Fall can be a perfect time to whet the appetite with foraged food — if you have expert advice, exercise considerable caution and know exactly what you're looking at before you eat it.
"We have this primal drive to be resourceful," says Connie Green, the founder and "head huntress" of Wine Forest Wild Foods (wineforest.com) based in California's Napa Valley. "It satisfies something ancient in us."
Although we may think we've lost that urge in modern life, Green, co-author of "The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes," says it is still there and is most evident in children. Just look, she says, at how popular Halloween trick or treating and Easter egg hunts are with kids. Just be careful.
"You can become besotted with enthusiasm, and you can't let your emotions run away with you," Green warns. "When in doubt, throw it out."
While most of us don't need to forage to live, increasing numbers are growing to appreciate the gourmet element, the flavor aspect, of foraged goods.
"Our food tastes better when we work for it," says Hank Shaw of Orangevale, Calif., author of "Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast." "Anyone who has made a blueberry pie from blueberries they picked that day knows it tastes better."
Chef Sarah Scott, Green's co-author, describes foraged foods as truly seasonal treasures in a world of year-round edibles.
"When they're gone, they're gone. You can't bring them back any time of year," she says, noting the flavor of foods foraged in season can be so vivid. For her, that apex of flavor is found in cuitlacoche or corn smut, an edible fungus that attacks ears of corn.
"I tell you, it has the most amazing flavor," she says. "It is just the essence of corn. There's this rich, deep, earthy flavor that comes through."
People not only want more flavor but also a closer connection with their food. Witness the surge of interest in locally grown, locally sourced foodstuffs and the proliferation of farmers markets nationwide. Having the ability to go out and find one's own food, to have some control over one's own food sources, is becoming increasingly important.
Foraging can be incorporated into other outdoor activities, Green says: "Not only can you look at the beauty of the world, you can actually ingest it."
Seconding that multitasking sentiment is Steven Rinella, host of Travel Channel's "The Wild Within" and the author of "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine."
"Ninety percent of the foraging I've done is with a gun in my hand," says the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident. "I'll be looking for game and stumble across something good to eat."
And although he doesn't much like the term — "Foraging sounds so much like something a chipmunk would do" — the appeal of the hunt itself is undeniable.
"We don't get that many eureka moments, but we can go out and find things, sometimes in suburban backyards, for heaven's sake," Green says. "Some of these things are really hiding in plain sight."
- Don't eat anything unless you know absolutely, positively what it is. Forager Connie Green gathers a new wild food multiple times for study before being comfortable enough to eat it.
- Take at least two guidebooks for your region along with you to identify edible foods.
- Don't forage alone. Tag along with or join local foraging, native plant and/or mycological societies.
- Avoid foraging along busy roadsides where plants may absorb pollutants or car exhaust; ditto near fields that may be sprayed with pesticides.
- Know the foraging rules for public lands; don't trespass on private property.
Juniper- and maple-glazed duck
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 90 minutes
Note: Adapted from "The Wild Table." The glaze also works with goose, quail and pork. Juniper berries can be found at health food stores, spice shops and some markets.
1 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh or frozen juniper berries, crushed (1 1/2 tablespoons dried)
6 strips orange zest
3 bay leaves, crushed
3 cloves garlic, crushed
4 fresh thyme sprigs, chopped coarsely
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
6 quarts water
1 duck, 4 to 5 pounds
1 1/2 tablespoons dried juniper berries (2 teaspoons fresh berries)
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1. For the brine, place the dry brining ingredients in a container large enough to hold the duck and the brine. Heat 1 quart water to boiling. Add the water to dry ingredients; stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Stir in the remaining 5 quarts water; let cool to room temperature. Submerge the duck in the brine; refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days.
2. One hour before cooking, remove the duck from the brine. Allow duck to drain in a colander. Pat the duck very dry before roasting.
3. For the glaze, toast the dried juniper berries on a baking sheet in a 450-degree oven, 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful not to over-toast them. Cool to room temperature. Grind the berries into a powder using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.
4. Combine the maple syrup, soy sauce, orange zest and powdered juniper berries in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat to a boil; turn down the heat slightly. Cook at a vigorous simmer, whisking occasionally, until the glaze is slightly thickened, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Hold in a warm place; set aside one-quarter of the glaze to use when serving the duck.
5. Truss the duck; place on a rack in a foil-lined roasting pan; roast in a 450-degree oven 30 minutes.
6. Remove the duck from the oven; turn down the heat to 350 degrees. Carefully pour off the fat in the pan. Prick the skin of the duck all over with a fork. Brush with one-third of the remaining glaze; cook 15 minutes. Baste with another third of the glaze; cook 15 minutes. Baste with remaining glaze; cook until the internal temperature of the duck is 165 degrees, 30 minutes. Let the duck rest in a warm place at least 10 minutes; serve with reserved glaze.
Per serving: 742 calories, 52 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 154 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 36 g protein, 1,351 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.