Ralph Gardner Jr: Foraging With Family Members

May 19, 2018

Lucy Gardner foraging for morels
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr

I’d been told many years back that we had horseradish down by our stream. For all I know we still do but I’ve never been able to find it. Horseradish doesn’t even rank high on my list of condiments. But it was pleasant knowing that something edible grew wild on our property, that not everything that entered our stomachs required a cash outlay. 

My, how things have changed! Turns out we have a veritable supermarket produce aisle growing in our backyard. At least not that many steps from it.

I discovered this a few years back when Tama Wong visited our home. She’s a professional forager and the author of the book “Foraged Flavor.” 

Ms. Wong’s visit was a disappointment only in that I assumed we’d be spelunking through the woods, hanging upside down with people holding our ankles to reach some rare edible that grew only twelve places on Earth, our property among them.

But we didn’t need to venture more than a hundred feet from the house before the forager had gathered a cornucopia of plants that were eminently consumable. 

They included ramps, garlic mustard, dandelion flowers, Japanese barberry, mugwort, onion grass and pine needles. 

I don’t mean to suggest you can fill your belly on these weeds and flowers alone. Better to think of them as a nutritious novelty, a glorious garnish than can add a little spice to a balanced diet.

For example, Ms. Wong, a Harvard Law graduate who at the time was foraging for three star restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Daniel, added the pine needles to a cucumber salad. And she suggested snipping the onion grass into eggs, eliminating the need to buy scallions. 

I can’t recall whether it was the forager’s visit that awakened my children to the glory of wild edibles. Or if they can upon this realization independently because foraging has become chic, its own charmed kingdom within the sustainable food movement. 

Our daughter Lucy is the family forager, our ramp whisperer. 

For those who are still unfamiliar with them they’re wild spring onions whose leaves taste delicious when grilled in olive oil or sautéed. 

Adding to their delight is that they’re sold in places such as the Union Square Farmers Market for as much as $7 a bunch. The savings one gains by finding them in your own woods undoubtedly enhances the flavor.

But it wasn’t ramps alone Lucy was after last weekend. It was morels, those deeply tasty mushrooms whose honeycomb appearance bears a passing resemblance to that of a brain. 

As we traipsed through the underbrush as Lucy, something of a nature nerd, explained that plants such as ramps are known as spring ephemerals because they go through their entire lifecycle during that season. They exploit the light hitting the forest floor before trees leaf out and block the sun. 

So is trout lily, a yellow flower-producing perennial, that tasted fishy to me, cucumbery to her.

But, as I said, our goal on this rainy afternoon was morels. So we headed to a patch of woods where my daughter had found them in years past.

This is probably as good a place as any to issue this caution: if you haven’t studied up on the subject, or even better yet learned at the soil-stained knee of a professional forager or at least a knoweldegable friend or family member, you might not want to ingest things like mushrooms you find on the forest floor or growing on trees.

Lucy had a friend who happily Instagrammed a photograph of some festive fungi she’d found with the caption, “Yum! Chanterelles!” Except they weren’t chanterelles. They were Jack O’ Lanterns, a poisonous orange-gilled mushroom that to the untrained eye looks like a chanterelle.

Fortunately, my daughter was able to contact her before she consumed them. The young woman is still thanking her.  

Lucy can happily spend hours alone in the woods with only our dog Wallie for companionship, searching for food. She considers the exercise meditative. My time limit is approximately 45 minutes, especially in rain.

I also didn’t have high hopes that we were going to find morels, which apparently favor ancient apple orchards.

But after a half hour or so we came upon a small batch of them sprouting in a tangle of foliage. We picked about a dozen.

The solemn responsibility of sautéing them that evening fell to me. 

Unlike my daughter, I don’t spend much time obsessing over mushrooms or poring through “Mushrooms Demystified,” a bible among mycologists.

I couldn’t have told you what the fuss surrounding morels was.

Fortunately, I can now. 

There are certain delicacies whose combination of taste and texture overwhelm the senses, set synapses firing in splendid profusion, create a sense of well-being more commonly associated with things like winning the lottery.

Steamed lobster dipped in drawn butter. Pearls of Beluga caviar. The list is small. 

But morels meet the test.  And my daughter has sworn me to secrecy about where, exactly, on our small patch of edible Hudson Valley paradise they’re located.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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