Probe NYC's Leafy Bounty with Ava Chin's Eating Wildly
All images courtesy Simon & Schuster
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Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal By Ava Chin, 245 pages, Simon & Schuster, $25
Locavores live and die by the notion that food should come from where you live; cutting the distance between farm and plate means fresher, firmer, less abused meals -- travel is tough on all living things, including the plants and meats we eat. Here in New York, we're often forced to define "local" as locales within a day's drive; "nearby," in New York, is sometimes as far as 300 miles away.
But for the urban forager, food comes from all over the city; it grows from cracks in the sidewalk; on the fringes of unkempt, outer-borough ballfields; in shaded park groves; and anywhere else plants climb toward the sun. For people like New York Times Urban Forager columnist Ava Chin, the city offers a bounty of wild-growing, edible plants, many of them frowned upon as (the horror!) weeds.
Chin eats weeds on the regular, and she lives to tell about it in her new book, Eating Wildly, which just dropped today.
Chin grew up in Flushing, Queens, the single daughter of a single mother in a Chinese immigrant family: "Growing up, my association with nature was really the weeds I saw in our back courtyard, in the playground," she says. As a child, she spent many nights and weekends with her grandparents; her grandfather was a cook in Chinese restaurants around the city, and in his kitchen, she developed a wide and varied palate; as she tells it (in the book and in person), young Chin would eat just about anything grandpa gave her.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Chin found herself on the trail with "Wildman" Steve Brill, who guides regular foraging and nature walks in Prospect Park, and who showed her the ins and outs of collecting edible wild plants in the city. After that first walk, Chin set out with other urban foragers and later, on her own, finding plants and mushrooms that found their way into dinner: ramps and morels in spring; flowers and berries in summer; nuts, mushrooms, and more greens come fall. Suddenly, the city provided food in abundance.
In the book, Chin's story is as much about her personal journey as it is about the food, a pot-boiling mix of narrative and instruction. Sharply revealing, and, at times, uncomfortably honest, the book throws wide a window into a fascinating New York -- nee, American -- story, that's thrillingly voyeuristic to read and unbearably human.
Ava Chin amid the ramps.
How did foraging change the way you see the city? Foraging actually totally changed my vision. It changed the way this lifelong New Yorker sees the city. Once I started foraging, I would walk through my old blocks in Flushing and throughout Brooklyn, old neighborhoods I used to live in, and I started to see the blocks in a totally different way. Weeds are very tenacious, and we tend to think of New York as a concrete jungle, but nature finds a foothold. You will find edible weeds in abandoned lots, in parking lots, college campuses, in parks, in tree pits. There's actually an abundance of food all around us. That said, I don't eat from every place that I find an edible weed; I'm actually very discerning, but I do practice what I call "street foraging," or "guerilla foraging," which is just walking down my block, and noting what's available and what's growing, so that if I go to an area that's more pristine, I'll know, OK, this is out, and I can keep an eye out for it.
What advice would you offer to beginning foragers about where and where not to pick around the city? There are a couple rules of thumb. Number one, for anyone who wants to learn to forage, or start foraging, you need to do it with an experienced guide first; you need somebody who's going to show you. These days, there are more and more people leading foraging tours around the city, so that's key. Someone needs to show you what's edible, what's not, and what the potential poisonous lookalikes are. After that, get a great guidebook or a bunch of great guidebooks to help you. And after that, start doing walks on your own. I always say, if you can identify a dandelion, you're on your way.
Other rules of thumb for people who want to forage in the city: It's best to go to areas that are away from traffic and any kind of car pollution and the streets. College campuses are great, lots of people forage in the parks, places that are highly elevated are nice. There are some nice elevated parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. And areas that don't have a lot of people walking their dogs -- I teach at college of Staten Island, and we don't have a lot of dogs on campus at all, so I do a lot of foraging here.
And then, two more things: If someone is going to be gathering from a particular spot over an extended period of time, they should consider getting the soil tested, just as you would if you were going to put a vegetable garden in your back yard. It's actually really inexpensive; Brooklyn College has a department who will test your soil for you. And also, to forage sustainably, good practice is just to take a certain amount from the plant that you're foraging from, so maybe take 20 percent of the plant...You don't want to kill the plant, you want it to continue to grow.
