The next time I feel a tinge of hunger while I’m wandering around Central Park, I’ll know just where to go for a nibble–at least in early spring. Last Sunday I went foraging there with Wildman Steve Brill (www.wildmanstevebrill.com), who describes himself as “the man who ate Central Park.”
The expedition brought to mind women in Crete who gather wild greens called horta in their aprons and bake them into pies. I also remembered the time recently in Sicily when we picked wild asparagus and cooked them into a frittata.
For years I’ve seen Asian women kneeling beneath gingo trees filling plastic bags with the nuts. But feeling like an ancient gatherer in Central Park, only a few blocks from my home, discovering all sorts of edible wild shoots, leafy greens, and flower buds that I’d walked past with nary a thought for decades? This was something that felt new and very exciting.
The event was organized by the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance (www.nywca.org) of which I am a proud member. Steve–normally an upbeat and garrulous fellow–was in especially fine form since he describes himself as a sufferer of OCD: obsessive cooking disorder.
So, with a group of culinarians in tow, not only did he show us where to find everything edible between West 72nd and West 83rd Streets, he told us his favorite way to cook it. Steve is a vegan, so he included all sorts of interesting ingredients in the recipes he reeled off for cooking the plants as we located them–like agar-agar (derived from a sea vegetable) for thickening jams and sauce, and non-dairy substitutes for heavy cream for custardlike preparations.
Steve pointed out that it’s actually ecologically sound to forage plants since the plucking spurs them to regenerate. When questioned about pesticides, Steve said that the Parks Department does not spray wild plants, adding that such unhybridized, fresh plants provide dramatically more nutritional value than cultivated ones. For me, their varied tastes were amazingly interesting, ranging from mild to verdantly potent.
In the course of two hours we identified and tasted red buds (crunchy, with a peanutlike flavor), cattails (cucumberish and
an ingredient in Steve’s “catatouille”), sheep and wood sorrels (citric with a bite), chickweed (cornlike flavor), hairy bittercress (reminiscent of watercress), Japanese knot weed (cook like rhubarb), field garlic (wow, what a strong flavor), wild violets (good for salads and candying), sassafras (boil the sapling roots for tea, grind the dried leaves into powder for gumbo file), and Solomon’s seal (taste brings asparagus to mind). You can find oodles of recipes for these and other foraged foods–like acorns, burdock, dandelions, and purslane–on his web site. There you can also order his various guides to foraging and his cookbooks, and check out his schedule for future field trips.