The canyons above Los Angeles seemed to grow more verdant and green the further we rode into them. The mist swirled around us, exposing the flora and fauna that surrounded us on one side and views of cerulean ocean on the other. “There! Right there!” he pointed excitedly. “I don’t think I’ve ever known that to grow in California before!” My riding companion for the day was renowned chef Dave Beran, who had recently relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles to open a new restaurant. I love to ride with him because he takes his time, soaks it all up, enjoys the climbs and the descents — and he stops to grocery shop along the way.
We rode the canyons nearly all day, spotting varieties of lettuce, herbs and edible flowers. Beran pointed out wild fennel, mustard greens, nasturtium and more little green bursts of scent and flavor than I can even remember. If we’d had a salad bowl with us, we’d have eaten as kings and queens. Instead I went home with an armload of inspiration: Delicious flavors are all around us, not just at the farm stand or the grocery store.
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When I got home, I immediately searched my backyard to see what was growing and how I could forage for meals at home. But here in Colorado, there weren’t many nasturtium climbing the canyon walls like in California, no wild fennel fields or mustard flowers to sniff on my bicycle. Instead, we have daylilies in the spring, pine and spruce needles in the forests, and a whole host of mushrooms, herbs and spices covering our fields. But foraging and preparing these wild delicacies wasn’t as straightforward as it may seem. How should you go about foraging for wild flavor in your backyard? Here are some important tips and tricks:
RESEARCH LIKE A LOCAL
Before you harvest or eat anything you’ve picked in the wild, do your research. Select a good book on wild plants and use it to identify your finds. Many plants and flowers look alike, and you wouldn’t want to accidentally pick or consume something poisonous!
BE PICKY WHERE YOU PICK
The gardens of others, private lands and national parks are not suitable places to go foraging.Flowers and plants growing wild next to sidewalks, along rivers or near farmer’s fields could have been sprayed with pesticides (or by the last passing pooch). Research not only the land you’re foraging on, but also what’s going on near those wild places. Then, pick wisely.
BEFRIEND A FARMER
Local farmers are a tremendous resource, not only for identifying plants, herbs and wild ingredients but also for helping you determine how to use them. Find a farmer friend and ask questions!
Pine and spruce needles are wild edibles that are easy to identify, readily available and easy to harvest. This is my favorite thing to pick on a bike ride, and I use it to infuse butter, oil and other pantry ingredients to impart local flavor to my meals. Read on for my favorite recipe.
PINE & HERB BUTTER
Makes 8 servings at 1 tablespoon each
- 7 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3 1/2 tablespoons pine needles
- 1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs (basil, mint, parsley, cilantro)
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, or in a blender, combine the butter, pine needles and fresh herbs. Mix until bright, green and smooth without any big chunks of herbs.
Using a spatula, press the butter through a fine sieve (such as a chinois) to remove any big pieces of herbs or pine needles. Scrape the butter from the bottom of the sieve and place in a small ramekin, then refrigerate until ready to use.
Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 179; Total Fat: 20g; Saturated Fat: 12g; Monounsaturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 53mg; Sodium: 1mg; Carbohydrate: 0g; Dietary Fiber: 0g; Sugar: 0g; Protein: 0g