Imagine you’re walking through the forest, the sun is peaking through the spruce stand lighting your way, the wind guides you with a cool and calming touch. I have walked many times through the woods unaware of the depth of my surroundings and the bounty beneath my feet; thanks to the past two weeks at Sterling College and the Sustainable Foraging in the Northwoods and Wildcrafting: Food & Beverages from the Natural World courses with Pascal Baudar, my knowledge of the surrounding landscape, wild edibles, ethnobotany, plant spirituality, and culinary arts has dramatically changed.
There is abundance everywhere we look, but we cannot take part in the harvesting and use of local food and medicine sources around us without feeling confident in our foraging knowledge. Sustainable Foraging in the Northwoods offered a great foundation to build on for my future foraged culinary adventures. As a culinary artist focused on the ecological bridges between nature and plate, it is my passion to provide an experience that works with nature rather than destroying it. If I can reduce the high carbon footprint associated with shipping micro greens around the country by substituting with dandelion greens in a meal I prepare then I consider myself a cook that is beginning to shape a food system for the future by looking to the past for inspiration from traditional foraging methods. In our foraging class, my peers and I learned many different perspectives from the wild edible (“plant people”) communities in the greater Northeast Kingdom area. The most important point made by almost all of the foragers, herbalists, and medicine people we met was to be sure of what you are picking, know how much to take, and only take it if you plan to use it. Reducing waste, staying safe, and maintaining a balance between ecological ethics and the forest’s needs is key to revolutionizing our current food system. The goal is not to forage the forest dry and create a food system based completely foraged foods, but to substitute, on occasion, the processed food we are used to with local invasive species and native edible plant varieties.
Time to Get Cooking
Transitioning from a foraging class to the Wildcrafting: Food & Beverages from the Natural World course felt natural, and in some ways surreal. Our instructor Pascal Baudar was able to make connections between the courses, as he had joined us on some of our foraging adventures to gain a greater understanding of the local plant communities. We started by culturing wild yeasts for sodas and making champagnes from foraged plant materials. Some of our custom local soda flavors were spruce tip & sumac, birch & dandelion, and many, many more. The understanding I gained of the natural world and how to eat in harmony with it is something that I will hold deep for the rest of my life. As a cook myself, flavor and expression are some of the colors I paint with — it is not only about how the food tastes, but how it looks, how it makes the eater feel, and what the experience itself holds. The ability to adapt this art form through seasons and place is an essential bridge to building a Culinary system that pays respect to ecology and the natural world while maintaining an act of sustainability and care for the forest. It has been a truly mind-opening experience to take part in such an amazing course with inspiring teachers and peers.
As a culinarian, I found the in-depth and hands-on approaches to these classes very enjoyable; we were always cooking, thinking about approach, and planning the next step, which made for a very comprehensive culinary experience. I formed two personal project recipes: panna cotta with a deep red Japanese Knotweed and Sumac reduction, and a Wild Mushroom Quiche.
Panna cotta is a long-time favorite dish of mine. It always seems to pass on good times and heartwarming feelings when eaten, and the locality of the ingredients holds a major importance to its culinary value. In this case, not only was the knotweed and sumac picked from our forest, but the goat milk to make this creamy treat came right up the hill from our on-campus farm. Typically panna cotta is made with cream, but I had to work with what we had, so I ladled the cream off the milk as best I could to achieve a thicker consistency. Normally this wouldn’t be a concern because gelatin can be added at certain ratios to render a thicker milk, but my goal was to keep the panna cotta as traditional as possible, so I used whipped egg whites. The key to adding egg whites for structure within a pudding or custard is to whip tenderly and quickly pull the white through itself rather than stirring. Without creating bubbles in the mixture, mix until the egg white goes from a light glow to completely opaque and has the same consistency as water. This is best done by hand with a fork, even in large quantities.
For the Wild Mushroom Quiche I added a few wild edible greens and used Pheasant Back and Oyster mushrooms from nearby Wild Branch Farm. Lambs Quarter and Nettle greens complemented the mushrooms well. I was sure to pre-boil both types of greens for a minute and then shock them in ice water, a key step in reducing the hairs of the nettles and also key in tenderizing the green in preparation for further baking and cooking. The eggs and mushrooms came from a local farm down the road, and the lard used in the pie crust was rendered from Sterling’s own pigs after slaughter here on campus. The Pheasant’s Back mushrooms, Lamb’s Quarter, and wild Nettle greens were all forage din the Virginia Russell forest, merely a tenth of a mile from the Common. This quiche could have been made completely local had I had access to local wheat to make the crust.
The bits and pieces forming this wild food adventure included a wonderful tasting menu at Misery Loves Company in Winooski, VT, and handmade treats from Pascal, like wild beer braised rabbit and a forest kimchi, all bound by incredible synergy and integral in culminating one of the best culinary experiences of my life.