The deeply floral and slightly citrusy aroma of elderflower lingered as we walked down the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve trail. Moments before, chef William Eick had pointed out a yellowish burst of flowers by the side of the path: elderflowers.
They were still on my mind when I saw another burst that looked the same, only white. But the leaves were wrong. Eick had said to focus on the leaves: like elongated mint with serrated edges. “Yeah,” said Eick. “You don’t want to eat that. It’s either hemlock or Queen Anne’s lace.” Hemlock is poisonous, and the two flowers are lookalikes.
Later, in Eick’s kitchen at Mission Avenue Bar & Grill in Oceanside, he showed the benefits of getting it right. Eick marinated steelhead trout in tomato oil, soy sauce and sudachi (a Japanese citrus). He served it “raw” over shoyu-sugar glazed shiitake mushrooms with foraged garnishes. It was those elderflowers that took the dish over the top.
Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant Noma kickstarted Eick’s interest in foraging. (At the time, Noma was rated as the world’s top restaurant.) Eick was new to his trade then, but like Redzepi before him, Eick saw there is no better way to reflect your geographical region on a plate than by populating it with foods that grow wild in your area.
Some 30 miles north of the La Jolla shores where he had foraged while working at George’s California Modern, Eick took us to the Carlsbad tidepools. The thought of gathering seaweed for culinary purposes had occurred to me before, but which ones were edible? “Don’t worry,” Eick said. “All seaweeds are safe to eat.” Some may be more palatable than others “but none are poisonous,” he said. The look in my eyes must have shown surprise. Eick laughed and handed me a little mauve cluster: “it tastes just like oyster.” And it did.
Later, along a lagoon, we harvested the ingredient I’d most hoped to find: sea asparagus, aka samphire, salicornia or sea beans. This succulent grows in thin, green stalks along beaches, in salt marshes and estuaries of much of the world. It has a bright, briny flavor and firm texture, and it tangibly pops when eaten.
Back in Eick’s kitchen, I blanched them, using the brininess left behind to season that same water for asparagus. I paired both with a nutty Japanese sesame dressing, pickled onions, red bell pepper curls and fennel flowers from the same location.
It was while picking those fennel flowers that Eick taught me a critical lesson about foraging: Take just what you need. “Never take all of the plant in one location,” he said. Take “30 percent at most” so the plant can regrow and remain sustainable.
Other fruits of that stop went into Eick’s dish of charred green onion with New Zealand spinach pesto, wild fennel, celery and Burrata “ranch” dressing. Fennel and celery are, of course, ingredients familiar from local supermarkets. Their wild versions are more intensely flavored but tougher, and with less obviously usable parts. Wild fennel, for example, doesn’t really have a big bulb at the bottom. But the fronds and flowers can singlehandedly brighten a dish.
The toughest part of foraging is getting started. The intimidation factor is both real and reasonable: Foraging can be dangerous. But fortunately, there are good resources both in print and on the Internet. Eick said he started by “reading just about every foraging book that included Southern California.” He said he tried “to recognize the plants, took lots of pictures, and sent them to foragers on Instagram and Facebook, asking if they were correct if I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”
Before you go foraging, it’s important to know the rules for the place where you want to gather plants. On private property, you should get permission from the property owner. The rules are varied and specific at national parks and California state and local parks. Many wild areas of San Diego County are designated as protected areas or reserves, and collecting any wildlife, including plants, is not allowed. Two such protected areas are Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad and the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. Never assume that foraging is permitted unless you check first.
Perhaps the most important foraging skill is really paying attention to what you see. No doubt, it’s critical to be aware of the little details that distinguish one plant from another. But once you learn what’s dangerous and start truly looking, it gets easy. Take, for example, that “elderflower.” Even before Eick said a thing, I’d already recognized the critical difference between the good stuff and the potentially poisonous stuff.
And once you start looking and focusing on what’s actually there, it becomes apparent just how much delicious food grows along the sides of every trail. It becomes a form of meditation. And a particularly tasty form at that.
The dishes we prepared using our foraged bounty leaned Japanese. Most of the specialized ingredients are readily available locally, for example at Mitsuwa Marketplace or Nijiya Market.
As for the foraged ingredients, there is no guarantee you will find the same ones we did, even if you go to the same locations. Feel free to substitute whatever you do find or use the cultivated, supermarket versions.
