Indigenous Bounties: Foraging with Randy Rucker

Wood Sorrel.JPG
Wood Sorrel.
Last Sunday, my wife and I woke up early and finally made the trek out to Bootsie's Heritage Café in Tomball, but we weren't there to eat. We were there to work.

A few weeks back, Chef Randy Rucker made a titillating offer via Twitter: Come to Tomball and dig around in the woods for good stuff to eat. Interested in getting some expert advice on what weeds will and will not kill me, I signed up for a day of foraging and discussion with Rucker and the Bootsie's crew.

About 16 of us convened at Bootsie's at 9 a.m., eager to get our hands dirty. First, though, Bootsie's treated us to a hearty breakfast. As we sat around the family-style table in the back, chatting, drinking coffee and perusing Rucker's favorite online wild edibles resources, the rest of the kitchen crew whipped up soft-poached duck and chicken eggs (served still in their shells, so we could crack them and slide them onto our plates - a great technique and presentation), lovely coarse and smoky sausages, buttery, flaky biscuits, and creamy gravy. It was simple, well executed, and exactly right for a pre-forage breakfast.

After a quick discussion on safety and respect, we all piled into cars, forming a caravan to one of Rucker's nearby foraging spots. Buckets, bags, knives and shears in hand, we walked well-worn paths, and well off them, in search of untamed delights.

We found Wood Sorrel, whose clover-like leaves and tiny pods offer an electrifying yet fleeting tartness, in great clumps along the path edges.

Bittercress.JPG
Bittercress.
Here and there, a tuft of spicy Bittercress peeked out from under a blanket of fallen leaves and pine needles, its soft leaves tasting remarkably like arugula, with a grassy overtone that many described simply as "green."

American Beautyberries.JPG
American Beautyberries.
American Beautyberries, clumped around their branches, jutted out from the foliage everywhere we looked. These strikingly purple jewels look like aggregate drupelets (think blackberries) from afar, revealing themselves as tight clusters of individual berries on closer inspection. They popped under gentle pressure, like sweet-tart and slightly astringent caviar.

Other finds included an ultimately abandoned saw palmetto whose roots proved more formidable than Rucker had bargained for, a few small patches of frilly and carrot-scented Queen Anne's Lace, runners of mild-flavored Chickweed, gently sweet and nutty Corn Salad (wild Mache), and lots and lots of pear-scented Dollarweed (you almost certainly have this growing in your yard).

Harvest from the Farm.JPG
Harvest from the farm.
After a few hours rummaging around in the underbrush, Rucker led the caravan over to his farm, a mile or so down the road from the restaurant, to have a look about and pick some fresh produce. We all loaded up with chard, green beans, bok choy, squash and radishes, then toured the property for a bit. There, I discovered the tastiest wild edible of the day.

Next to one of the fields, a spindly tree hung sparsely with small brownish fruit, looking something like pint-sized Persimmons, only with a more muted palette. Rucker pronounced them to be Wild Plums. I pronounce them to be amazing. Their slightly grainy pulp was super-concentrated, like dried fruit (it may have dried on the tree; I'm not at all familiar with these things), with a savory undertone of rich butter and toffee. I would eat these by the bucketful. Unfortunately, there were few to be had.

From there, we returned to Bootsie's for lunch (a comfortingly rich, subtly smoky stew served with a thick slice of crusty and thoroughly delicious bread) and cold beer, as we all unwound and discussed the day's finds, and what we planned to do with them.

I've got a few ideas myself and hope to be able to share some of them with the good readers of Eating Our Words. For starters, I just might shove the leftover cranberry sauce aside, and haul out that Galapagos turtle I've been trying to find a use for. I think it'll make a lovely ceviche, served with a nice Beautyberry Gastrique and perhaps a few bits of Wood Sorrel for color.



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