How a Forager Reads a Food Magazine or Cookbook

As a forager, I never look at food magazines or cookbooks for what they are. Instead, I see how the recipes contained in those publications can be transformed with my favorite wild foods. I don't see straightforward dishes. Rather, I envision ways to tweak almost every recipe so that it can use my beloved local wild foods. For the purpose of this post, I'll walk you through the process of reading recipes with the eyes of a forager using the April 2015 issue of Bon Appétit magazine and one of my favorite cookbooks, Bar Tartine.

Spotting High-End Ingredients You Can Forage Yourself

The first way to look at food magazines and cookbooks as a forager is to ask, "what are the ingredients that would be a high-end grocery store purchase for this publication, but might be something I can forage myself?" In the spring, magazines and cookbooks love to feature recipes for ramps, watercress, and morels. Those are all things you can forage in the correct environment. Hooray! As a forager, with an eye toward a good, clean, sustainable harvest, you can have the same ingredients food freaks cherish for free. You win.

Take, for example, the recipe for Pork Shoulder Cutlets with Fennel and Asparagus Salad in Bon Ap. The salad calls for fennel, shaved asparagus, onion, and parsley dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. The recipe uncomplicated and bright, definitely a salad I would make when I have a bag of newly harvested feral asparagus. I might even triple the amount of asparagus in the recipe if my spots were having a good year.

Now, diving into Bar Tartine, I see a recipe for Farmer's Cheese Dumplings with Mushroom Broth. The broth in this recipe calls for two pounds of wild mushrooms. That would be one heck of an expensive recipe if I were to purchase the mushrooms. However, as a mushroom hunter, I have access to mushrooms most of the year, whether it's fresh morels, porcini, or chanterelles during the growing season, or my dried supply the rest of the year. As a forager, it's fun to have access to the ingredients that are coveted by chefs and be able to make luxurious recipes that might otherwise be out of reach.

Learn to Make Wild Food Substitutions for Conventional Ingredients

Next, think about flavor profiles of key ingredients, and how you can substitute a similar wild plant. Does a recipe call for sorrel? Think of the lemon-y wild greens that you know, like dock and wood sorrel. Does a recipe suggest a peppery green like arugula? That's where you can use a tender wild mustard or dandelions. Think beyond the greens, too. See a recipe for peaches? Use your local wild plums. Look, one that calls for almond meal! That's your chance to substitute in leached acorn flour. Always consider corresponding flavors and how they can be substituted. If you can do that, you will be a wild foods cooking master.

This month's Bon Appétit has a recipe for a Rhubarb-Almond Cake. Right away, my brain makes the switch-out of knotweed for rhubarb. I could also use dock petioles in place of the rhubarb. Both knotweed and dock petioles have a similar tart flavor to rhubarb, and could be directly substituted into the recipe. Knotweed and almond cake, anyone? I'd eat that.

Thumbing through Bar Tartine, a recipe for Chilled Buttermilk and Cucumber Soup catches my eye. I know that the tender hearts of cattail shoots taste very much like cucumber and be substituted into this recipe which also uses a little fennel and onion. Come to think of it, I've got buttermilk in the fridge, and the cattails just started up last week.

Reading with a "Forager's Eye"

Learning to read with a forager's eyes is a skill that anyone with even a casual interest in wild foods can use to their advantage. Once you know how to spot high-end ingredients that can be foraged and how to swap wild food for conventional ingredients, a whole new world of cooking opens up. You can look at any cooking publication from any era, and instantly imagine how to rock out the recipes with foraged foods you have at hand.  Knowing how to incorporate local wild plants into recipes can be a great way to learn to love those plants and make them a staple in the kitchen.


  1. Knotweed and almond cake--you are an innovator.

  2. I cannot wait to cook with you!

  3. I like the cattail substitution for cucumbers in the chilled soup. This is a nice piece, a great way for foragers to think about what to do with their wild bounty. Thx.


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