September - October
Cooking in Clay
The more I delve in wild ingredients, the more I get fascinated by the possibilities. Even clay has flavors depending on the locations you harvest it. Clay is also an awesome material to retain flavors and it's available anywhere. Last week, I made this simple dish (Trout) which was quite delicious. I used aromatics available at this time of the year (Sweet White Clover, White Fir and various Sages) with some regular butter and garlic. I wrapped the trout with foraged fig leaves, covered it with clay and placed it in hot charcoal for 30 minutes. Broke the clay and the fish was really tender, delicious - full of wild flavors.
California Native Food - Acorn Grubs
Over the last 4 years, I spent quite some time studying native food and interacting with local native people. Unlike some parts of Mexico and South American country, in Southern California a lot of the ingredients are not used anymore and in need to be rediscovered.
The genocide and re-education in the last 3 centuries means that a lot of information, practices and uses of local ingredients has simply been lost or the references to them are quite obscure and incomplete.
Historically insects and other interesting protein sources (I.E. Lizards, snakes, etc...) were part of the native diet and for good reason, prepared properly it's nutritious and tasty. This month I decided to explore a seasonal resource: Acorn grubs.
Culinary uses of local wild food
Working with several chefs for over a year now, I've put a bit more attention on how to cook/use local ingredients. In many ways, I'm dealing with new ingredients and finding culinary uses allows me to give better recommendations so they can add their creativity to it.
Factually, you can give an ingredient to someone but if he has no frame of reference in terms of flavors, texture, potential uses, etc... and the lack of time to really explore it, he probably will set it aside and not do anything with it. So, the kitchen is getting more and more dirty with my culinary experiments and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.
So lots of interesting dishes in the last 2 months.
Boiled acorn grubs sprinkled with white fir sugar. The grubs were placed in scalding water for 5 minutes then powdered with dehydrated white fir needles mixed with sugar. The grubs are nutty, with the fir sugar it's heavenly.
Some of the edible and aromatic plants encountered
Acorns - California Buckwheat - Cottonwood Bark - Curly Dock
Rabbit Tobacco (California Everlasting) - Nettles - Fig Leaves
Feral Apples, Yarrow, White Fir Needles - Watercress
California Juniper Berries
September was a fantastic month to forage for Juniper berries and they're truly my favorite.
The flavors are lemony and hint of pine.
I use them to infuse in some of my wild beer vinegars but very often would place a few in the pot when making a stew.
You can also use them in fermentation. I've made a delicious sauerkraut flavored with our local juniper berries.
The outer skin can be chopped and sprinkled on food, it works very well with fish - let them infuse in lemon or limes juice first.
For preservation, you can freeze or dehydrate them
Flavors of Southern California - Cattail Shoot
I'm cooking much more these days, mostly from a research perspective and gain a better understanding of our local bounty.
As much as possible I try to use mostly foraged ingredients. This approach also helps me on advising the chefs I work with.
For this dish, I wanted to feature a simple ingredient: cattail shoot. The shoot can be eaten raw or cooked. In this case I cooked in dry pine needles. The outer layer is not meant to be eaten (too tough) so you're interested by the tender part. I also made a wild chimichurri sauce (acorns, yarrow, mugwort beer vinegar, California juniper berries, watercress, garlic, pepper, salt and chili flakes) and crumbled feta cheese.
Some years are better than other, this year we have TONS of acorns.
This ingredient was one of the main source of food for native people but interestingly enough it isn't used anymore in California cuisine, the current California cuisine is mostly focusing on local ingredients that are farmed and non-native
There are tons of culinary uses for acorns and you can even create recipes with a modern twist such as acorn burgers.
For more information on preparation of acorns check this blog from two people who attended a recent class:
Rediscovering a spice - Rabbit Tobacco
One day a student picked up this dried plant and asked me what is was, I had no idea but the smell reminded me of curry, it was quite striking and I became obsessed with finding out about it.
Rabbit Tobacco or California Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum) has been used for smoking like tobacco (though it has no nicotine) or making tea as a cold/flu remedy.
My interest is more on the culinary side so I did a lot of research in various ethnobotany books and online and found one tiny reference about the Cherokee using it as a spice but that was pretty much it. No more information than that.
Armed with this tiny bit of information and the fact that it isn't poisonous and was medicinal as well, I did a lot of experiments with it from broth to sauces, etc... The problem I encountered was a bit of bitterness when making sauces, etc... but the curry flavor and the smell was just incredible. I finally found a perfect use after a while - roasting or smoking meat with it really infused some delicate flavors. I took some to my chefs and it has become one of their favorite wild aromatic.
