There are fads, there are trends and then there are those ideas that are so clearly right and time-honored that we must take notice. Alice Waters started it on the West Coast, and Monica Pope started it on the Gulf Coast -- locavorism, sustainability and seasonality. These are ideas that served our forefathers very well, before we seemed to get in our own way by wanting things faster, bigger and all the time.
An offshoot of locavorism and seasonality is foraging. Houston is lucky to have a local expert -- Chef Randy Rucker. I just finished reading Foraged Flavor by Tama Wong and Eddy Leroux and was immediately reminded of the lesson Rucker taught me at a recent wine dinner where he was cooking.
He served greenbrier with crab, and the greenbrier tasted like asparagus. It was a beautiful dish, and the greenbrier was so unique and fresh that I had to know more about it. I asked Rucker, and he told me it is found in North Harris County -- it actually grows alongside the road. My next question seemed logical at the time. How can we cultivate this and grow it in our gardens? Rucker looked at me like I had just blasphemed the holiest works imaginable. He said, "Why would you want to? The point is to find them naturally, in their environment and in their season." I got it, it all made sense -- fruit from Chile, hothouse tomatoes, strawberries all year long -- these things shouldn't be, and they exist because we got greedy, arrogant and lazy.
Food should represent an unrepeatable time and place, in Rucker's words, and Foraged Flavor is an encyclopedic collection of foraged herbs, flowers and plants to help you decipher what's in your backyard, your parks and your communities to create a truly local, seasonal and sustainable meal for your family. The book offers pictures, descriptions, which parts of the plant to use, where it is mostly found, harvest tips and key characteristics of the plant, in addition to corresponding recipes. I have included two below.
Tama Matsuoka Wong is an expert forager and has turned her passion into a lucrative business with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. She was going to eat at the famous Daniel restaurant in New York one evening and thought, if anyone knew how to handle foraged ingredients, it would be a great restaurant chef. She stopped by Daniel's receptionist during the day with a bag of anise hyssop from her meadow garden, picked that morning. The receptionist called the chef and asked if he could make something with anise hyssop. "Sure," was the answer, and that night Tama's career began.
The chef de cuisine Eddy Leroux was so impressed with her enthusiasm for foraged plants and the quality of the anise hyssop that he asked her if she had other things in her meadow. To this day, Tama is still the supplier of foraged plants to Daniel. Tama and Leroux are two people obsessed with food and plants.
Their book is the perfect marriage of those passions. Leroux offers delicious recipes with easily foraged plants that you can find yourself or at farmers' markets, and Tama offers all her knowledge of plants, herbs and flowers and how you can become a local forager. If you follow Randy Rucker on Twitter, you can hear all about his foraging adventures and where he will be cooking them next. He also has been known to help followers discern what it is they find on their own foraging adventures.
Chickweed Crostini Serves 4
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive oil 6 ounces (about ½ loaf) country bread, baguette or other crusty bread, sliced 1 inch thick 1 small white onion, chopped 1 ounce (1 ¼ cups) tender chickweed greens or other wild green such as gallium or cress, plus more for serving 1 ½ ounces Gorgonzola or other tangy blue cheese 2 tablespoons heavy cream 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
1. In a large skillet, heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat; add the bread, pressing down on the slices. Toast each side until lightly browned. 2. In a medium skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes, or until softened. Add the chickweed and cook for a few minutes, or until tender and bright green. 3. Meanwhile, in a small pot, melt the Gorgonzola and cream over low heat. 4. Spoon equal portions of the chickweed on top of each bread slice and drizzle with the cheese sauce. Sprinkle with walnuts and a few raw sprigs of chickweed and serve.
Purslane, Artichoke, Manouri Cheese and Black-Olive Salad Serves 4
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2 lemons 8 to 10 baby artichokes 6 ounces tender purslane tips and small leaves 1/4 cup pitted, brined black olives, drained 5 ounces manouri or feta cheese, cut into small cubes 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 to 2 tsp. cayenne pepper, to taste
1. In a medium bowl of water, squeeze the juice from one of the lemons. 2. Prepare the artichokes one by one: (a.) Discard the darker-green outer leaves; leave the inner yellow leaves that are slightly moist and tender. (b.) Holding the artichoke stem side up, peel the outer layer from the stem with a paring knife. Cut off the bottom inch of the stem, and then cut off the tops of the leaves to remove any slightly greener parts and the pointy tips. Transfer to the lemon water while preparing the remaining artichokes. (c.) Thinly slice the artichokes lengthwise, remove the chokes, if necessary, and toss into a large bowl. 3. Add the purslane, olives, cheese and olive oil. Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon into the bowl, and season with cayenne.