FORAGING FOR THE GREATER GOOD: Why and how to target invasive aliens
By Carol Rice, Illustrations by Cheryl Miller
Did you know that California has been invaded by aliens?
It’s true, and it’s been going on for a few centuries. Invasive aliens—species from other parts of the globe—are present in every habitat in the East Bay, whether we are aware of it or not.
These floral and faunal imports have dramatically changed the way the landscape appears and functions, and some of them cause serious problems. Examples are the zebra mussels teeming in our lakes and riverways; water hyacinth clogging navigation channels; mustard, fennel, artichoke thistle, and French broom overtaking grasslands and shrublands; and eucalyptus threatening our native oak woodlands.
The invasion is not going unnoticed. Numerous groups of do-gooders (look for names like Weed Warriors) are tackling the enormous task of ridding (or at least reducing) the unwanted freeloaders from our natural ecosystems. The California Invasive Plant Council is the largest such organization and offers a wealth of information at its website. (See “Resources” at the end of this article.)
Recently, foraging for freebie food has become a hot, trendy activity. Folks who savor time spent in the great outdoors are roaming the land, harvesting delectables to provision their larders and tables. Some even sell the goodies to fancy restaurants. Astute foragers know to steer clear of endangered species, and many are now going a step further and joining the ranks of “invasivores” foraging for an even greater good. Imagine capping a day of work restoring a meadow with a dinner from the day’s “accomplishments”! Many of the nonnative species are delicious; some are commercially cultivated for sale in our markets. Foraging for these edible nonnative invasives benefits not only our dining tables but also our natural ecosystems. Here are three species that could be targeted.
Wild FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fennel has a rich history in Mediterranean culture. In Greek mythology, the god Dionysus carried a fennel staff (the thyrsus, referred to as the “Bachannalian wand” in poetry by Thomas Moore and others), and the hollow stalk of a fennel plant was used by Prometheus to steal fire from the gods.
This plant is quite abundant in our coastal grasslands. It can often be found in road cuts, where it might be competing with native species for space, water, and nutrients, but it is best to avoid harvesting from areas near heavy traffic.
Fennel grows to eight feet tall, with sturdy stems, leaves that are feathery and finely divided, and yellow-green flowers that are organized like an upside-down umbrella. It’s a distant relative to poison hemlock, so making a clearly positive identification is important. Look for those feathery fronds and the distinctive anise-licorice aroma. (The leaves of poison hemlock resemble those of a carrot and there will be no anise aroma.)
All parts of fennel are edible. Its delicate leaves are delicious in salads or can be used to flavor pasta, rice, and egg dishes. Seeds are often incorporated into baked goods (what would Semifreddi’s seeded baguette be without them?), but are delicious toasted and eaten alone. Amazingly enough, fennel yields a type of gold in the form of pollen. Sold at $24 per ounce in farmers’ markets, it is the most valuable use of this plant, but also the most labor intensive. The pollen adds a hint of licorice flavor to meats or vegetables. One thing you won’t find with wild fennel is the big tender bulb characteristic of the domesticated variety.
Spring is the best time to collect the verdant fennel fronds, which will grow large and tough through the summer. The window for harvesting seeds is much longer. Most efforts to eradicate fennel involve cutting down the entire plant prior to seed set, but if you want the seeds, you’ll have to find flowers that are fully mature. Carefully cut with clippers and place the treasures in a bag. Placing plastic sheeting around the base of the plant while harvesting can limit the spread of seeds onto the ground, as well as ensuring a greater harvest. Pollen is collected in early summer by cutting the “poufy” flower heads and tapping or shaking the pollen into a plastic bag.
Note: When you are foraging for the greater good, the entire plant should be cut and removed. It can take several years to eradicate invasive plants from a site, so don’t despair. If you find you have been successful, another site can be conquered and eaten! Always remember the dual goals: forage for food and eradicate aliens. You are not farming the site. The whole point is to forage and move on to another location in need of restoration.
Risotto con Finocchio Selvatico e Fave Fresche (Rice with Wild Fennel and Fresh Fava Beans)
Copyright 2006, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.
Rosetta Costantino, an Oakland resident, expert cook, cookbook author, and very popular cooking teacher, was the subject of an article in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Edible East Bay highlighting the publication of My Calabria, her first cookbook. Rosetta is from the Calabria region of southern Italy. She and her family routinely foraged for wild foods in Italy, so when they moved here in 1974, they were pleased to find many of their favorite species growing prolifically within the Northern California coastal landscape. They have numerous recipes that use both the young springtime fronds of wild fennel and the seeds collected from the mature plants in late summer. This particular recipe is one Rosetta uses in springtime sessions of her cooking classes. Learn more about Rosetta’s book and classes at cookingwithrosetta.com and calabriafromscratch.com.
