"Foraging, in my mind, isn't just an act — it's a mind-set and a healthy way of life," writes Alan Bergo in "The Forager Chef's Book of Flora" (Chelsea Green Publishing, $34.95). "It's about the willingness to look beyond the status quo for exciting and unconventional ingredients; an eagerness to make the best possible uses of all the edible parts of plants and animals; and a desire to have a more personal, meaningful and gratifying relationship with food."
What a manifesto!
Bergo is a veteran of several high-profile Twin Cities restaurants, and the last chef to helm the kitchen at the former farm-to-table epicenter Lucia's Restaurant in Minneapolis. He's spent years exploring, studying and harvesting the regional landscape, supplying restaurants with foraged treasures while sharing that wealth of knowledge on his popular website, foragerchef.com.
In this remarkable new cookbook, Bergo provides stories, photographs and inventive recipes. Along with celebrating edible plants found in the wild, Bergo's root-to-flower cooking embraces a whole-plant mentality, just as the tail-to-snout movement encourages cooks to utilize every part of the animal.
Speaking by phone from his farm near Menomonie, Wis., Bergo discussed our natural inclination to forage, the joys of hostas and why we should take a less pejorative approach to the word "weed."
Q: How did your interest in foraging germinate?
A: I've spent my whole life in the kitchen — I thought that would be my forever career — and I'm an obsessive learner. At Il Vesco Vino [the former St. Paul restaurant], I would do some of the receiving, and [chef] Andy Lilja would show me local products, and they were so expensive, and so special. Things like nettles and mushrooms went right to the top of the pedestal of precious ingredients.
The day after I'd cleaned some chicken of the woods mushrooms I was playing disc golf, and I saw the same kind of mushroom in a tree. That's when a light just went off, and I started buying all the literature. That was probably 11 or 12 years ago, and now I've taken a dream that I had and made it into a job.
I describe myself as half Anthony Bourdain and half Indiana Jones. We're all descended from foragers. It's hard-wired into our bodies and into our brains. I feel a lot stronger in my instincts for finding mushrooms than feeling talented about setting up a Zoom call.
Q: How has foraging changed your culinary style?
A: When I was running a restaurant I thought I was so connected, because I was sourcing local ingredients. I'd cooked so many types of heirloom squashes, but one day when I was out in the garden, I saw that a squash plant had escaped the garden and was growing with the weeds. I had no idea what it was, and the shoots and tendrils looked so delicious. I didn't know what a squash plant looked like, I only knew how to identify a finished squash.
I realized that if I was raising that squash plant, and I knew that all of its parts were edible, and I was trying to feed myself, that it's not too far-fetched to harvest from that squash plant during the entire growing season. There's a traditional Mexican soup, for example, that uses the whole squash: the flowers, vines, leaves and the mature squash. We just see the squash in the supermarket as the finished product, but that's not all that the plant has to offer.
That intuition, that instinct, showed me a different way to think about garden vegetables. That's when I started having "eureka" moments.
Q: What was the impetus behind writing this cookbook?
A: I wanted to inspire people to look at vegetables in a little bit of a different way, and I wanted to show that the Midwest is not a place to just fly over. There are world-class ingredients here, and people need to know about that. This is the first of a three-part series. The second is on mushrooms, and the third is on meat.
Q: What's in season right now?
A: The milkweed buds are going to start coming out, and they're absolutely delicious. Purslane, lambsquarters and other quelites, which are all the little greens that are cooked in Mexico and Latin America, will peak here in a week or two. Then there's sweet galium, it's this crazy weed that's widespread all over North America and no one uses it. I make vanilla extract out of it, and the stuff is incredible.
Q: Among so many helpful tips, one of the book's most practical is the post-harvest process you use with greens. Can you shorthand it here?
A: I went to see [chef] Jacques Chibois in Provence, and he told me that they harvest flowers at a stage where the dew has evaporated but before the sun gets too hot. That made perfect sense to me, because when you cut a plant, you stress it. They'll wilt, and if you have to travel they're going to look like absolutely nothing.
But if you soak them in water for 30 minutes, not only does that cool them and lower their temperature, but it also imbibes them; cleaning them is a bonus of this process. They'll come right back, and all you have to do is spin them dry and wrap them in a towel. The greens that you harvest yourself are the freshest and most full of life, and they last and last and last if you treat them right.
Q: I'm looking at my backyard and thinking, "Hostas are edible?"
A: Hosta shoots are absolutely delicious, and they have a deep culinary tradition, just not in the U.S. In Japan, they're a traditional wild harvested food. They're a good example of how you can have edible landscaping.
Q: Why should we all be planting angelica in our gardens?
A: It's a super-tall plant, and people will walk by and ask, "What is that beautiful plant?" The flowers are so beautiful. It's crazy delicious, too. Planting it is a lot easier than finding it in the wild. Sometimes having something familiar helps the new medicine go down.
Q: Why should we change our attitude toward the word "weed?"
A: Our relationship with them is that they're unwelcome, they're something to rip out. But in reality, many of them are probably more nutritious than what we may have growing in the garden. Nettles are a good example.
Q: How can cooks take a forager's perspective when they're shopping?
A: Buy carrots and don't toss the greens in the compost. Some people like to use the greens raw — I think they taste like grass — but they're so different when they're cooked. The flavor just blooms, they're fantastic. I would say that the Hmong farmers at the St. Paul Farmers Market sell the best plants, they have all the good toys. Take a chance on leafy green plants — maybe amaranths, or lambsquarters — that you've not had before.
Goddess Herb Dressing
Makes about 2 cups.
