Without practicing larceny, we could eat for free -- or close to it. Hank Shaw does this pretty much all the time. He's a former chef who is now a full-time writer and forager.
Follow his lead -- learn foraging -- and maybe have a new career. Some restaurants hire foragers; if nothing else, you're going to save money. Shaw put what he's learned between covers in Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I'm just thinking about spring foraging. We always go after greens, but we need something more challenging. What do you have up your sleeve?
Hank Shaw: I am the Lorax: I speak for the trees.
LRK: What is out there at this point that we might not think of?
HS: Well, it depends on what you're looking for. If you look down, there's a whole bunch of spring mushrooms; if you look up, there are, in fact, a lot of interesting things that you can get from trees right now.
LRK: I never think of foraging from trees.
HS: I'm not talking about nuts and fruits in the spring because that's more of a later summer and fall thing. What I'm talking about more are leaves, blossoms and bark. You don't actually eat bark, but you use bark as a flavoring agent.
LRK: Let's start with blossoms -- what kind of blossoms?
HS: The general rule is if the thing that the blossom is going to turn into is edible, then the blossom itself is edible. I live in California so I've got almond trees all around. I will actually make a nice romantic liquor with almond blossoms.
LRK: You just put them in alcohol and let them sit?
HS: You do that. The thing about blossoms on any tree is they're very ephemeral. That's why everybody rushes down to D.C. for the cherry blossom festival.
When they're blooming and it’s a nice day, their aroma is going to be really powerful right in the morning, right after the dew is gone but before the weather gets warm. You pick as many as you can -- it takes a little while. You fill a mason jar full of the blossoms and then cover it with 100-proof vodka; I like the 100-proof because you get a little bit more extraction of flavor, color, and aroma that way. Then you just let it steep for two weeks in a dark place, strain it, and then put as much sugar as you want in there. It will dissolve and you have yourself a very nice, very aromatic, after-dinner drink. It smells like that spring morning.
LRK: That sounds wonderful. Would you ever infuse them? For instance, I'm thinking about the trick you do with herbs where you can put them in warm cream, let them sit, strain them and then you can make things with that cream and it will just be fabulous.
HS: You absolutely can. In fact, I do this with rose petals a lot -- you can have rose petal ice cream. It's not a tree so much, but it is the same basic idea. You can do a panna cotta, a pot de crème or something like that as well.
LRK: Do you ever eat leaves of trees?
HS: I don't know that I eat leaves per se. However, if you've ever had filé gumbo, that is the powdered dried leaf of the sassafras tree that grows everywhere east of the great plains. Not a lot of people know that magic powder that makes your gumbo thicker is actually the leaf of a common tree.
LRK: What I remember about sassafras is that it smells like root beer. Maybe I was playing with death, but when I was a kid I used to break off the twigs, we'd pound them and then we'd suck them.
HS: The roots are the root in root beer -- that's the root beer taste. But the twigs that you and I chewed as little kids, they had green bark, they're very distinctive. That bark on the twigs, that tastes like Froot Loops -- it's totally cool.
LRK: Isn't there something toxic about sassafras?
HS: Quasi -- if you were to eat it a lot over a long period of time, there's some research that suggests that maybe, it might kind of, sort of, be bad for you. But the one study that a lot of people will cite involved safrole, which is the element that they're looking at in the sassafras tree. Basically they fed rats about the equivalent of drinking 3 gallons of root beer every day for 6 months, and then lo and behold, they got sick. Provided your consumption is moderate, I see no problem with it. People have been making sassafras tea and drinking real honest-to-god root beer for centuries.
LRK: What else can you do with bark?
HS: One of my favorite things to do with bark is to use it kind of like a tea. If you've heard of birch beer, that's the bark of a grey birch tree. No matter where you are in this country, there's a bark that you can use. If you are in the East, there's hickory bark, the shagbark hickory. If you are in mountain areas, you've got ponderosa pine, which is a really special bark because that has a butterscotchy note to it. If you're in the West, you have a tree called a madrone. That bark will pop and curl exactly like a cinnamon curl -- it looks just like cinnamon except it's much more delicate -- and it actually has something of a cinnamon flavor to it. Just like we were talking about infusing rose petal ice cream, you get an amazing woodsy, butterscotchy, smokey or cinnamony flavor -- you get a lot of complex flavors from these barks. I will make ice creams with them.
Have you ever had a Chinese tea egg?
LRK: Where the egg has actually been cooked in the tea in the shell?
HS: Yes, and it has that beautiful spider-web pattern on it.
LRK: Yes, it's gorgeous.
HS: Do that with these infused barks. It will curl your hair -- it's a great, really cool, wild snack that I guarantee you nobody's ever had before.
I don't know if you've ever heard about spruce tips or fir tips in cooking? They are a really special ingredient. It's the very tip of the growing tree, it’s a springtime deal, and it's super light green. You know how everything is normally pine green but the growing tips are very light -- they're full of vitamin C. In fact, they taste disturbingly like a lime. The problem is you have to kind of pick your way through, because Tree A may taste more like turpentine than lime, but Tree B might taste super, super citrusy and very, very sweet with no resiny aftertaste at all. Spruce trees and Douglas firs are two excellent trees to work with those tips. You can actually eat them straight.
LRK: Really? You just snack on them as you walk through the forest then?
HS: I do, actually, because that also helps me figure out which tree is the one I want to go back to.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. And, when you donate, you'll become a member of The Splendid Table Co-op. It's a community of like-minded individuals who love good food, good conversation and kitchen companionship. Splendid Table Co-op members will get exclusive content each month and have special opportunities for connecting with The Splendid Table team.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table and you'll be welcomed into The Splendid Table Co-op.