In the Weeds
by Maria Reidelbach
Maybe you’ve never thought about this, but what is the definition of a weed? A weed is, simply, any type of plant that is growing where it’s not wanted. Contrariwise, any plant that is wanted, is not a weed. It’s really not so much about whether or not a plant has been domesticated, but whether or not it’s desirable. It’s freeing to remove this prejudice against free-range plants. I don’t know about you, but I find any garden party is more fun with a few wild interlopers in attendance
This month, I have the pleasure of reviewing a new book written by clinical herbalist Dina Falconi and illustrated by botanical artist Wendy Hollender, two Rondout Valley residents. They have created a work of art. These women have amazing chops in their respective fields, and I have been eagerly awaiting this book almost since work began over three years ago. The finished product surpasses my dreams; it’s nothing short of the best wild foods cookbook I’ve seen and the most beautifully illustrated. Certainly this is not a book about weeds.
Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide & Wild Food Cookbook is a large, hardcover book—not truly a field guide—but it is overflowing with useful information on finding, identifying and cooking native and invasive plants. This fulsome source is ever-so-timely in a number of ways. First, it’s about free food! I’m an artist and have always had my eye open for freebie snacks, but with the economy the way it is, most everyone watches their spending. Second, many wild foods are more delicious and flavorful than their domesticated counterparts—and some have no civilized kin and their flavor is a wonderful novelty. Third, it shows a way to eat more local food—right from your backyard. The carbon footprint of eating food from your yard is…zero! And last, wild plants are a whole food and chock full of nutrition. Wildcrafters have known for a long time that foraged plants are extra nutritious, and now science is catching up. In the last 15 years new technology has enabled researchers to measure the amount of phytonutrients in our food. What’s a phytonutrient? They are the compounds that reduce the risk of a bunch of nasty, fatal diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even dementia. When plants were domesticated and bred to be sweeter and blander, these tasty compounds were bred right out. Wild plants contain three to thirty times the amount of these essential nutrients than domesticated plants (see source below).
Don’t you find it just amazing that there’s an abundance of free, delicious, nutrition-packed, low-environmental impact whole foods that are, literally, yours for the taking? Mother Nature is so generous!
Foraging & Feasting will enable you to harvest the bounty and make wild plants a regular and substantial part of your everyday diet. The book comprises two parts. In a full color section, 50 wild plants each star on their own page. Wendy’s drawings and the handsome graphic design make each composition a delight to behold. Plants are identified by common and botanical names and every part is depicted, and often shown in various stages of growth. Dina’s annotation homes in on salient features of each plant—which parts are edible, growth habits, habitat, culinary uses and caveats. Wendy’s illustrations are more helpful than photographs because they can highlight distinctive characteristics that will help you identify a plant with certainty and confidence. Even though I know most of the plants in this book on sight, I learned much from the detailed and well-organized information. And the beauty of these pages makes them a pleasure to browse and linger over. There are several detailed charts that make it easy to learn, compare and reference types, origins, habitats, harvest times, and culinary uses of the 50 featured plants.
In very readable introductions Dina discusses how to identify, harvest and store wild foods, and how to use the identification pages. She also describes her philosophy of cooking and nutrition—as a life-long food activist she has worked out a sensibly healthy diet. Dina has very high standards about the quality of the food she recommends, but she is also understanding about living in the real world and the compromises that are necessary to get a meal on the table.
The cookbook section is based on master recipes—simple formulae that make it easy to substitute ingredients and elaborate or simplify a recipe at will. If you’re harvesting wild plants you don’t know what the day will bring; a master recipe shows you how to wing it. Foraging & Feasting has over 100 master recipes that Dina has tested and used for years—anyone who has attended a potluck with Dina knows what a great cook she is! There are many recipes for familiar dishes using wild plants: herb and fruit drinks, dips and spreads, salads and dressings, all kinds of soups (green, bean, cream and bisque), sandwiches, green salads, whole meal grain salads, main dishes, and desserts. There are also recipes for dishes that are less familiar, like water kefir, agua frescas, and lacto-fermented foods. Even though this is not a book on herbal medicine, it is full of information about the specific health-giving qualities of each plant. The cookbook section is so generous and complete that it could even stand alone as a very good general cookbook.
Foraging & Feasting is currently available through the website foragingandfeasting.com, and also soon stocked at local bookstores. There is a public Book Release Party on Sunday, July 14 from 4 to 7pm at Hollengold Farm, 222 Lower Whitfield Road, Accord. Books will be available for purchase at $38 and can be signed by the creators.
Links and sources:
Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” New York Times Sunday Review, 5/26/13, p. 1, 6-7.
Jo Robinson web site: eatwild.com
Agua Frescas Master Recipe
From Foraging & Feasting by Dina Falconi
Agua Frescas, from my native Mexico, combine water, fruit, and sweetener to produce refreshing celebrations of the season. Using the least amount of sweetener allows the flavors of the fruits to burst forth.
• 2 cups fresh or frozen fruit (about 8-10 oz) cut into 2-inch pieces. Remove large pits and seeds or, if using berries or grapes, leave whole
• 3 cups water
• 2-4 tablespoons sweetener (more or less to taste) such as raw honey, maple syrup or Sucanat
Blend the ingredients well, strain if desired, chill if desired, and serve. It is best to drink Agua Frescas right after they are made, but they will keep, if covered in the refrigerator, for 2-3 days. If making ahead of time, re-blend or shake well just before serving.
Note: Straining the Agua Frescas is unnecessary if the fruit you are using has only a few small seeds and you enjoy drinking a more textured liquid.
Makes one quart.
From Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook, by Dina Falconi, illustrated by Wendy Hollender.
Maria Reidelbach is the proprietress of Homegrown Mini-Golf. With its farm theme and all-edible landscaping, Homegrown Mini-Golf was named by MSN as one of the 10 Most Unusual Mini-Golfs in the United States.