Wild things: Foragers find nourishing bounty in city limits
BY JENNIFER OLVERA
Panko-battered maitake mushrooms in the kitchen of urban forager and chef Iliana Regan.
Good luck finding someone somewhere who doesn't appreciate the thrill of the hunt - especially during tough economic times.
Joining the ranks of fishermen, metal detector-wielding treasure hunters and garage sale plunderers are modern-day food enthusiasts who forage for wild, edible plants and mushrooms simply because they want to.
Surprising to most urbanites, foraged finds - some growing in sidewalk cracks - can yield nourishment.
Showing me firsthand: stand-up comedian/mushroom hunter Dave Odd, who revealed endless bounty - from wood sorrel and chocolate mint to purslane, stalky amaranth, epazote, lamb's quarters and mallow - within a four-block radius of his Chicago home.
We went on to procure prized hen-of-the-woods (aka maitake) mushrooms in the unlikeliest of places: a small, oak-studded patch of land within Chicago proper.
Odd, a naturalist and reptile enthusiast, sells what he's procured to some of the city's top chefs, including Bonsoiree's Shin Thompson and Paul Kahan of Blackbird, Avec and the Publican restaurants. Avenues, Fox and Obel, moto, Sepia and Girl and the Goat are clients of his, too.
"What people don't realize is foraged food is not only edible, it's absent of the chemicals [found in and on] many grocery store foods," Odd says.
A lifelong forager, Iliana Regan owns One Sister Inc., which dispenses beer-braised lamb and black truffle/wild mushroom pierogies to Green Grocer, 1402 W. Grand, as well as Provenance Food and Wine shops.
Regan also hosts 12- to-15-course underground dinner parties several times a month, incorporating garden-grown, sustainable and foraged ingredients, and organizes mushroom hunts from time to time.
"There's a romance to foraging," she says of the hobby she picked up from her Polish father and grandfather. "You're going into the woods to connect with nature, a basket in hand."
You're also being resourceful.
"It's very satisfying knowing I'm obtaining my food," Regan says. "It makes me feel connected to what I'm eating."
Granted, foraging is nothing new.
"It just seems to have skipped a generation and a half," says Napa, Calif.-based Connie Green, co-author of the just-released The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes (Viking Studio, $40).
Green, a former resident of Chicago's Northwest Side, recalls picking mulberries along Armitage Avenue. Now, she sells ingredients to California's top chefs, from Thomas Keller to Michael Mina.
Some chefs, including Paul Virant of Vie in Western Springs, are hands-on food-hunters.
"I've been a forager most of my life, and I can tell you that the black trumpets I've brought into the restaurant are better than anything I ever worked with at Charlie Trotter's," Virant admits.
Not surprisingly, our friends up north are into foraging, too. Michelle Dietzler of Elkhorn, Wisc.-based Dietzler Farms goes on a mad dash for wild asparagus each spring. Donning a reflective vest, she pulls over on roadsides to grab a stash; moments later, she cooks what she collects in "lots of butter."
Although Dietzler has yet to find elusive morels while on the prowl, she's working on it.
Dave Swanson, chef and owner of the mobile, Milwaukee-based Braise Culinary School, connects folks with food during farm, field, marsh, orchard and bog adventures. After procuring ingredients from their source, Swanson prepares a three- or four-course meal to be eaten on-site.
Foraging is not for the weak of heart - especially when it comes to mushrooms. Of the more than 1,000 species in the Chicago area, not all are edible and some are toxic. Confounding matters, poisonous fungi sometimes mimics its edible counterpart.
That's where an experienced, in-the-flesh guide - and/or field-to-kitchen guide like Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller's Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois & Surroundings States (University of Illinois Press, $24.95) - comes in.
"I like to joke that they're all edible once," chuckles McFarland, who has found American parasol mushrooms poking through wood chips along Lake Shore Drive.
In all seriousness, McFarland stresses safety.
"Never eat anything you're only pretty sure of," he warns. "It sounds so obvious, but people have been known to make stupid choices. You can learn with confidence what's edible, but you cannot afford to be reckless."
Green agrees, likening the comfort level one achieves to that of a banker in a grocery store.
"A banker can easily tell the difference between savoy cabbage and iceberg lettuce," she says. "And he or she knows what a cucumber and a zucchini is."
You may be left wondering if foraging is worth all the fuss. Look no further than Green's book for your answer.
Structured by season, it's loaded with drool-inducing recipes, including elderberry fool; purslane salad with hot bacon vinaigrette and garlic croutons, and butternut squash and Candy Cap mushroom creme brulee. It also includes a boozy bourbon/black walnut sundae; black walnuts are ripe for the culling in Illinois.
Should you decide to take the plunge, it's important to familiarize yourself with foraging regulations and laws, which often vary by county and state. Check with the Illinois Mycological Association (illinoismyco.org) before hitting the trails.
Jennifer Olvera is a Brookfield free-lance writer.