This past Monday we held our first of three foraging workshops in the hopes of developing a team of locals who will forage for the restaurant throughout the year. Basically we're asking folks to keep their eyes open while they're hiking and bring back items of interest that we can use in our menu. Many of the items we learned about were foods that we already knew about but the depth of knowledge from our instructor, Doug Simon, in how to identify, process and prepare was invaluable.
I am documenting our workshop but not including all of the information since Doug is always willing to host workshops for other interested groups. If you would like to stay on our list to attend the Spring and Fall workshops, just let me know through the comment section.
In a later post I will talk about our ethical criteria for foraging, and our plans for use. In the meantime, here's Doug preparing us with a sage ceremony.
Doug has lived in or around the Gila Wilderness for 20 years with many of those years living exclusively off the land. We started with something that my regular readers know I have been dabbling in - acorns. There are 20-30 varieties of acorns in our area but the most interesting are the Emory Oak and Grey Oak because these two varieties don't need leeching to remove the bitterness. Here are the Emery acorns:
You'll note that they are little narrower than what you normally find. These were softer with a slight bitterness and an almost citrus flavor. The texture bordered on chalky but not unpleasant. There was plenty of meat inside:
These can be eaten shell and all, or ground with or without the shell. Here are the Grey:
Greys tend to be more bitter unless found following a wet season. They are harder and milder. As I learned in my recent exploration into acorns, acorn worms are to be expected. Doug suggested that the worms are actually quite nice with their high protein and acorn taste. (I'll probably leave those off my menu for now.) Acorns should only be gathered off the ground.
To process acorns place acorns in a heavy canvas bag, place it on concrete and stomp on them. Winnow them by blowing on them or leaving them in the wind. You can also winnow in water by placing the acorns in a deep pot of water and gradually pouring off the debris.
Doug suggested Bushy or Brock Canyons for a great source of the preferred acorns, especially in late July and August.
While we didn't see any on this trip, Doug confirmed that there were indeed morels in the Gila. They can be found in the mountains from early April to late May in river valleys among willow leaves and also around cottonwoods. Doug suggested David Arora's books on mushrooms.
Next we turned our attention to Hackberry. This tough barked tree with a dense nettle of branches tends to grow near water. These trees will be loaded with their dried fruit until march.
The berry itself has a sweet outer layer with an inner wooden sheath and a nut center. The taste is similar to a date with the fruit first appearing in August. Besides eating straight off the tree, you can grind these for a sweet and nutty flavor. The leaves are identifiable because they are grainy-almost like a cat's tongue. I would like to infuse these into a liqueur and see what happens.
Next up was hoarhound. Known for its incredibly bitter quality, historically this plant has been used in candy. I may explore this at some point just to see what happens chemically to turn a bitter into a sweet. Hoarhound also has medicinal uses as an expectorant.
If you remember my previous foray into nocino, you'll know that I have no fear of the astringent bitterness of green walnuts. Here we look at the fallen walnuts that are common in our area. Identification of walnut trees is aided by the distinct smell, the darkness of the bark and the leaf clusters. Here it is best to use only walnuts fallen to the ground, although if I find a bumper crop I may try the nocino again with local walnuts. The nuts can be collected from the first of the year through may and then again toward the end of August. Using a rock the shell is easily cracked and the nut meat picked out.
A new one for me was Johnson Grass and its edible seed. I'm not sure if I could identify this again in the wild, but toasted and ground makes a nutty, smokey and rich powder. There is also an underground portion that is crunchy and very sweet.
In the Gila there is an abundance of wild grapes. Each should be taste tested as every plant is going to give different results. The fruit will range from very small to grocery store size. The fruit has a caustic quality and will numb the mouth at excess.
The grapes can be eaten, juiced (not caustic), cooked with a bit of water, or dried on the plant for a more pronounced flavor. Dried fruit can be soaked in water the night before to rehydrate the fruit. The leaves are easily enjoyed when alive, and are most tender when they are young. Larger/older leaves can be brined for dolmas or shredded and cooked. Doug suggested the cooking the shredded leaves with rice, cooking both at the same time. For me the dried leaves had a nice tang that could make an interesting tea.
Piñones are plentiful in our area and should always be picked from the ground being careful not to gather animal scat in the process.
Possibly the most common foraged food in our area is the cholla.
One benefit of cholla is that the fruit will stay on the cacti for a long time. The fruit is edible from the point when it is green all the way through yellow. When it is fully ripe the fruit will fall off the plant or be easily dislodged. The texture is slightly mucous with a subtle sour flavor.
Doug recommended roasting the fruit, pricking them first so they don't explode, and taking them til soft but not burnt. Next cut the fruit in half and remove the seeds - the seeds are edible but a matter of taste. Chop the fruit to size and cook in water. At this point you can make a stew base similar to tomatillo, but not as tangy. Doug also suggested processing as above but then cooking with rice.
Using the older fruit, you can rehydrate in cold water. The flower is also edible but only the petals not the base. This is plant is very high in calcium.
Another plant that that I look forward to finding is the sumac. Unlike in other parts of the country, sumac in the Gila are always edible and non-poisonous. Sumac is also called the lemonade tea plant and is tangy but sweet.
The twigs, buds and berries are all good in tea when dry. The plant can be found near water
Coming in a few days - the second half of the workshop.
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