Instead of rushing off to the market, have you ever thought about the food growing all around you? Producer Meghan McCarty set out on a foraging expedition to find out which edible plants (and creatures) may be found right in our backyards.
Mugwort, hemlock and deadly nightshade sound like the ingredients for one of Harry Potter’s spells, but they’re actually all plants that grow wild right here in Southern California.
“Southern California is loaded with edible plants at every time of the year. So it’s like a real playground for flavors,” said Pascal Baudard, an expert at seeking out those flavors.
He’s a professional forager — he actually makes a living at it — collecting wild ingredients for L.A. chefs like Ludo Lefebvre and Michael Voltaggio. He also guides occasional classes on foraging in the L.A. area.
Baudard is no survivalist chomping on dried out twigs and berries. He’s actually quite the gourmet. He‘s teamed up with his partner, chef Mia Wasilevich, to put together a sophisticated menu of dishes to showcase the edibles we find while out collecting.
But before we eat, we’ve got to work up an appetite. So we head down the trail to look for food. We barely travel 100 feet before Baudard is off in the bushes, plucking off leaves and bending the boughs of trees to inspect their bounty.
“Those are wild cherries, and how do I find out if it is wild cherries? I’m gonna take the leaves and smell it. If it smells like almond, I know there is cyanide in the leaves.”
It seems every plant we pass has some culinary application, from white sage to elderflowers, to the storied deadly nightshade, which incidentally is not all that deadly
“It tastes like wild tomato … once it turns black,” says Baudard. “Like this, completely green it is poisonous … what do I do with it? I make spaghetti sauce”
It’s not just plants you can forage a meal from. Baudard clues us in on a special ingredient that is usually unwelcome at the dinner table: Ants.
“Did you know that we have 240 different species of ants? Some of them have floral quality to them some of them taste like lemon,” said Baudard.
But before you head for the hills and start stuffing your face with every insect and shrub you see, you should beware that nature can also be cruel.
“This is poison hemlock the most deadly plant in California,” said Baudard. “How much will kill you? A mouthful will kill you, maybe half a mouthful.”
After that sobering lesson it’s time to wind our way back to the picnic table for lunch, where Wasilevich has prepared quite a spread.
“So what we have today we have some little empanadas, or hand pies, that I made with some wild spinach, and a little bit of onion and garlic,” said Wasilevich. “Then we have some little roasted potatoes that we use our foothills spice blend. Over there is a watercress gazpacho and it has habanero salt. It’s survival food, fancy survival food.”