Chef William Eick’s top 10 tips for beginning foragers
1. Always bring a friend.
2. Go with a professional if you can.
3. If you aren’t 100 percent positive, don’t touch it.
4. Bring your books with you to help identify what you see.
5. Be respectful of nature so the plants can remain sustainable.
6. Wear long clothes, even if it’s hot.
7. Gloves are never a bad idea.
8. Bring a small knife or scissors and containers for the plants.
9. Take notes of the plants: flavor, look, smell, shape, location, etc.
10. Always stay aware of your surroundings.
Resources for foraging
Books (all available on Amazon):
“Foraging California: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods In California,” by Christopher Nyerges (Falcon Guides, 2014)
“California Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles From Evergreen Huckleberries to Wild Ginger,” by Judith Larner Lowry (Timber Press, 2014):
“Southern California Food Plants: Wild Edibles of the Valleys, Foothills, Coast, and Beyond,” by Charles W. Kane (Lincoln Town Press, 2013)
San Diego South West Outdoor Travelers:www.facebook.com/SanDiegoSouthWestOutdoorTravelersSwot
Foraging California: www.facebook.com/groups/ForagingCalifornia
California Foragers: www.facebook.com/californiaforagers
Tomato-Soy Marinated Steelhead Trout With Shiitake Mushrooms, Elderflower and Sea Vegetables
3 tablespoons black garlic shoyu (or soy sauce)
3 tablespoon Okinawan brown sugar
8 fresh shiitake mushrooms
5 or 6 kinome (prickly ash) leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon wild fennel flowers
1/2 teaspoon black vinegar, or to taste
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
4 roma tomatoes, diced
1 pound sashimi grade steelhead trout (or salmon)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 sudachi (or key limes), juiced
2 tablespoons yuzu (or lime) juice
Assorted foraged seaweeds
Whisk together the shoyu and brown sugar. Add it, along with the mushrooms, to a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the kinome leaves (if using) and fennel flowers and simmer until it becomes a syrup, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with the black vinegar.
Combine the oil and diced tomatoes in a small sauce pan, bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the tomato flavor has infused into the oil. Strain the oil, reserving the tomatoes as a confit for another use.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the trout on the bias. Combine the trout slices, tomato oil, soy sauce and sudachi (or key lime) juice in a bowl and marinate for 30 minutes.
Arrange the marinated trout slices on plates, drizzle with the yuzu juice and garnish with the elderflowers, watercress leaves, seaweeds and fennel flowers.
Sea Asparagus and Asparagus Salad With Sesame Dressing
It is perfectly acceptable to use store-bought Japanese “Goma” dressing instead of making your own. But the homemade version (which makes more than necessary for this dish) is superior.
1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon mirin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 medium onion (preferably red), sliced thinly into 1-inch segments (quarter moons)
3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (preferably Japanese)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 red bell pepper
24 pieces of sea asparagus, trimmed to attractive 1 1/2-inch sections
24 stalks of asparagus, trimmed of their woody bottoms
Wild fennel flowers
Combine the 1/4 cup of vinegar, the water, mirin and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, add the onions and let stand for at least 20 minutes. Store in a refrigerator.
Add the sesame seeds to the bowl of a Vitamix, other high-speed blender or food processor and process until partially ground. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of rice vinegar, the soy sauce and sugar to the bowl and process to a paste. With the blender running, add the sesame oil in a thin stream to complete the dressing.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel a 2-inch-by-1/2-inch strip of skin off the pepper. Slice the skin into extremely thin strips. Transfer the strips to a bowl with ice water and periodically fluff the strips to help them curl.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the sea asparagus. Blanch for 30-40 seconds, then remove the sea asparagus and cool it in a bowl of ice water. Repeat the procedure with the asparagus, blanching for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove the asparagus and cool it in a bowl of ice water.
Arrange six asparagus and six sea asparagus on each plate and top them with a few pickled onion slices. Drizzle the salad with the dressing and garnish with the red pepper curls and wild fennel flowers.
Charred Green Onion With New Zealand Spinach Pesto, Wild Fennel, Wild Celery, Sea Asparagus and Burrata ‘Ranch’
If you can’t find sansho soy sauce, infuse ordinary soy sauce with sansho peppers or Sichuan peppercorns.
6-8 scallions (depending on size), white parts only, cut in 1 1/2-to-2-inch sections
Sansho soy sauce
20 leaves of wild New Zealand spinach
2 whole cloves of fresh garlic, plus 1 additional clove, minced
5 tablespoons grapeseed oil (with 1 of the 5 tablespoons reserved separately)
1/4 cup burrata cheese (or really good Buffalo mozzarella)
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Four more New Zealand spinach leaves
Four sprigs of wild fennel flowers
Four wild celery leaves
Four 1/2-inch sea asparagus segments
1/4 teaspoon yuzu juice (or lime juice)
Marinate the scallions in the sansho soy sauce for 20 minutes. Combine the 20 New Zealand spinach leaves and whole garlic cloves in a Vitamix, other high-speed blender or food processor and process until fully combined. With the blender running on low speed drizzle in 4 tablespoons of the oil until it achieves a pesto-like texture.
Clean the bowl and then add the burrata, rice wine vinegar, dill, parsley, salt, sugar, black pepper and the minced garlic. Process until you achieve a fully puréed texture.
Strain the scallion segments, discarding the liquid. Heat a sauté pan over high heat until extremely hot and add the remaining tablespoon of oil and swirl to spread. Add the scallions and char, exposing different surfaces of the scallions so as to create multiple marks.
Arrange five scallion segments on each plate and garnish with the remaining vegetables and flowers. Spoon one to two dollops of the pesto on the plate and, using either a squeeze bottle or spoon, add dollops of the burrata ranch dressing around the plate. Finish the dish with a spray of yuzu juice. If you (like me) do not have a spray gadget at home, drizzle the citrus juice over the scallion segments.
Gardiner is a food writer with his first cookbook due out in 2020. He lives in La Mesa.