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds fresh fava beans, cleaned and cooked to yield about 1½ cups (see following instructions)
A small bunch of wild fennel fronds, cooked and chopped, to yield about ⅓ cup (see following instructions)
8 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 spring onions, finely chopped (about
2 cups Italian Arborio rice
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
Shell the fava beans and discard the pods. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the shelled fava beans, and cook for about 1 minute. Drain and place beans in a bowl of ice-cold water to cool. Drain again. Using your thumbnail, break the outer green skin of the bean and squeeze between thumb and forefinger: the bright-green bean inside will pop right out. Set the beans aside and discard the tough outer skins.
Remove the tough large stalks of the fennel fronds so that you are left with only the tender stems and leaves. Rinse these well. Bring the chicken broth to a boil and add the fennel fronds. Cook for 10 minutes until tender, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool the fennel. Reserve the broth for use in cooking the rice. When the fennel is cool enough to handle, chop it finely and set aside. You should have about ⅓ cup of chopped fennel fronds. Return the broth to the heat and maintain a low simmer.
Place the first 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the rice and turn up the heat. Stir continuously for about 1 minute until the rice looks translucent. Add the wine and continue stirring until all the wine has evaporated.
Now, turn the heat down to a simmer so the rice doesn’t cook too fast and ladle in just enough hot broth to barely cover the rice. Stir steadily until all the liquid has evaporated, then add another ladleful of broth and continue stirring. Continue this process, adding broth when necessary, until the risotto is done, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes. The rice should be al dente.
While the rice is cooking, place the second two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and add the chopped pancetta. Cook it for a few minutes until it is lightly crisped and brown. Add the chopped fennel and the fava beans. Mix well and add about ½ cup of broth. Cook over medium heat until the broth is absorbed and the fava beans are tender. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.
When the rice is close to being cooked, add the fennel, fava bean, and pancetta mixture to the rice. Stir well and cook for a few more minutes to blend well. Add more broth if the rice becomes dry. When the risotto is done, stir in the grated cheese and serve immediately.
WILD MUSTARD (Synapis arvensis)
It is told that the Franciscan monks brought mustard seeds to California in order to mark their path northward from Mexico. Mustard is now so widespread that the devoted monks would be completely befuddled. It covers valley floors and slopes, and has become an iconic photographic spring image of the Napa Valley vineyards when its bright yellow flowers appear like a yellow haze between the grapevines.
Mustard plants grow six to eight feet tall through the summer. Their dark green leaves are shaped like broad spears with wavy edges. Plants often grow in pure patches that can extend to an acre or more. Ground squirrels tend these mustard patches, caching the seeds in burrows, ensuring that the mustard will sprout year after year. Mustard, in return, offers the squirrels cover from winged prey species. Human foragers can limit the spread of the species by removing individual plants outside the main population. Larger and more organized efforts focus on removing entire patches.
All aboveground portions of mustard plants are edible, although when the stems get woody they are best discarded. The greens are best harvested early in the year, when the raw leaves can add a spicy note to salads. As the plants mature in February and March, the leaves are better cooked. Like those of their leafy brassica cousins—collards and arugula for instance—the leaves of wild mustard marry well with bacon and vinegar flavors. The flowers can add a visual and spicy punch to a salad. Wild mustard seeds can be collected later in the spring, and with skill and patience, can be used to make a mustard condiment just like the one you put on your hot dog.
Watching the Mustard Grow
Farmer Wolfgang Rougle contributes to Edible East Bay’s sister publication Edible Shasta-Butte from her Twining Tree Farm, located on the eastern slope of the coast range near Redding. From that vantage point, she observes the ecology of the Sacramento Valley throughout the year, taking special note of the wild and feral plants that inhabit this region for the lessons they offer on how different species adapt to the environment. Her copious findings are collected into a charming handmade and hand-illustrated book called Sacramento Valley Feast: How to find, harvest, and cook local wild food all year long! It’s organized by months of the year. The mustards dominate her second chapter, and here’s how she introduces them:
February is ruled by the annuals. You can almost hear them growing as they surge across every inch of bare ground. Individuals compete but so do species, fighting for light and space. A feral field looks like a battleground of twenty guerilla armies, engaged in a struggle not so much for ground as for airspace. Some snake in all directions seeking a breach in the canopy; some fix their leaves at roof-like angles to shade out as many underlings as possible. Some just shoot straight up. The wild mustards are among the samurais of the latter art. What was a nursery of inch-tall sproutlings will be a wilderness of green towers in about two weeks.
