“What’s for dinner?” I ask Leda Meredith, who is on the phone from Jerusalem, where it is 6:00 p.m. “Wild asparagus, steamed,” she says. “So much more flavorful than store-bought.” The author and wild foods educator foraged the asparagus in the Ramot Forest, north of the city. Soon, she will be back home in New York, in time for spring and the launch of her new book, The Forager’s Feast (Countryman Press, 2016).
On April 10, The Farm on Adderley in Ditmas Park is teaming up with Meredith and Slow Food NYC for a “Forage and Dine” experience: a wild-inspired spring menu and book signing following a forage tour in Prospect Park, earlier in the day. “Chef Tom Kearney often goes with us,” Meredith says of the tour, “he likes to learn about the plants.” She emphasizes that they will not actually be collecting their dinner from the park. Kearney sources from professional foragers.
On the increasingly hot topic of actually foraging in city parks Meredith says of the ethics involved, “Personally, I think I’m helping the Parks Department. They bring in volunteers to weed edible invasive plants out. They are saying, ‘OK, this is the plant we are trying to get rid of.’” And those are the plants foragers like to eat: pungent garlic mustard, aromatic goutweed, tart Japanese knotweed, bitter dandelions and heady field garlic. Meredith says she has sent out invitations to the Parks Department and the Prospect Park Alliance in the past, to ask them to join her, “Please see what I am doing,” but to date has not heard back. “[Veteran forager] Steve Brill and I have had this conversation,” she says, about park officials’ attitude towards foraging: “On paper it is about sustainability and damage, while behind the scenes it is a liability and lawsuit issue.” If someone eats a foraged plant and gets sick, the parks do not want to be sued. “This has changed,” she notes: In the 1970’s the Central Park Conservancy produced a book about what wild edible plants were growing there. “They were promoting it!”
Meredith has been leading walks in New York City since 2000 and saw “an upsurge in attendance in 2008,” as the economy collapsed. “This is free food, after all.” She attributes the burgeoning interest in foraging to its place at a crossroads of factors: the novelty gourmet aspect-chefs looking for new ingredients, the economic climate, the growing organic movement, and sustainability and health concerns (“no GMO’s, and wild plants do not need fertilizers and pesticides”). Foraging is a hot topic “because those are hot topics,” she says. Meredith notes that hers is just one of several foraging books to be published this spring, as publishers jump on the trend.
At a previous collaborative forage-dinner at The Farm on Adderley, a pickled ramp cocktail was served, and Meredith talks about the growing awareness that ramps—an indigenous onion, and one of the most familiar wild vegetables to non-foragers —grow very, very slowly. “Many people gathering for commercial purposes dig up the whole plant,” she says, but “if you leave a little bulb and root, the plant will regenerate. If you are buying ramps with roots attached they have not been sustainably gathered.”
What will be on the Forage and Dine menu on April 10? “Garlic mustard, dandelions, maybe still field garlic, goutweed, redbud flowers and sassafras.”
But time and New York weather will tell. Because, says Meredith, “No food is more local than the weed growing at your foot.
Recipe from The Forager’s Feast: “Bloom ‘n’ Lentils”
Serves 4 as a side dish, 2 as a main course
In this dish the lentils match the redbud flowers’ bean-y taste, while the sorrel brings out their tangy second flavor.
1 cup small black or green lentils
2 – 3 cups water
1 cup redbud blossoms
1/4 cup wood sorrel leaves and flowers OR sheep sorrel leaves OR garden sorrel
1/4 cup wild garlic flowers, separated from their clusters OR minced wild garlic leaves OR minced chives
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried or 3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Put the lentils and two cups of the water into a small pot. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender. Add more water if necessary to keep the pot from drying out before the lentils are cooked (which will take about 20 – 30 minutes).
- While the lentils are cooking, whisk together the oil, lemon, and seasonings. Once the lentils are ready, drain them in a colander then immediately transfer them to a bowl. While they are still warm, stir in the salad dressing. Let the lentils cool to room temperature before proceeding to the next step.
- Gently stir the redbud, sorrel, and wild garlic or chives into the lentils, keeping a few of the flowers aside to sprinkle on top as a garnish. This salad is best served at room temperature and eaten immediately or within a few hours of making it.