the plants we'd just talked about, a dip with daylilies and peppergrass. I'd highly recommend one of her future tours if you can make it, or either of her books.
Here she is, showing off some wood sorrel. This is a plant I have a soft spot for, since I used to pull it out of our lawn to munch on when I was a kid. (How I knew to do this, I have genuinely no idea.)
I have several pages of notes in the back of my Moleskine of the dozens of plants we found and talked about, but the highlights for me were:
  • Goutweed, the leaves of which have an appealing herbal-celery scent and flavor. I can see myself throwing a handful in the pot when I make stock.
  • Sassafrass, the roots of which I've used to experiment with making homemade root beer (medium success; the flavor was right, but I didn't brew it strong enough). I didn't realize that the leaves, dried and blitzed in a coffee grinder, make filĂ© powder, the traditional thickener for gumbo. I've never made gumbo, but that's not to say I never will.
  • Elderflower blossoms. I have a real fondness for St. Germain and most elderflower-scented and -flavored things, so being able to identify and collect it for myself is splendid. I started a batch of Leda's elderflower champagne that night and want to make a few bottles of elderflower-infused simple syrup for using in summer cocktails.
  • Mugwort, which can be used as a seasoning or tea. Or, since it has muscle relaxing properties, steeped into a bath. I made a cup of mugwort tea Saturday night that was ... vaguely palatable, especially once I added some honey. I like the way the raw plant smells, but once it sat in the hot water for a few minutes, it had a hint of a slimy-greens-left-too-long-in-the-crisper scent that I find off-putting. It's an invasive weed and Leda said that the roots exude a substance that discourages other plants from growing nearby, which is fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint, but kind of terrifying, especially since once I knew to look for it, I saw it freaking everywhere in the park.
  • Juneberries, which were one of my favorite discoveries of the day. They're delicious, like slightly milder blueberries, and have seeds that taste like almonds. And holy! crap! I just googled "juneberry cyanide" to see if that's where the flavor comes from (it is, but not enough to be an issue) and learned that juneberries are the same as saskatoon berries, which I've read about as being a great delicacy in, um, places closer to Saskatoon than I currently am and had filed them away on the list of Things I Must Eat Someday But Which I Cannot Get in New York, Like Mangosteens.And here they are, literally right in what might as well be my backyard. Color me gobsmacked.
  • Chokecherries, which are awfully pretty, all glossy and blue-black. I really like the flavor too, sort of a cross between cherry and grapefruit, though you might need an affinity for sour things to eat more than one out of hand.
I do have an affinity for sour things, but I wanted to play with them a little more. I made a syrup with these by boiling a cup of the fruit with a cup of water and 3 T sugar for probably longer than I should have — kept waiting for them to burst like cranberries, but they never did — then pushing as much liquid as possible through a fine sieve. It was a fair bit of effort for not much syrup, but it was tasty mixed into some seltzer and drizzled over a bit of ice cream. Very similar in flavor and consistency to pomegranate molasses, which I love. I also happen to have a large bottle of it in my kitchen already, but this would make a handy locavore substitution, if one was looking for that.

I think the most amazing thing for me though (up until a few minutes ago — high five saskatoon berries!) was learning that many parts of the milkweed plant are edible. I grew up with milkweed plants everywhere. We made Christmas ornaments out of the dried-out pods in elementary school. I remember trying to make glue out of the sticky sap. When I learned to spin, I embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful milkweed-floss-spinning endeavor (I have enough experience at this point to know that the problem was that I was trying to spin it on the wheel like wool; treating it like cotton might work, especially with an ultralight spindle). Learning that I could have been eating it all along blew. my. mind. There weren't very many of them that hadn't flowered yet, at least in the part of the park where I was, and I didn't want to take more than one bud cluster from each, so I just brought a few home with me to test out.
Leda had said to treat them like broccoli, so I browned them in a little butter and sprinkled them with salt and enjoyed every bite. I described them to a friend earlier today as a bit muskier tasting than broccoli, almost like a cross between broccoli and an artichoke.
Seriously delicious. And by happy coincidence, I'm heading upstate this weekend, far enough north that they're a little behind Brooklyn in the growing cycle. There's a fair bit of marshy wetland near where my mom lives and I have a sneaking suspicion that she'll get as much of a kick out of eating milkweed as I did.


Curry said...

Those are some fine spoils! As an aside, I ate mangosteens for the first time a few months ago. Had to travel to SE Asia for them - can't find 'em in India either.

Michelle said...

You had me at "Elderflower Champagne."

Shocking, I know.

Actually, it all sounds amazing and I am looking at Leda's website right now and I am planning on signing up for one of her tours later in the summer.

Gina said...

Utterly fascinating! Ever since my father and his friend went foraging for (the not so safe) poke, I was interested to discover what other edibles are growing wild.

I hope your trip upstate is a forage-filled.

jenn j said...

Dude! Next time you sign up for a foraging class, let me know. It's so interesting!