Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Reason for Not Eating Out in New York #10: Oh Foraging You May Go


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.


clockwise from top left: wild garlic, wood sorrel, burdock root (or gobo), second-year burdock stem, hedge 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.

24 Responses to “Reason for Not Eating Out in New York #10: Oh Foraging You May Go”

  1. Charlotte says:

    I have been enjoying reading your blog. The dandelions were our dish last week…would love you to see what we made with them.
    http://greatbigvegchallenge.blogspot.com/2007/05/d-is-for-dandelion-tart-in-heart.html

    You know you can also make fried dandelion flowers that are apparently delicious…

  2. Kalyn says:

    Very fun. I do like dandelion greens in salad, and I’ve had a few other wild greens, but finding them yourself sounds so interesting.

  3. Lisa (Homesick Texan) says:

    I’ve been wanting to take one of these tours–thanks for sharing the adventure! I’m keen to find some epazote ever since I read it grows wild in Central Park, but I’d definitely be happy with dandelion greens, burdock, sorrel and wild garlic.

  4. parkie says:

    It is prohibited to harm or collect plants from New York City parks.

  5. cathy says:

    Parkie: In ’86, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern agreed to allow Steve Brill to lead foraging walks. Moderation in collecting plants has always been taught and practiced, at least from what I learned. Please provide a real email address to discuss further if necessary.

  6. Aoife says:

    What a neat idea! Makes me want to go into my backyard and see what I can find.

  7. lindsay says:

    i love it! my grandmother always used to do that, picking dandelion leaves from between the sidewalk cracks in quincy mass, we would all make fun of her, but of course eat the salads anyway.
    the dressing sounds amazing!

  8. Kitty says:

    Great post! Sounds like a fun thing to do in the Park…you could go bundle some greens and then sell them at the Farmer’s Market! Lol…

  9. cathy says:

    Hi Kitty: Smells like trouble to me, but good luck! Lindsay: Your grandma rocks.

  10. Jennifer says:

    I remember reading the ‘Little House’ (on the prairie) books and loving how they used to go on walks to go pick wild grapes, berries, or plums. Now that’s my kind of past time.

  11. Yvo says:

    Haha you had me until you said the doppelgangers/jekyl & hydes. that scares me.

    Funny now I wonder if that was wild garlic… when I was a kid, I had this terrible messy habit of pulling on tall grass. I once pulled one and my hand smelled like onions.. fresh onions… and I later realized it smelled like something in my mom’s kitchen- scallions/green onions, and it looked like it too. I didn’t pull it out so I only smelled the top- wonder if it was wild garlic or scallions? Interesting…

  12. Yvo says:

    PS Dandelion greens are really haute cuisine right now, it’s kind of weird to think they’re just going in the backyard and pulling it, haha. The dish you made probably would be on a menu for like $23 and it cost…. $0? (Well, cost of tours to make sure you’re not getting poisoned.)

  13. cathy says:

    Yvo: so true, but now that I know what dandelions look like they’ll always be $0… I guess the saying goes, “give a man dandelions and you feed him for a day, teach a man to find dandelions and you feed him for a lifetime”, right? And I used to pull up wild onion or wild garlic when I was little too. Here’s more pics of them for reference: http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/C867-3.htm

  14. Kuri says:

    Did your tour include anything about pesticides or herbicides? (Or perhaps the NY parks people do not use them?) I’d love to actually make the dandelions currently taking over my lawn useful, but having only had my house for a little over a year, I’m not sure what the pesticide risk is in anyone tried to kill them with chemicals before we bought the property….

  15. cathy says:

    Hi Kuri: I’m not sure if the NYC parks uses any pesticides, but the overall agreement among people on the tours that I went on was that you’d be much safer eating greens in public places than you would with produce you could purchase in a grocery store (non-organic). If you live somewhere where soil may have been tainted by a great big spill or some other kind of eco-disaster, then definitely second-guess; if not though, a good wash and rinse just like you would any green you buy from a grocery should suffice in my opinion.

  16. Yendys says:

    GREAT!!.. I was also on that same tour with “wildman Steve” & Lil Violet in Prospect Park recently. It was very enlightening, I now tip-toe/walk in the park with much more knowledge and respect.

  17. Adam Weissman says:

    The Tim Keating tour was part of one of Wetlands Activism Collective’s projects called Freegan.info. You can read more about it at http://freegan.info Thanks for talking about us!

  18. Jesse says:

    Amazing: just this morning I was walking my dogs and staring at a patch of dandelion near Grand Army thinking “what’s the difference between this and the stuff I just paid for at the co-op” [hopefully not dog-piss!]

    Happy to have discovered this blog!

  19. New York City Profile - Beeline Interview: Not Eating Out In NY's Cathy Erway | says:

    [...] local food events (Pig butchering class anyone? Yes, I am one girl who is down!), or learn about foraging food tours in NYC parks (It’s completely safe, edible, and likely delicious!), or just get some gumption to cook a [...]

  20. Not Eating Out in New York » Master the Art of Sustainable Cooking with Brighter Planet says:

    [...] know, I’ve been foraging with experts and can’t recommend their saving graces enough. So, I’m headed out of town [...]

  21. wood closet organization systems says:

    Kudos for the write-up.

  22. cilt bakimi says:

    blogunuz cok guzel fakat temanin ust kisminda hata veriyor.

  23. Not Eating Out in New York » Seaweed Salad (with the stuff washed up on the shore) says:

    [...] help but pick up several types of washed-up seaweed. We’ve gone over foraging for wild edibles in the park here, and I’ve digressed on the wonder of finding wild oysters on Mark Bittman’s blog, [...]

  24. Q & A With Cathy Erway on Writing the First Taiwanese Cookbook Ever & San Bei Gi Recipe | Stories and Recipes from My Unrefined Life says:

    […] event to ask her a few questions about cooking, blogging, dominating the world through food and foraging edible plants in New York City garbage cans and parks. Oh and yes, her Taiwanese cookbook that is due to come out next year.  The only Taiwanese […]

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