A captivating cookbook by a renowned forager of wild edibles-with more than one hundred sumptuous recipes and full-color photographs.
In the last decade, the celebration of organic foods, farmer's markets, and artisanal producers has dovetailed with a renewed passion for wild delicacies. On the forefront of this movement is longtime "huntress" Connie Green, who sells her gathered goods across the country and to Napa Valley's finest chefs including Thomas Keller and Michael Mina.
Taking readers into the woods and on the roadside, The Wild Table features more than forty wild mushrooms, plants, and berries- from prize morels and chanterelles to fennel, ramps, winter greens, huckleberries, and more. Grouped by season (including Indian Summer), the delectable recipes-from Hedgehog Mushroom and Carmelized Onion Tart and Bacon-Wrapped Duck Stuffed Morels, to homemade Mulberry Ice Cream- provide step-by-step cooking techniques, explain how to find and prepare each ingredient, and feature several signature dishes from noted chefs. Each section also features enchanting essays capturing the essence of each ingredient, along with stories of foraging in the natural world.
The Wild Table is an invitation to the romantic, mysterious, and delicious world of exotic foraged food. With gorgeous photography throughout, this book will appeal to any serious gatherer, but it will also transport the armchair forager and bring to life the abundant flavors around us.
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Black trumpet mushroom
As a child in the 1950s, I had my first encounter with mushrooms through a can. I have vivid memories of my mother’s using Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup whenever she cooked her beef stroganoff. While it was a humble and simple recipe, it remains one of my most beloved childhood memories and a favorite dish to this day. Later, working as a young chef in Rhode Island, I started adding dried mushrooms to my repertoire. But it was during my apprenticeship in France that I was exposed to their fresh counterparts and became skilled in their preparation. Morels, chanterelles, cèpes, the prized black truffles of Périgord, and the white truffles of Alba were some of the incredible varieties that I learned to cook well and appreciate. Mushrooms have an earthy quality that tends to add flavor, dimension, and a sense of luxury to almost any ingredient with which they are paired.
Opening the French Laundry in 1994 was the realization of a lifelong dream, and Connie was one of our very first purveyors at the restaurant. The quality of her mushrooms was so exceptional that she quickly earned the nickname the “Mushroom Lady.” But while mushrooms were what she was known for, she has also brought in other outstanding wild foods for us to discover and enjoy, such as ramps, huckleberries, and sea beans. My philosophy is simple: to use the very best ingredients available in order to establish a memorable dining experience for our guests. Though they might never meet Connie face-to-face, her contributions help us with our success as a restaurant each and every day. She is an integral part of the process.
Connie continues to live up to her nickname by providing us with a wonderful array of mushrooms that are often the highlight of our menus at the French Laundry. They represent a simple, fundamental ingredient that, with the application of skill and patience, is capable of elevating any dish in which they are introduced. The mushrooms that she and her foragers discover throughout the year help us mark the passage of the seasons—from the first delicate morels of spring to the rich, luxurious porcinis of winter. As she steps into our kitchen to make a delivery, basket of mushrooms in hand, our chefs eagerly await to glimpse what new treasures they have unearthed for us that day. It is a ritual we look forward to each and every time.
—Thomas Keller, The French Laundry
The call of wild foods was a gentle murmur when I first started gathering food. It was the sound of my grandmother’s voice as we dug sassafras and picked scuppernong grapes. Delights like poke salad and mayhaws weren’t just funny words in old country songs; they were hunted, put on the table, and eaten with great relish.
As the years passed, wild food retreated to the fringes of public interest, but it never lost its hold on me. I was probably standing at the low-tide mark in the late seventies, when I visited numerous San Francisco restaurants trying to sell my baskets of wild mushrooms. I found only two chefs who’d ever seen a chanterelle before—and both were French. One refused even to believe my mushrooms were chanterelles because “they do not grow in this country.” The other chef recognized the fresh chanterelles but thought they were far too large. He informed me that the ones he was using from a tin can were superior because they were small and French. These were the two best-known chefs in San Francisco’s two finest restaurants. Five years later, both restaurants’ doors were closed and in had swept the dawn of fresh, local, seasonal California cuisine.
Now, more than three decades later, I find myself sitting squarely at the curious crossroads of the Stone Age and haute cuisine. I can’t count the times over the years I’ve crawled out of the woods quite oblivious to the leaves and twigs in my hair and marched directly to a chef in a crisp white uniform. Thirty years ago the late, great chef Masataka was thrilled to parade me and my chanterelles past diners whose private jets were parked just a few miles from the woods I hunted. One minute I’m worried about how we can get our mushrooms across a raging creek and eight hours later I’m putting the fresh cèpes into the hands of a delighted sous-chef at the French Laundry.
