Try as I might to change my ways, I’m a city girl through and through: brisk walker, fast talker, insect hater. But last week I read my friend Ava Chin’s new memoir, Eating Wildly, and found myself reconsidering the concrete landscape. As an urban forager—and author of a New York Times blog of the same name—Ava visits New York’s green spaces (like Prospect and Central Parks) to collect wild plants (like day lilies, mulberries, stinging nettles, and mushrooms of all stripes—oyster, reishi, morel). And then she cooks and eats them. Her memoir tells the story of a young woman grappling with childhood scars, the loss of her grandmother, and heartbreak, who learns to view the world anew with “foraging eyes,” patiently seeking the unexpected treasure that might lie in plain sight. Today, Ava shares tips for foraging, fast meals, and a recipe for mushroom pasta. (AND, I’m giving away a copy of her book! Stay tuned to the bottom of this post for more info.)
On quick—but local—meals:
As a working mother of a rambunctious two-year-old, Tuesday nights can be hectic, especially if I’m doing an hour-long commute between the boroughs of New York City for my job as a professor. This time of year and especially as it gets warmer, I usually make some sort of salad with beets or whatever’s in season (ramps, spring onions) and grilled chicken.
On the forager’s freezer and pantry:
I keep wild oyster mushrooms and morels in my freezer to add to pasta as a quick-fix dinner. For example, morels are in season right now. Instead of dehydrating them, I might slice and saute them in butter and shallots and garlic. After they’ve cooled, I pop them into the freezer in bags. I also have plenty of dried mushrooms on hand. Last fall, I grew shiitake mushrooms from an inoculated patch, and we had shiitakes for months. What we couldn’t eat right away, I dried and now add to soups and stews.
On growing vegetables in her city apartment:
I keep scallions growing hydroponically from shoots in a jar by the kitchen window—it’s still a miracle to me that they sprout new shoots every time). I just snip them with kitchen scissors and toss them in everything from stir fries to frittatas.
On the busy cook’s best friend—the braise:
I try to cook certain slow-cooked foods, braises, etc. the night before, so on any given night I will most likely be cooking food for the following evening. For certain dishes the flavor is better and I’m not operating under the rush and panic of having to get dinner ready for that night.
On how to start foraging:
First, go on a walk with a foraging expert who can introduce you to what’s edible—these days, there are more and more of us across the country leading tours. Then, get a hold of a few good foraging guidebooks (Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the Petersen’s field guides, and Leda Meredith’s Northeast Foraging just to name a few) and go on walks of your own. If you can recognize a dandelion, then you’ve already started foraging!
On what to gather now:
This time of year, and depending where you live, dandelions, violets (not to be confused with African violets, which aren’t edible), ramps, and garlic mustard are all coming up, and soon the mulberries will be fruiting. We’re nearing the end of morel mushroom and ramp season, so get them while you can!
(Wild Morel) Mushroom Linguini
Adapted from Eating Wildly by Ava Chin
*Note from Ann: Ava’s recipe calls for sumptuous morel mushrooms—which can only be gathered from the wild. I went to the Farmer’s Market three weeks in a row, but, alas, couldn’t find any. Instead, I substituted cultivated crimini mushrooms and a handful of dried fungi. For a local, seasonal touch, I took Ava’s suggestion and used ramps instead of shallots. “The ramp leaves will cook even faster than the shallots,” she says, “and they are lovely.”
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
2 small shallots, diced (I used 3-4 ramps)
8 oz sliced morels (or crimini mushrooms), sliced
2 oz dried mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water (optional, but if you use them, save the soaking water)
1/4 cup cream sherry
1/4 heavy cream
Small handful of chopped dill and parsley
1 lb linguine
Salt and pepper
In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the garlic until fragrant. Add the shallots (or ramps) and cook until wilted. Add the sliced and dried mushrooms and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the cream sherry, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the pasta by bringing a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the linguini and cook, stirring occasionally until al dente (check the package for a suggested time).
Drizzle the cream into the mushroom mixture. Using kitchen tongs, fish the cooked linguini from the pot of boiling water and add to the skillet with the mushrooms. Sprinkle in the dill and parsley and toss to combine, adding dashes of mushroom soaking liquid or pasta cooking water so that the mixture is loose and supple. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve immediately.
*Eating Wildly by Ava Chin Giveaway!*
Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I’m giving away a copy to one lucky reader!
1. Leave a comment below with your favorite spring vegetable.
2. For an extra entry, follow Ava on Twitter: @AvaChin, then leave a separate comment to let me know.
3. For an extra, extra entry, tweet the following and leave a comment to let me know: I’m entered to win Eating Wildly by @AvaChin from @AnnMahNet + @SimonBooks. More info: www.annmah.net
The contest ends May 19. A winner will be selected at random and announced here. Good luck!
UPDATE: The winner is Jamie! Thanks for playing tout le monde!
(All non-pasta photos from Ava Chin.)