During my Boy Scouting career (before it became just “Scouting”), I spent quite a bit of time in the woods learning how to fell a tree, catch a fish, pitch a tent, tie knots, and navigate by the sun and stars. I was convinced that particular set of skills would serve me in good stead for the rest of my life, and I have called upon those distant memories more than once in recent years.
Hoever, some of the more ambitious scouts in my troop believed those skills were insufficient. It wasn’t enough to know how to live outdoors; we had to know how to survive. While the rest of us made jokes about Euell Gibbons‘ Grape Nut ads (“Did you ever eat a pine tree?”), the hardcores were reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus and supplementing it with intensive study of the Air Force Survival Manual (AF Regulation 64-4). They convinced the troop leaders that we should spend a weekend in the woods with no food, insisting that we’d be able to forage for everything we needed.
They were wrong. We spent two days outdoors looking for the edible plants whose appearances we had dutifully memorized, only to realize that they were all out of season. I subsisted on a few handfuls of dandelion greens and a couple of frogs I managed to catch, all washed down with iodine-disinfected stream water. I ate the best peanut butter sandwich of my life on the car ride home, and resolved never to repeat that experience again.
Little did I know that my rudimentary foraging skills would have made me a pro at sourcing ingredients for locavore “farm to table” restaurants. Every restaurant seems to have a personal mushroom wrangler, pig farmer, fisherman, and hunter at its service, but there are a few people who can do it all. One of them is Hank Shaw, who has been documenting his quest for “honest food” in his award-winning blog Hunter, Angler, Gardner, Cook, now condensed into his book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.
The book is divided into three parts – foraging, fishing, and hunting – with each chapter full of stories, identification tips, cooking techniques, and recipes. Hank’s conversational tone invites readers to go out and find wild eats on their own, which is something I’d love to do if I didn’t live in the most densely populated city in New England. I can obtain a lot of what he eats, but at one remove, which isn’t the same thing.
When I saw that Hank was embarking on a book tour (driving his truck to each location) in conjunction with local restaurants, I made sure to reserve a table at Craigie on Main for myslef and She Who Must Be Obeyed. We were both eager to see how chef Tony Maws, who designs each day’s menu on the morning’s market purchases, incorporated Hank’s philosophy. Much to our surprise, the menu wasn’t all that different than what we usually eat at Craigie, due in large part to the large overlap in the ingredients the two chefs commonly utilize.
Hank and I have corresponded online, and I’ve made lardo using his recipe, so I was excited to meet him in person. We talked about his book, and I bemoaned the lack of foraging opportunities in my neighborhood. He suggested that I was probably overlooking a lot of edible plants that I thought were common weeds, recommending that I take a closer look at my own yard.
A few days later I noticed this weed growing underneath my vinca:
It looked like one of the garnishes I had eaten at Hank’s dinner, so I emailed him the photo, asking “Is this purslane?” Yes, it was, and I had an entire yard full of it. I resolved to use it as soon as I could figure out a meal in which to incorporate it.
That meal turned out to be the roasted duck roulade. While it rested and my sauce reduced, I stepped outside, yanked up a hunk of purslane by the roots, and gave it a thorough wash and rinse.
When it came time to plate, I added a few sprigs as a final garnish.
Although the leaves were small, they had the same bitter finish as arugula or dandelion, which provided a contrast to the richness of the duck and the sweet sauce.
So, I made one small step toward becoming an urban forager. I hear the mushroom hunting is good around here, I think I’l try that next.