Wolfgang’s Thai Stuffed Potatoes with Mustard Greens
Bake 2 large potatoes at 450º for 45 minutes. Scoop out the soft innards and blend them with a cup of coconut milk, ½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce or red curry paste, a pinch of salt, ½ cup finely chopped mustard stems, and ½ cup shredded mustard leaves. Spoon the mixture back into the skins and bake for 5 to 7 more minutes.
Wolfgang’s Stir-fry of “Wild Broccoli” (mustard tops)
Warm a little canola oil in a pan and sauté a chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic. Add as many of the little mustard tops as you would like and flavor with a splash of soy sauce, a splash of hot sauce, and a splash of mirin (sweet rice wine). The three clean, strong flavors meld to create the perfect complement to any tangy green vegetable.
Order Sacramento Valley Feast online through Lyon Books, an independent bookstore in Chico: lyonbooks.com.
BULLFROGS (Rana catesbeiana )
Found in almost every cattle pond in the East Bay, bullfrogs are the main predator threatening our native red-legged frog populations. The red-legged was made famous when Mark Twain depicted its saltatory prowess in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” but in our more-enlightened era, we know it as a species threatened by habitat loss and degradation, in addition to bullfrog encroachment. The red-legged is protected by state and federal laws, and harming it will not only bring mega-bad karma, but could land the perpetrator in serious legal trouble.
The American bullfrog, on the other hand, is famous for its fat legs, which once were ubiquitous on French restaurant menus. If you find them on a menu now, you might ask where they are sourced from, since there are problems associated with imported frogs and frogs legs. If we can be sure of making a correct identification, there’s no reason an adventurous omnivore (with a California freshwater sport fishing license) could not play a part in efforts to save the other beloved species. The best advice starting out is to look at one or more good references signaling out the differing size, shape, coloration, croak, and habits of each species. An online search will produce many good and reputable websites with photographs and descriptions. Be aware that both frogs may inhabit the same pond. If red-legged frogs are known to be present, it’s best to look elsewhere for dinner in order to avoid taking a protected species by mistake.
If you hear of a pond being restored to create red-legged frog habitat, you’re in luck, since the entire pond is often drained, leaving hundreds of bullfrogs high, dry, and prime for harvesting. More often than not, a bullfrog hunt is going to be a nocturnal adventure using bright, focused lights, which make it easy to spot the bulging bullfrog eyes poking above the water’s surface. The lights also dazzle the frogs into temporary paralysis. Harvesting is usually done with a gigger, a long pole bearing multiple barbed points at the end that looks like an overgrown marshmallow skewer or a skinny version of Neptune’s trident. It’s used to spear the prey in a quick thrusting motion. Other frog-catching methods include using fishing line with artificial flies or gaudy lures, or a large, fine-mesh net.
Champagne-Battered Bullfrog Legs with Garlic Cream, Parsley Emulsion, and Elephant Garlic Chips
This recipe is by Christophe Bony, sous chef at La Bicyclette, a rustic French restaurant on Dolores Street at 7th in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s an adaptation of a recipe by the famous French chef Bernard Loiseau.
Christophe suggests garnishing the dish with the flowers of wild radish, wild mustard, or wild garlic, any of which might be easier to capture than live bullfrogs. He says he was inspired to start making this dish after he first moved to California from France and read about the frog hunt in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
2 quarts light chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, blanched in several changes of boiling water to take out bitterness, then smashed
1 sprig parsley
Salt and pepper
12 large bullfrog legs
4 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves only, minced
Salt and pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 bunch parsley, leaves only (reserve some leaves for preparing the frog legs, and put aside a few small sprigs for garnish)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup flour
1 cup cornstarch (plus more for dredging)
1 cup soda water
1 cup Champagne, or other dry sparkling wine (plus 1 cup for the cook)
½ cup crushed ice
1 head elephant garlic, cloves blanched in several changes of boiling water to take out bitterness
Oil for frying
Flowers from wild garlic or wild radishes (optional)
To parboil the frog legs: Make a court bouillon by placing the chicken broth in a large saucepan along with the garlic and parsley and bringing to a boil. Add the frog legs and allow them to blanch briefly, then turn off the heat and allow the legs to rest in the court bouillon so they stay moist.
To make the Gilroy Garlic Cream: Melt the butter in a sauté pan and lightly sauté the minced garlic along with the thyme, making sure the garlic does not brown. And salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 cup of the court bouillon that you used to blanch the frog legs and cook until slightly reduced. Add the heavy cream and cook until garlic is soft, then transfer to a blender or food processor (or use an immersion blender in the pan) and process until smooth. Set aside.