At the “picker” forager camp you sit with muddy knees, hoping there’s enough dry firewood or that the mother bear and cubs don’t come back. Meanwhile, the chef in the immaculate whites prays his line cook isn’t impossibly hungover. The camp crew has just enough water to rinse the black trumpets to put on the hot dogs (quite good!), while the chef wonders whether to cook them in sous-vide. Muddy jeans and glistening stemware, old pickup trucks and limousines, campfires and Viking ranges, a roll of bills and a wallet full of plastic: The contrasts may seem huge from a distance, but there isn’t a hairbreadth of difference between the foragers’ and the chefs’ passion for their work. I know; I cross these worlds every day.
about foraged wild foods
This crossroads is a very interesting and increasingly busy place. The glamorous mushroom varieties like morels, porcini, or chanterelles are well known for very good reason. Gary Danko’s roasted lobster with chanterelles or the classic combination of morels with asparagus are justly famous dishes. Yet there are more great treasures from the wild world waiting to be found or even remembered. A few are forgotten but hiding in plain sight, like the richest of all nuts, our native black walnuts. Others are little known, like the candy cap mushroom, which confounds and thrills taste buds with its maple mushroom flavor. More and more of America’s chefs and home cooks are heading to the off-road world of untamed foods. Where they go, others will and do follow.
Pioneering chefs like my friend Daniel Patterson are born to experiment. I snipped off the chartreuse spring tips from a fir tree by my barn and gave some to Daniel. I pluck them for my salads because that particular fir has a unique flavor. Daniel fell in love. Now diners in his San Francisco restaurant, Coi, might be lucky enough to experience a heavenly green-hued oil tasting a bit like bitter orange peel, yet made from this fir. Even my chanterelle-infused vodka, a fixture at nearly twenty years of my annual chefs’ mushroom forays, might be made by a boutique vodka maker. The flavor of the wild is sneaking back into our modern world.
While the food world is awash in celebrations of artisanal producers, organic growers, farmers’ markets, and pioneering restaurants, more and more wild food is appearing and gaining star status. This is causing confusion for even experienced food folk. I’m often asked, for instance, if my chanterelles or some other wild food are organic. I have to say, “No, it’s beyond organic.” When the San Francisco farmers’ market was first forming many years ago, I was approached to be a part of it. It was assumed that wild mushrooms, huckleberries, sea beans, and so on were organically certified. They aren’t. They grow wildly where they want to grow, not where a governing body says they’re allowed to grow. While an organic farmer is planting his or her crop in rows from atop a tractor, I’m out with baskets, making the rounds of my favorite chanterelle-bearing trees scattered over miles in the forest.
Another frequent question I get is “Where do you grow your wild mushrooms and wild foods?” I don’t. I can’t. They’re wild! Most people can’t wrap their minds around the reality that some of our most magnificent foods simply defy the taming of human cultivation. I, and other wild crafters, have to hike and search with great perceptiveness in our quest for the treasures scattered throughout a wild world. People are challenged to think of circumstances beyond human control, beyond agriculture. The foods in this book make “heirloom” varieties seem as if they were born yesterday. In the unfortunate wars of purity, wild foods—nature unvarnished—win. Once people remember and make the leap back to just what the word wild means, there’s always a little glimmer of wonder.
This is a very romantic, mysterious, and inviting world. The story of wild foods—the gathering, the foragers, and the chefs who make art with these foods—is a compelling one. The chefs who receive the mushrooms and the diners cooing over the cuisine often haven’t the foggiest notion of where the foods came from. Yet on that particular day morels have been picked by Rolly, Clint, and Russ in the Blue Mountains. Their closest neighbors are an elk herd. The nearest structure is a disintegrating gold mine. What looks like a lake is actually a field of blooming blue camas, the bulbs of which were once a staple in the diet of the natives there. The nearest pay phone is sixty miles away, but no matter. The men drive what they picked all the way to Pendleton to put them on a small plane. The next day I pick the mushrooms up at the airport, box them, and bring them in the door to this particular chef. These morels and sweetbreads will haunt his diners’ taste buds that night.
As romantic as morel hunting in far-off mountains really is, the instinct for and love of foraging is much closer to home for most all of us. It can be as close as a nearby vacant lot or roadside. I lived in Chicago for two years and picked mulberries for weeks on my walk to work down North Webster Avenue. At the heart of it all is the hunger to play a part or have a hand in what we put on our tables. Even when I see people at farmers’ markets with bags and baskets in hand, I see the foraging spirit at work. These are not Walmart shoppers. Yet there’s a step beyond the farmers’ market, beyond farming, where our ancestors’ culinary treasures have always awaited. The only genetic engineer there is nature herself.
When asked “How did you get into this business?” I have to think back over thirty years of selling wild foods and the founding of Wine Forest. It does seem an odd path for someone with a degree from a fine college and a previous job in Chicago television. In Chicago I met my late husband, an Estonian whose very life was saved by his family’s foraging skills during the starvation days as refugees in World War II Europe. He showed me my first chanterelle. After we moved to the hills above Napa Valley, where I still live, I was as surprised as anyone to find that what made me truly happy was crawling around the woods finding absurd quantities of chanterelles. Although I began with a passion and talent for putting wild foods on my own table, by 1980 this passion was spilling over and into restaurant kitchens.
