Friday, January 20, 2012

Eating wild L.A.: Foraging with Transitional Gastronomy

Toyon berries are vaguely cherry-tasting and can be made into jam or put in baked goods
Even before Noma restaurant and foraging TV shows were in vogue, I've wanted to find out what's edible along local trails. I didn't think I could figure it out by myself, so I was happy to be invited to try a Foraging Foodies class with Transitional Gastronomy
Mia, left, tosses chickweed salad while Pascal points out wild pickles

Mia Wasilevich is the foodie part -- she finds ways to make wild foods taste great, while Pascal Baudar is the foraging part -- the Belgian native grew up learning wild foods while rambling in the forest, but he's lived in L.A. for years and knows our foodshed well, especially desert plants. We met up up in La Canada's Hahamongna Park, known to generations of Tom Sawyer campers as home of the one-eyed monster tunnel, but also home to a veritable salad bowl of easily-accessible edibles. Easy, that is, if you have some guidance -- don't be fooled by poison hemlock, which looks surprisingly similar to carrot tops escaped from a vegetable patch. 
Pascal touches nettles without gloves, but you shouldn't
Pascale showed a group of about eight of us (GourmetPigs was there too) how to find and distinguish chickweed, a rampant weed salad green with a grassy taste; stinging nettles, a trendy ingredient at top restaurants that are easily found for free (bring gloves!), toyon berries and wild sage. Many wild plants are also useful natural remedies, of course, and he pointed out black nightshade, a good remedy for the stinging nettles (oh yeah, it turns out deadly nightshade isn't actually deadly, and the berries can be made into ketchup!) and horehound, which can be made into cough-soothing candies. 
Pickled yucca shoots and radish pods
We gathered bags of chickweed, nettles and fragrant sagebrush and white sage, and returned to the picnic area, where Mia was cooking up acorn burgers on a bed of nettle puree, served with chickweed salad with toyon berry dressing, pickled acorns, radish pods, black walnuts and yucca shoots and mugwort and nettle beer. Once nettles are cooked, the stingers completely disappear and they make a vivid emerald puree that can be used like pesto or spinach. The acorn burgers had a chestnut-like sweetness and starchiness and were delicious and filling. Mia and Pascal gathered the fat acorns in the Angeles Forest (not the skinny ones you get at lower elevations) and boiled them several times to remove the bitterness. The tangy beer was much tastier than I had expected, since it's made with just nettles and yeast (maybe a little sugar?) -- no malt or hops. 
Classes in foraging and cooking are offered most Saturdays for $65, while Pascal offers other workshops like Beer with Wild Plants and Basic Trapping (great if you want to catch your own rabbit or quail!) through his Urban Outdoor Skills. Hopefully I'll never need to survive on chickweed and gophers, but it's a good feeling to know what might make a nice snack while others hike right past it and then buy arugula at the store.

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