Last week I found myself looking for lunch in the median dividing Pennsylvania Avenue. Eastern Market may have been around the corner, beckoning with blueberry buckwheat pancakes, but instead I was searching for my next culinary thrill amidst six lanes of honking traffic, under the watchful eye of the U.S. capitol building.
I was standing in the middle of the street, scanning a concrete jungle for green, because of Dr. Bill Schindler, an anthropology professor at Washington College. His research interest in prehistoric technology is matched by a remarkable commitment to everything-DIY (this is a father of three who bakes his own sourdough bread in a backyard wood-burning oven, drives to Pennsylvania from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore each week to buy raw milk to make his own yogurt, and cures all of his own meat, eating only animals raised by people he knows), making him a venerable authority on foraging.
On this June Saturday, Dr. Schindler was leading an edible walking tour of Capitol Hill, winding his way through the neighborhood in pursuit of wild greens, mushrooms, and berries to later transform into lunch. We collected bags of dandelion, purslane, and wood sorrel, dug up stalks of wild garlic and onion, stumbled upon Oregon grape, mulberry, and Kousa dogwood berries, picked poor man’s pepper, chickweed, and common mallow, and reached up to black walnut, ginkgo, and linden trees – all within a 6-block radius. Our urban world is surprisingly edible, depending on how you view it.
Looking for edible plants changes your perception of scale. Under the shadow of imposing monuments and fortress-like institutions, you normally wouldn’t think twice about a spindly weed sticking out from a crack in the sidewalk, peeking at the constant stream of lawmakers and tourists. We’ve been enjoying the many waves of a dynamic food revolution, but all the hype to eat the newest Korean taco, our salivating over the novel and exotic, sometimes keeps us from looking down at what’s right in front of us – or even what we’re walking on.
The wild foods that we try so hard to eliminate from our gardens or walk past without a second thought offer a host of nutrients – many of which have been lost from the foods we’ve been cultivating for generations – at no price (that is, if you’ve read up on things; once you dip your toes in mycology that price could be poison if you don’t have a good understanding of what you’re eating). One viable concern with wild plants is the effect that any chemical contamination may have on the soil they grow in. The best way to address this issue is to forage in areas you’re familiar with – know your neighborhood and its history. “But what about dog pee?” asks my mother. To this, I say you can wash what you pick and, honestly, you’ve probably eaten something worse without knowing it – going to any restaurant is an impressive exercise in trust that we accept as part of daily life.
Foraging and the reactions it provokes say a lot about the psychology of food. Since the advent of the supermarket, we’ve been more comfortable knowing less about where our food comes from and where it’s been since, as if a blank page makes something clean. That attitude is certainly changing as the farm-to-table movement charges forward, but there’s still a widespread convention that food is grown within certain boundaries, either on farms or in the confines of gardens or containers.
The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about people’s understanding of “raw,” “cooked,” and “rotten,” describing how our definitions for these basic words varies across time and culture – one man’s rotten is another man’s dinner. The same goes for “wild.” Some people flock towards the fruiting ginkgo trees in Central Park, gathering up all the little yellow-orange spheres littering the ground, while others walk past, balking at the smell. Whether something is edible or not can be just as much a question of culture and socioeconomics as biology.
As with most trends, foraging has also begun to transition from one end of the spectrum to the other, having been recently embraced by the world of fine dining, raising hunter-gatherer practices to a new level of chic. Look no further than René Redzepi’s Noma, a Danish restaurant relying on wild ingredients that are hand-selected from the Scandinavian landscape (see Jacob Mikanowski’s piece in The Point journal for a beautiful description). It’s been lauded as the world’s best restaurant for three years in a row, with eager diners flying halfway across the world for a dinner reservation made a year in advance. In this context, foraging is an art form rather than a survival mechanism, but it’s important to remember that it’s something that we can engage with in our own neighborhoods, local forests, and backyards.
Searching for edible plants is addictive. Once you start paying attention to the edge of the sidewalk, narrowing your focus as you open your eyes, you’ll find yourself exclaiming at the sight of a recognizable tuft of green at every block. You don’t even need to go for a walk; here’s what I found in the backyard this weekend – all pretty foolproof to identify and easily stumbled upon in most regions.
Wood sorrel: This plant looks like clover, but is silkier and more delicate, with bright yellow flowers. Centuries ago, Europeans would use this as a substitute for lemons when citrus was inaccessible, since it offers a similar bright, acidic taste. It can be eaten cooked or raw, though it turns an unappealing brown-green color when cooked so I prefer to combine it with other greens in a sauté pan, or use it raw as an herb or addition to salads.
Lamb’s quarters: This plant is also known as wild spinach, pigweed (because it was fed to pigs), and goosefoot (because of the shape of its leaves – I agree that it looks more like a goose’s foot than anything related to a lamb). Lamb’s quarters were eaten, both in raw and cooked form, by Greeks and Romans long before Arabs carried spinach over to Europe.
Dandelion: This ever-present weed is becoming more popular at stores and markets. Look for smaller, tender leaves. When picking through edible plants, trust your sense of touch: tough, gnarled leaves will likely have a harsher taste, while younger, more delicate ones will only have a slight bitterness, which lends itself well to creative uses in the kitchen.
Snap peas have been falling off the vine in the garden lately, so I added them to my backyard collection, figuring they would be a good sweet counterpoint to the wild greens, and then decided to toss everything together with pasta, asparagus, and ricotta cheese.
I chose to use tagliatelle, long ribbons of wide pasta made with eggs, because their cheerful yellow color adds to the festivity of the dish and the rich taste from the eggs helps ground the vegetables. Incidentally, if you are confused about the subtle nuances between fettucine and linguine, tagliatelle and pappardelle, look no further than the Bologna Chamber of Commerce for the gold standard, literally – the city displays a gold replica of the definitive tagliatelle pasta shape, specifying the precise measurements of 1 by 6 millimeters:
Tagliatelle (about an 8 oz package dried)
¾ cup ricotta
Bunch of wild greens (i.e. dandelion, wood sorrel, lamb’s quarters)
About 2 cups snap peas
About 6 stalks asparagus
Handful of fresh mint and tarragon
Shallot (or wild onion or garlic if you can find some)
Salt and pepper
1. Blanch the peas and asparagus: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of iced cold water and trim the asparagus stalks. Drop the asparagus and peas into the pot and cook for about 2 minutes before draining. Immediately transfer the peas and asparagus into the ice water bath to stop the cooking, then drain.
2. Cut the asparagus into bite size chunks and the snap peas to your preference – I left some whole, sliced some in half, and removed the peas from others, chopping up their pods.
3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. As you wait, heat a few glugs of olive oil in a large skillet with the chopped shallot. Add the wild greens, peas, and asparagus, and season with salt and pepper. Sauté for about 5 minutes.
4. Once the pasta water boils, add the tagliatelle, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking together, and cook for about 3 minutes. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, transfer the tagliatelle to the skillet using a slotted spoon, continuing to heat the sauce under medium-low heat. It’s not only OK that some pasta water makes its way to the skillet, it’s actually preferable – starchy, salted pasta water thickens the sauce and helps it adhere to the pasta. It’s good to get in the habit of reserving a half of a cup or so of pasta water before draining the contents of your pot because it’s an easy way to smooth out the sauce at the last minute.
5. Add dollops of ricotta and torn fresh herbs to the pasta, and stir to combine. Add more salt and pepper to taste, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with extra ricotta on the side.