dandelion greens, wood sorrel and second-year burdock stem in a soy vinaigrette made with wild garlic and hedge mustard, all foraged from Prospect Park (except liquids)
The food of this city is bountiful. It’s brimming with so much, and in such great variety, that you will never be keep up with it all, no matter how addicted you are to Eater. Think I’m just talking about restaurants and specialty shops? Try its wildlife sometime. It’s fabulous.
This weekend I attended not one but two foraging tours of Prospect Park: one led by “Wildman” Steve Brill and one by Tim Vireo Keating, director of Rainforest Relief and forager of 30 years. I can’t say this is normal for a single weekend, since Tim Keating’s tour was an infrequent event organized by the Wetlands Activism Collective — but Wildman gives regular tours all throughout the tri-state area. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is definitely one of my closest and largest parks, and now it’s also one of my closest and largest groceries.
We were only five feet from the entrance of the park at Grand Army Plaza when Tim identified some goodies to our tour group. These included the common plantain (no relation to the fruit), a green he likes to cook for about five minutes before eating and which can also be used as a poultice for the skin. As the tour went on, I learned some more interesting cooking tips from Tim and, of course, a lot of wild edibles. Early in the tour, he told us, “I hope you like bitter greens,” because that was the majority of what we foraged that day. Not only are leafy bitter greens in vogue in today’s cuisine, but they provide detoxins that are ever so valuable for city living. And, a lot of them happen to be in season right now (no berries until the end of June — I’m marking my calendar).
how Tim Vireo Keating gets his greens
Ditto for Wildman Steve Brill’s tour, except that his was a bit longer and it was filled with kids, whom the Wildman is terrific with. I can’t even begin to talk about all the wild edibles I tried — but there are important precautions. Tim advocates that whenever you’re trying something for the very first time, taste just a tiny bit of it, then wait 24 hours. If all is well, you’re probably not allergic to it, but continue to eat small portions at a time until you’re well used to it. And all around us there were a lot of good plants with evil stepsisters and doppelgangers: the star of bethlehem is a poisonous shoot with a bulb that looks a lot like wild garlic, only it doesn’t have an oniony smell. Right beside the common plantain that we saw was a “deadly” nightshade plant — seven of its berries could kill a child if ingested. Then there’s plants that are Jekyll and Hydes: the pokeweed, according to season, can be either a delicious green or a poisonous plant (which is sometimes used to treat breast cancer because it kills the tumor). So I’m definitely not advocating you go out there and try foraging without a good guide or a lot of studying.
the Wildman in his natural habitat
For my first foraged dish, I chose to get to know just one of the salad greens I tried on both tours. There were so many of these greens that tasted wonderful, like poor man’s pepper. Hopefully I’ll get more acquainted with them each; this time I collected only a large bunch of dandelion greens, an extremely common weed. Tim thought it was a great time for dandelion greens, and spoke of these being bagged and sold in fancy grocers as really haute salad greens. However, Wildman told me that they’re too bitter for most people’s tastes at this time of the year — best to try them in March. (We’ll soon put this to the test.) Another plant both tours dealt with was the burdock, which has huge green leaves and thick stalks. The root is the real delicacy of the plant though — called gobo and very popular in Japan, it’s considered the most yang of roots. Along the tours I munched on delicate wood sorrel leaves, which resemble clovers and taste sour and lemony. I also tasted the hedge mustard flowers and seeds, which tasted intensely hot and spicy, like Chinese hot mustard.
Once I got home, I washed and dried a selection of dandelion leaves and trimmed their stems. I ended up discarding a lot of the leaves that felt thicker and slightly leathery, keeping the most young-looking leaves from my bunch, which were lighter green and felt more elastic.
freshly picked dandelion greens (“tooth of the lion” in French, for its shape) should keep in your crisper for a couple of weeks
I washed, scrubbed, trimmed and boiled the burdock root in water for 15 minutes. With the second-year burdock stem, I trimmed it of its thick outer skin and sliced it, much like I would a broccoli stem. This would go in the salad, along with the dandelion and wood sorrel.
minced wild garlic bulbs (once peeled from its delicate papery skin) and hedge mustard flowers/seeds were combined with a little soy sauce, vinegar and oil for a tasty vinaigrette
And how did it all taste? The first leaf of dandelion I had must have slipped through my selection process because it tasted pretty bitter. But the rest of it was amazing — mild and slightly peppery, like arugula! The dressing was also incredible, if I say so myself. The wild garlic is slightly milder and sweeter than commercial garlic. I didn’t get too much punch from of the hot mustard seeds so maybe next time I’ll add more than three tiny clusters. The trimmed and sliced burdock stem gave the salad a fine contrast, and tasted to me almost exactly like trimmed broccoli stem — fresh, crunchy and neutral. And the sprinkling of wood sorrel provided a refreshing, lemony tang (plus I’m told it has tons of Vitamin C).
I didn’t know quite how to incorporate the boiled burdock root so I ate it alone: funny, it tasted to me almost exactly like ginseng. So, how’s that for a truly one-of-a-kind dining experience? I think we’re off to a beautiful start — me and eating the park. As long as I don’t die tomorrow.