Is there a risk of over-foraging, or a risk to the forest with people traipsing around off-trail, looking for certain plants? Yeah, foraging sustainably is really important. For instance, if there's like a mother plant, and other little plants around that mother plant, foragers will try to leave the bigger plant alone and just pick from the smaller plants, because the mother plant is the plant that's going to keep reproducing. So the idea is really to take a small part of the plant, not the entire plant, and leave the part of the plant that is going to be renewable. So take some of the newer leaves and leave the rest. Sometimes I think people think foragers are going to, like come in and take everything, dig everything up, so there's nothing left for anyone else to enjoy, but I've found that most foragers who go out consistently are actually stewards of the land. That's where your food comes from, so you want to make sure it comes back, year after year, so the plants need an opportunity to flower, go to seed, reproduce.
What wild plants do you look forward to this time of year, in May and early June? We're still in the height of morel and ramp season right now. Morel season is usually over for the year by this point, but since we had such an extended winter, everything's been a little thrown off. But there are still ramps out there, too. I have a morel mushroom linguine. But morels are very elusive mushrooms, and you're not going to be able to find them everywhere...And most foragers won't tell you where their secret morel patches are. So...But you can still get them at the farmer's market, and you can also find ramps there, too.
Ramps are also something that there's been a little buzz around because they're on the plates of high-end restaurants, and there's also been talk about whether they're being foraged sustainably. I have found ramp patches in friends' back yards outside the city, like in Connecticut, and Rockland County. So I've seen them in places where they're flourishing. But that's also because I'm not a commercial harvester, and there aren't commercial harvesters around. I have no idea what commercial harvesters are actually doing, but from what I've seen in our area, the ramps are doing just fine!
Would you be willing to share any of your favorite, beautiful foraging haunts? There are parts of Prospect Park that I really love, that really hold my heart. There was an amazing parsnip patch right by the skating rink that got dug up when they made it bigger... That always makes me so sad! There was also this great willow tree on in Central Park on the West Side that bore really great reishi mushrooms, which are a medicinal mushroom, they're an immunity boost. But that got torn up when the tornado happened! I went back and was like, "Where's that willow tree?!" You know, you reach a point in your life where you're like, "I must be getting older," because I can see places where these things used to grow, and now they're gone, for a variety of different reasons. There are also amazing places on Staten Island. Staten Island has this whole greenbelt going down the middle of it, which is this series of linked parks, and not a lot of people go there. There are these really wonderfully green parts of the city.
What is your favorite season for foraging in New York? I would say the spring and the fall. Right now, the violet flowers and leaves are out; violets are so great because you can candy them and put them on top of cupcakes; you can just throw them, and their leaves into salads...There are invasive weeds, like garlic mustard, that you can grind into a pesto; the mulberry trees are about to start fruiting in June, and they're prodigious fruiters. So I love spring for that, and for the ramps and morel mushrooms. But the fall is just great mushrooming season. Hen of the woods, or maitake mushrooms, honey mushrooms are around then, and then all the edibles that came up in the spring come up again in the fall with newer shoots, so those are really great too. But the the fall is great for mushroom season.
Wild Morel Linguini Yield: 4 servings
1 garlic clove, minced 1 tablespoon butter 2 small shallots, diced 8 ounces sliced morels 1 tablespoon cream sherry 1 tablespoon heavy cream salt and pepper, to taste 1 pound cooked linguini 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1. Sauté the garlic in the butter over medium heat, then add the shallots; cook until garlic is slightly browned around the edges and shallots turn translucent.
2. Add the sliced chopped morels and cook until they are a deep chocolaty color.
3. Drizzle in the cream sherry--my grandfather always favored Harvey's Bristol Cream, and I follow in the tradition. Allow everything to simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat, and finish the sauce off with a touch of heavy cream and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Add the linguini to the sauce; toss with tongs until the morel sauce has been evenly worked through the pasta. Drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil.
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