In the beginning there was no clientele for wild foods. It took years of educating chefs and creating my own customers. I was a purveyor during the birth of the California food scene. Jeremiah Tower, Patty Unterman, and Judy Rodgers were in the early wave of customers. Bradley Ogden, Julian Serrano, Mark Franz, Cindy Pawlcyn, Hiro Sone, and many others joined my customer list later. Thomas Keller, Traci Des Jardins, Gary Danko, and too many more to name came in the 1990s.
As one of the earliest pioneers in the wild mushroom business in North America, it is so gratifying for me to hear the average Joe on the street say, “Nice chanterelles,” as boxes are carried into a restaurant. It seems like yesterday when no one even knew what chanterelles were. Now, all these years later I still sustainably harvest the same mushroom patches on the same forested mountainside above Napa Valley. Looking down on Michelin-star-cluttered little Yountville while I hunt mushrooms, my love for this “work” just flows over me.
My relationship with chefs is unique. Almost all stop what they’re doing and come with delight to see what I’ve brought. No fruit, vegetable, or protein holds a candle to the charge they get out of porcini buttons or whatever wild treat I’ve found. It took awhile to realize that I was bringing more to the kitchen than an exquisite ingredient. I was bringing clear proof of a wild, vibrant, and beautiful natural world far away from the hot, windowless kitchens from which most of our great cuisine flows. I’m the lucky one. The wild foods I carry in have an aura no other food has.
When I am leaving the kitchen, there’s not a chef who doesn’t ask, “Can I go with you sometime?” This sweet question led to my organizing chefs’ forays. Chefs often work until 1:00 A.M. yet they’ll still get up at 6:00 A.M. and drive the three hours north to meet me for a bouncy day of mushroom hunting. After a morning shot or two of frozen chanterelle vodka, we’re off into the woods. These are magical weekends. The actual experience of foraging has been an enchanting influence on many chefs.
Whether it be kitchen-bound chefs or city slickers, these foraging experiences deeply touch people. People who forage for wild foods, even rarely, have a deeper appreciation of nature and a profound interest in preserving the habitats that are too often destroyed by those with no knowledge of or intimacy with wild country. Too much of our modern attitude toward nature implies that we look at it from a distance—that we look but not touch—that the purity of nature should remain “uncontaminated” by perverse human contact. This is not as it should be. We are, in fact, all animals. Whether we are Queen Elizabeth, a New York publisher, or a Navajo, we are all the descendants of successful hunter-gatherers who wandered in this natural garden.
* * *
When people find out what I do for a living, I’m inevitably deluged with curiosity and questions. How did you learn how to do this? Where do you find those? How do you cook that? Can I go with you?
Some might find this foraging passion all a bit far afield. In fact, I once thought that most sophisticated urban people found nature to be a dangerous stranger and wild food to be scary. How wrong I was. Everywhere people are besotted with the idea of foraging for food. People are insatiably curious about this. They want to join me on a foray or pour out their own experiences. These encounters have proven to me that there is a hunger for a perennial Easter egg hunt living secretly in the hearts of most all of us.
People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer lurking in all of us just won’t let go.
about the book
Unlike other cookbooks, The Wild Table calls on you to put on your jeans, grab a basket, and go outside. Although the list of foods in this book could go on for miles and miles over the river and through the trees, not every beloved wild food could find a place here at The Wild Table. I feel as if I’ve betrayed old pals like sassafras and shaggy manes by not inviting them. Yet the plants and mushrooms chosen here have not only great culinary merit, but can be found in widespread areas of the continent and are not at all endangered. Most, like huckleberries or nopales...Review:
"I'm crazy for The Wild Table because it goes right to the source of all good edibles-the plants that grow happily all by themselves outside the garden walls where they figure out how to live with no help from us humans at all. I have long loved eating wild foods, but this book goes far beyond a causal love affair. It's a work born out of deep commitment, passion, and enthusiasm for the edible wild plant world, a world we'd all do well to know much more about. Kudos to both authors!"
-Deborah Madison, Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers markets
"A useful, essential, full-of-joy book with delectable recipes, The Wild Table brings me back to my youth, my family, and our Sunday meal of nettle (ortie) soup and field mushrooms (rosT) that my mother served with her chicken with cream sauce."
-Jacques PTpin, author of Fast Food My Way
"The foundation of every cuisine is great ingredients. Connie's passion for foraging comes through in the amazing foodstuffs she provides chefs by bringing the wild bounties of Northern California into our kitchens."
-Grant Achatz, chef and co-owner of Alinea restaurant
"Connie has really opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of foraged foods and wild mushrooms. Her knowledge and passion have shaped me over the years to be a better chef, an inspiration she has stirred in countless other chefs around the country. The Wild Table truly delivers her amazing devotion to all things wild."
-Donald Link, author of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana (winner of James Beard Award for American Cooking)
"Sarah Scott has for over 20 years cooked deliciously for us. She is a creative sensitive talented chef inspired by what the season brings in the garden or what she finds in the outback. The Wild Table is full of her incredible recipes, and it is a delicious cookbook."
-Margrit Mondavi, author of The House of Mondavi
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