One way to use the rabbit tobacco. In this dish, I roasted quails wrapped in rabbit tobacco. Other chefs have such as Josiah citrin (Melisse restaurant) and Chris Jacobson (Girasol restaurant) have used it to smoke over game birds or fish. You can see food critic Jonathan Gold (L.A. Times) talking about the spice in this review of Girasol restaurant. "the salmon has been smoked over a foraged herb called rabbit tobacco, which gives it an odd, almost whiskey-like edge"
White Fir Sugar
Last weekend I took a trip in the local mountains, ended up at about 8000 feet, my goal was to forage some yarrow which I use as a spice and in my wild beers.
As usual, I like to nibble on things and I fell in love with the taste of white fir needles. The needles contain turpentine to some degree and drying them remove the solvent to a large degree.
Making the sugar is so simple, just take some dry needles and mix them with sugar (50/50), place them in a coffee grinder on espresso setting and grind. You'll notice it's too mealy so add more sugar and taste again, if necessary do it again until you reach the right consistency (nice powder). It's lemony, nice flavor of pine. Chef Ludo Lefebvre (Trois Mec restaurant) uses it in one of his main dishes.
Roasted California Buckwheat
So far, our local buckwheat was more like a survival food. The idea was to pick the dry flowers and use them in flour when making "primitive" breads or crackers. The taste was definitely in the "meh" category, a tad bitter and the nutrition factor was insignificant.
The chefs I work with didn't really know what to do with it and frankly I don't blame them. I know this plant for years and was not able to make something more gourmet with it.
Anyhow, I started from scratch again and played with it in the kitchen a bit. I finally found a really good use for it! Roasting it was the key. In the dish on the right, I roasted the buckwheat flowers with a tad of olives oil, added some lime juice, salt and continued roasting just before the point where it would actually burn. I then added a bit of chili and garlic powder and voila. Crunchy, delicious and very Hispanic. You can use the same technique with other spices and juices such as lemon, ginger, etc... the sky is pretty much the limit.
Roasted California Buckwheat flowers with limes, chili, salt and garlic powder. Crunchy and very tasty. Nice addition to fish or plating.
Uses for Arundo Donax - Giant Reed
It's an interesting plant, looks like bamboo in many ways and some foraging sites will tell you that it's edible like bamboo (young shoots, etc...) but don't believe it!!!! We're experimented so much with that plant that we came to the conclusion that the extreme bitterness makes it inedible. That's why we try things first then write about it later on. People who wrote it's edible probably ate bamboo thinking it was arundo donax.
I had given up on that plant when one day, while I was foraging, I saw a couple of old Hispanic ladies collecting the leaves. They didn't speak a lot of English but I learned that they used the leaves to make tamales! Fascinating.
So there was an interesting use as a wrap to keep the ingredients inside moist. It actually works pretty well. I didn't do tamales but in this photo I made a venison patty and wrapped it into a giant reed leaf then roasted it with local wild aromatic spices (clover, sagebrush, etc...).
Foraging in the local mountains
I took a trip in the mountains to find out what could be found there. I have such a wide variety of environments ranging from sea to mountains, but honestly I don't forage much at high altitude. This trip changed my viewpoint and I found some fantastic ingredients. Here are some of the plants I found that day:
Pine needles (for smoking mussels and clams)
White fir needles (use them to make fir sugar)
Yerba Santa - Medicinal and flavorful for broth
Dried Manzanita berries (taste like apple)
Giant Sagebrush (aromatic)
Mugwort (different one than the one I find at lower elevation)
Tons of acorns!!!
Not a bad trip :)
September was a very good month for foraging cattail.
Usually cattail is foraged in spring but in Southern California, we have the luxury of having two seasons, so we can pretty much forage cattail shoots all year long.
As I write this, it's actually already November and yesterday I found some cattail flowers. Nature is funny like that.
The shoots are mostly eaten raw, the flavor is a bit like a nutty cucumber. You can also roast them (see the cattail dish on this page) and it's quite delicious and tender.
I always tell the chefs I work with to think of it as a leek in terms of cooking methods.
Wild Edibles and Aromatics Walk
I'm getting quite busy and working with my partner Mia on putting together private dinners and events featuring the true flavors of California but I try to still give wild food walk every Sunday.
That day we walked around in a local forest near Sylmar. October is not a fantastic month for wild edibles but we still found a lot of stuff.
That day we collected some mugwort, rabbit tobacco, nettles, plantain seeds, watercress, curly dock, etc...
We finished the class with some home made mugwort beer and just for fun we made a spice blend with local aromatics which we ate with cheese.
Mussels Smoked in Pine Needles
This is an interesting way of cooking mussels which had a French origin (Charentes). You can do it with pine needles but you can also do it with other ingredients such as dry leaves
Traditionally, foraged mussels were spread on a large stone and covered with pine needles and bay leaves (optional) which are set on fire.
The cooking time is around 10 minutes so you need around 4 inches of dry pine needles on top of the mussels.
The mussels are usually placed upright so ashes don't fall inside when they open. The powerful mix of strong flavors from the mussels and pine smoke are quite unique in a good way :)