Note: "If you look in my fridge, there's probably a jar of this dressing in there right now," writes Alan Bergo in "The Forager Chef's Book of Flora." "This is one of my favorite dressings for salads, but you'll find yourself spooning it on everything from grilled meat and fish to soups, stews and vegetables. The combinations you can make here with different tender-textured herbs are infinite, and each one lends a slightly different taste. As a shortcut, there's nothing wrong with substituting 1 cup of good, thick mayo for the egg and oil." For food safety reasons, we recommend using a pasteurized egg.
• 1/2 c. sour cream
• 1/2 c. sliced chives
• 1 c. loosely packed flavorful herbs, such as tarragon, basil, cilantro (especially green seeds), lemon balm, etc.
• 1 c. loosely packed milk herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, chervil, wood sorrel, etc.
• 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 1 egg (see Note)
• 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/2 c. mild cooking oil
In a blender, combine sour cream, chives, herbs, salt, pepper, lemon juice and egg. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil and cooking oil. Purée the ingredients, drizzling in the combined oils until mixture is thick. Transfer the dressing to a container and refrigerate. The sauce should be green and vibrant. It's best used within a few days, but will keep a decent flavor for a while longer.
Wild Green Cakes
Makes about 8 to 10 cakes.
Note: "Many different species of plants can be used, and no two batches I've ever made have been exactly the same," writes Alan Bergo in "The Forager Chef's Book of Flora" (Chelsea Green Publishing, $34.95). "The cakes are meant to be a mild side dish — a different way to get your greens. If you want to jazz them up, consider serving them with a yogurt- or tomato- or mayonnaise-based sauce. Sometimes I add cooked onions, seeds or other alliums and herbs if I have them, so think of this recipe as a blank slate that you can make your own. Using different grain flours and seasonings can give you different themes. For example, Latin American-flavored cakes made from quickweed and fine cornmeal, scented with cumin, are great used to scoop up guacamole — a little bit like fried plantains. Chard or wild beet green cakes bound with buckwheat or millet flour would be at home with Eastern European flavors such as sauerkraut and pork sausage. Middle Eastern-inspired cakes could be made with malva or violet leaves, seasoned with baharat spice mix, bound with ground wheat flour and served with tahini sauce."
• 3 packed c. wild greens (or a mix of spinach, parsley and kale)
• 2 eggs
• 1/4 c. flour or flour equivalent, plus extra if necessary
• Kosher salt, to taste
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Freshly grated nutmeg or your favorite spice mix, to taste
• Cooking oil, such as lard or grapeseed oil, as needed for cooking the cakes
• Fresh lemon wedges, for serving, optional
Fill a stock pot with salted water and bring it to a boil. Fill a large bowl with cold water. Blanch the wild greens (or mix of spinach, parsley and kale) in the boiling water just until wilted — a few seconds — and immediately transfer them to the bowl of cold water until greens are cool.
Squeeze the greens dry very well. Chop the greens fine. In a large bowl, mix the chopped greens with eggs and flour. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste; it should be well-seasoned. Ideally, you'll now let the batter rest for 30 minutes or so before cooking, but it can be cooked straightaway if needed.
Coat a frying pan in cooking oil over medium-high heat. Cook a small piece of the mixture to test the seasoning and adjust to your taste. Using your hands, shape 1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) of the mixture into cakes (if the mixture seems loose or wet, mix another spoonful of flour into the batter), then fry until browned on both sides. The cakes are sturdy and reheat well, so I usually make them in large batches. Serve with lemon wedges.
Roasted Carrot Salad With Marigolds
Serving size varies.
Note: "Cooked whole, the carrots steam inside their skins, concentrating their aroma and color," writes Alan Bergo in "The Forager Chef's Book of Flora." "Because carrot sizes vary, I usually tell people to cook these 'until they're done' — when a knife can just barely pierce them. After cooling, the carrots shouldn't be too mushy, but just al dente. Try it with parsnips, too. There is one species of marigolds that features a pungent citrus flavor, called gem, or signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia). Their power is a secret I've been keeping, bringing it out here and there when I really want to knock people's socks off. Like other powerful aromatics, such as rosemary and sage, you can overdo it with marigolds, and a little goes a long way. When you use just enough, in the right place, these citrusy little flowers are fantastic, and those little green leaves are worth their weight in gold." As for utilizing flower gardens, which could be treated with chemicals, "it's important to take into account where it's appropriate to harvest food," he writes. "My advice is to only pick from areas you know well and can feel good about harvesting from."
• Whole carrots, preferably fresh from the garden, on the large side, greens removed down to 1/2 inch and skins gently scrubbed
• Flavorless oil, just enough to coat the carrots
• Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, cumin, maple syrup, finely grated orange zest and apple cider vinegar, to taste
• Marigold leaves, chopped, to taste
• Marigold flowers, whole, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the carrots with just enough oil to barely coat them, then season lightly with salt. Lay the carrots in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast just until they can be pierced with a knife, 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the carrots. Remove the pan from the oven (they should feel slightly underdone, and will continue to cook from the pan's residual heat as they cool) and cool the carrots to room temperature. When in doubt, undercook them.
When carrots have cooled, cut them on the bias into 1/2-inch-thick slices, season well with salt and pepper, a little cumin, a dash of maple syrup and some finely grated orange zest to taste, then sprinkle on a little apple cider vinegar. Double-check the seasoning and adjust as needed, making sure it's well-seasoned, since you'll serve it at room temperature. Garnish with chopped marigold leaves and whole flowers to taste.