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Into the Forest We Go

Into the Forest We Go

Foraging can provide a bounty of ingredients – for free

If you know what to look for and where to look, foraging offers you a bounty of fresh ingredients during specific times of the year – and save you money.

Foraging allows chefs or professional foragers the opportunity to go out into the forest, countryside, along a waterway or elsewhere to find native ingredients they would otherwise spend possibly thousands of dollars on a month. We’re talking chanterelle or hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, pine needles, wild garlic, violets, stinging nettles, wood sorrel and so much more.

“It’s absolutely fun and it gives me time to be outside and in nature and in the woods,” says Iliana Regan, chef/owner of Chicago’s Elizabeth and Kitsune restaurants. “But with a purpose to turn it into something I can give people, like any farmer.”

Regan forages mostly in spring and fall throughout Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan to find everything from mushrooms and milkweed to wild asparagus and elderflowers. She may make a syrup or vinegar or end up pickling or preserving certain items to use at other times of the year when those ingredients are out of season. Last winter, she made nettle pasta and ramp top ramen noodles from items she found and preserved earlier in the year.

Bluffton, S.C., restaurant FARM focuses so locally that co-owner and certified forager Josh Heaton hunts for chanterelle and lion's mane mushrooms, greenbrier, day lily, shiso, violet, loquats, tea olives, sassafras and more throughout the year. Then he and partner/executive chef Brandon Carter use them in a variety of ways: fried day lily pods; crème de violette for a gin-based Aviation cocktail; tea olive jelly for crudo. But it's really the bounty of mushrooms Heaton finds that results in a number of dishes like conserve of chanterelle mushrooms with country ham, goat's milk ricotta and buttered croutons; grilled chanterelle mushroom toast with asparagus, garlic confit, feta and arugula; and wood-roasted lion's mane mushrooms with gremolata, Madeira and celery root puree. What's more, that saves them a bundle.

“We would pay $20 a pound for chanterelles and we use them for 10 weeks,” Heaton says. “Our cost on the mushrooms we serve in the summer would have been $4,000 to $5,000.”

While foraging can yield great results, Tama Matsuoka Wong, professional forager and co-author of the James Beard Award-nominated book, “Foraged Flavor,” cautions to not just pick anything you see.

“You have to be really careful,” Matsuoka Wong advises. “Just because you saw something, you can’t just pick it. There are heavily poisonous plants; be careful about mushrooms.”

Alan Walter, creative director at Loa at International House Hotel in New Orleans, seconds that warning, but says otherwise most things found in nature are fair game.

“Unless something will poison you,” Walter continues, “there’s little that doesn’t have the chance to entertain the palate in some way.”

Walter uses local foraged ingredients like Spanish moss, pine needles, clover and bamboo to also help bring diners and drinkers closer to their surroundings.

“There’s a margarita-like drink on our menu called the Margeurite with thyme-scented Cointreau and bay and sassafras on the rim, but with a pine needle-infused syrup that gives it a winter-fresh feel,” Walter describes. “The Spanish moss in the Jean Lafitte strikes people because they aren’t used to putting that in their mouth, but the rest – it tells us something about the city.”