To make the parsley emulsion: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the parsley leaves quickly and place right away in a bowl of ice water. When they are cool, drain and process in a high-speed mixer (like a Vitamix) along with the olive oil until smoking and then strain through a coffee filter set inside a chinois.
To make the Champagne batter: Beat the eggs lightly in a shallow bowl and then whisk in the flour, cornstarch, soda water, Champagne, and crushed ice.
To make the garlic chips: Peel the garlic, blanch it several times in boiling water, and then slice the cloves very thin. (A Japanese mandoline works well for this.) Then fill a skillet with oil to a depth of ½ inch and heat it to medium high. Fry garlic slices in a single layer, removing quickly before they get too dark and bitter. Drain on a paper towel and add more oil to the skillet so that it will be deep enough to accommodate the frog legs.
To fry the frog legs: Dredge the legs in cornstarch seasoned with salt, pepper, and some minced parsley. Then place in Champagne batter and coat thoroughly before placing them in the hot oil to fry. Do not crowd them all into the pan at once. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden and then remove to a paper towel.
To finish the dish: Place a pool of garlic cream on each plate. Drizzle around it some of the beautiful green parsley emulsion, and then place two crispy frog legs in the middle. Garnish with garlic chips and some fresh or fried parsley sprigs. Serve with a side dish of sautéed potatoes with chopped parsley.
Enjoy, and don’t forget to kiss the frog!
Other Invasive Aliens to Target
If cheap protein is something you’re looking for, consider wild turkeys. These nonnatives eat salamanders, bugs, young shoots of all plants, and much more—how do you think they get that big? You’ll need hunting skills, a hunting license, and thorough knowledge of hunting regulations. Here’s a place to start: dfg.ca.gov/regulations
The “Chinese New Year greeting card” at right by Oakland artist /illustrator Zina Deretsky depicts two edibles that are on the California Invasive Plant Council inventory and thus good to target: the flowering cardoon or “wild artichoke” (Cynara cardunculus L.) and the yellow oxalis (Oxalis pes-caprae), an annoyance to nearly every Bay Area home gardener.
By all means, if you’re featuring invasive aliens at a dinner party, make sure to grace the table with a large bouquet of French broom. It’s beautiful and has a lovely fragrance.
While many wild species can provide good nutrition, others can be hazardous or deadly by virtue of their chemistry or by their location.
Always consult a good guide, such as those appearing in the resource list at right, to make a positive identification of the things you are foraging.
Since herbicides are a common tool used in restoration projects, it is obviously not appropriate to collect in an area where herbicides or other chemicals, such as pesticides, have been applied. Those seeking to restore ecosystems through foraging might promote their efforts as a way to limit the use of chemicals.
Heavily traveled roads are usually not good places to harvest food due to car emissions, which are absorbed into the plant. In addition, herbicide application is common along roadsides, and areas in which this occurs are not always marked or obvious.
Foragers should be aware of the legal implications of their activities, regardless of their target species.
Always obtain permission from a landowner prior to entry onto their property and make certain to note and obey any rules they might impose.
Most public lands have rules that prohibit or severely restrict plant collection without prior arrangement.
Some species (such as red-legged frogs) are protected by law, so know what you are going after and whether it can be foraged legally.
And then there are basic manners. Always tidy up after yourself. Disturb the site as little as possible. Both foot traffic and hand tools create impacts that can outweigh the benefit of removing the alien species.
California Invasive Plant Council: Lots of information on plants and programs for eradication: www.cal-ipc.org
Calflora: A searchable database of all 8,375 currently recognized vascular plants in California: www.calflora.org
The Wild Table:
Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes by Connie Green & Sarah Scott, published in 2010 by Viking Studio. A beautiful book by Bay Area authors.
The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area by Kevin Feinstein and Mia Andler (Foraging Society Press, 2011). These authors live in the East Bay. The book is an invaluable resource and can be purchased in hard copy or e-book at www.BayAreaForager.com.
Friends of Five Creeks offers a list of edible and useful weeds and wildland plants of the East Bay:
Carol Rice is an East Bay native who has headed Wildland Resource Management Inc. in Alamo for over 35 years. As a fire ecologist, she has had the joy and privilege of working in most of the Bay Area’s open spaces with the charge of protecting both ecosystems and human habitats.
Illustrator Cheryl Miller is a registered landscape architect in private practice in Oakland. Targeting invasive aliens became a focus as she and her co-authors, Carol L. Rice and Kenneth S. Blonski, developed Managing Fire in the Urban Wildland Interface. She has been active in fire planning for the wildland-urban interface since the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. She can be reached through Solano Press Books at Solano.com.