By Amy Crowell
Photography by Holly Henderson
Foraging for wild edible plants is about a lot more than simply eating. It’s about getting to know a place and the plants and animals that cycle through the seasons. It’s about a whole new way to understand food and about sharing that experience of eating wild with family and friends. Honestly, though, finding enough of anything wild to eat in large quantities—or enough for mass sharing—can be daunting, especially in our ever-present drought years.
So instead of on-the-spot gathering and noshing, I decided to throw a Forager’s Tasting Party for my friends and family, to share the wild abundance I’d reaped and stored over the last several months and seasons.
Luckily, I had some agarita berries, elderberries, Texas persimmons, sliced prickly pear cactus pads (nopales), prickly pears (tunas), mesquite beans and dried chili pequins from past harvests—plenty to highlight in various dips, sauces and drinks for the party. I also encouraged my food-loving friends to bring a potluck item that was at least partly wild.
My friend Colleen brought tiny wild cucumbers that she found growing in her garden and Jessica shared the wild coho Salmon she caught in Alaska this summer. Paul grilled the salmon, Chris threw together a wild-rice dish garnished with prairie tea, the Aziz family showed up ready to forage and harvest off our land and the under-six crowd did a great job of mashing the Texas persimmons. The party that evolved was so much fun that it was better than I ever could have imagined.
Remember to start by collecting and storing wild things to eat whenever and wherever you find them. Fill your freezer with bags of wild berries in the spring and fill your pantry with nuts and mesquite beans in the fall. Include any garden bounty of the season (my tasting included okra, onions and key limes grown in our garden) and always garnish with fresh wild herbs. Don’t worry about menus—just collect things on the spot and create a menu later based on what’s stored or growing in your front yard right at the moment.
THE FORAGER'S PARTY MENU
• Prickly pear punch with key lime and lemon
• Mesquite crackers
• Texas persimmon spread
• Elderberry sauce
• Balsamic greens with sliced nopalitos
• Grilled wild coho salmon
• Wild rice garnished with prairie tea
• Pure Luck chèvre with wild herbs
Makes 1 drink
Agarita berries can be difficult to harvest, but their deliciously tart flavor is hard to resist. (For tips on the harvesting process, visit my blog at www.wildedibletexas.com.) I harvested the agaritas for this recipe in late April, and I only had about a cup left in my freezer—just enough to eke out about a cup of juice. Since we had to ration the agarita juice at the tasting, I mixed individual margarita glasses following this recipe.
1 T. agarita juice
1 T. fresh-squeezed key lime juice
1 T. agave nectar
2 T. tequila
Lime wedges and salt, to garnish
Mix all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker or a jar with a tight lid and shake vigorously. Rub a lime wedge on the edge of an 8-ounce glass, dip the rim into the salt to coat and fill with ice. Pour the drink and serve. May be batched.
PRICKLY PEAR PUNCH WITH KEY LIME OR LEMON
Makes 2 cups
I always have some prickly pear fruits (tuna) or juice in my freezer (I throw the whole fruit—thorns and all—into the freezer bag) to create colorful sauces and drinks throughout the year. The magenta color of the prickly pear is fabulous, and the fruit is super easy to find and harvest from August to November in and around Central Texas. Our key lime tree produced nearly 100 limes this year and the harvest was in tune with prickly pear season on our farm. Since I needed to concoct a few virgin drinks for the under-21 set, I figured lemon juice would pair with prickly pear juice, too, and the yellow wedge of lemon looked gorgeous against the magenta-colored prickly pear punch.
1 c. prickly pear juice
½ c. agave nectar or simple syrup
½ c. fresh-squeezed key lime juice or lemon juice
Lime or lemon wedges, to garnish
Harvest the tunas and process the prickly pear juice. Using tongs, pick off the ripe fruits from the plants (ripe fruits will twist off easily) and throw them into a bucket or bag. Wash the fruits—but don’t touch them with bare hands because they are covered with tiny thorns. Throw the entire fruits—thorns and all—into a pot and cover with water. Bring the pot to a boil and then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the fruit has softened. Mash the fruit with a potato masher occasionally while simmering. Let the juice cool and then strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. Measure out 1 cup for the punch.
Make the punch. Mix the juice, sweetener and citrus juice in a pitcher. Pour individual servings over ice and garnish with lime or lemon wedges. Or, if guests prefer the consistency of a slushy, pour the juice mixture into a blender, fill with ice and blend for a wildly tasty smoothie!
AMY'S MESQUITE CRACKERS
Makes about 2 dozen crackers
These were one of the biggest hits at the party. Folks were impressed by the sweetness of the mesquite meal* and enjoyed tasting it raw. I thought the best crackers were generously sprinkled with the coarse mesquite meal—it allowed the distinct, earthy-sweet taste of the mesquite to really present itself and gave the crackers a lovely rustic look and feel. Mesquite is truly the hidden gem of wild Texas edibles.
1¼ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. whole wheat flour
¼ c. mesquite meal*
1 t. salt
½ t. baking powder
¼ c. cold butter, cut into small pieces
½ c. milk, cream or half-and-half
Kosher salt and mesquite meal to sprinkle on top of crackers (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the flours, mesquite meal, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Using a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the butter pieces are the size of peas. Mix in the milk and egg to form a dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough until very thin. Cut into standard cracker sizes. (This is where you can get creative and come up with your own unique shapes and sizes.) Place the crackers, slightly spread apart, on a nonstick baking sheet and sprinkle the tops with mesquite meal and salt. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the crackers are lightly browned around the edges.
*Mesquite meal might be a little tricky to find or process, but you can always order these foraged foods online. Instructions on how to process mesquite beans can be found on my blog at www.wildedibletexas.com
TEXAS PERSIMMON SPREAD
I don’t really know what to say about this spread—it’s really just pulped Texas persimmons. Absolutely nothing needs to be added to it; it stands on its own and tastes wonderful and sweetly complex. It also has a perfect, smooth texture and spreads well on crackers and bread. Simply gather as many Texas persimmons as possible, wash and stem them, then press them through a food mill or a potato ricer.
BALSAMIC GREENS WITH SLICED NOPALITOS
Most any kind of green works in this recipe. I think purslane would be fabulous and is easy to find from August to November (or until the first serious freeze).
1 large bunch watercress
1 large bunch mustard greens
1 large bunch spinach
1 large bunch arugula
1 red onion, chopped
3 T. olive oil
2 c. sliced nopalitos
Wash and roughly chop the greens. Caramelize the red onion in the olive oil for 7 to 9 minutes. Add the nopalitos to the onions and sauté for 5 minutes. Toss in the greens and cook down for 2 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle the vinegar over the greens as they cook. Serve warm.