Turning Foraged Weeds Into Dinner

By Iso Rabins

Iso Rabins of forageSF is guest blogging for us every once in a while. Read his first post, about the Underground Farmers Market, here.

California garden snails, AKA Helix aspersa, are actually in the same genus as the ones we pay top dollar for at restaurants. With that in mind, I collected a bunch from peoples' backyards around San Francisco, and served them at the one-year anniversary of my underground restaurant, The Wild Kitchen, a few weeks ago. I called them escargots.

The Wild Kitchen is not a typical restaurant. One month it might be a houseboat in Sausalito, the next month, somebody's flat in the Mission District. Most of the ingredients are foraged in and around San Francisco. I collect the greens for the salads in local urban (but clean) parks.

wild boarTwo weeks before the dinner an email goes out with a menu featuring about eight courses, a date, and a general location, i.e., "Somewhere in the Mission." People are invited to buy tickets online. I love that there are folks out there willing to spend hard-earned money on a ticket to a dinner where they're not even told the exact address until the day of the meal. I wanted our one-year anniversary to be a special one, so I got the best space, a huge warehouse with murals painted all over the walls, and set the guest list for 60.

The menu was a combination of all my favorite dishes from the past year. Besides the escargots, there was wild boar porchetta with gleaned kumquat mostarda using fruit from overflowing friends' trees (see recipe below), tempura-fried baccala (salt cod) with tart oxalis (an amazing yellow flower that I collect from the lush East Bay hills), and a salad of miner’s lettuce and chickweed, with an oxalis flower vinaigrette.

salt codThe Wild Kitchen started as an offshoot of my foraging business, forageSF, but has (with the help of a rotating mob of friends/volunteers) grown into the thing I most enjoy. I love to go out into the woods, look at an unassuming weed, and begin the mental process that will end with a beautiful dish on someone’s plate. What does it taste like? Is it bitter, sweet, savory, sour? What meat would it pair with? Would it make a good soup? Would this soup benefit from the gentle flavor of fish stock, or the more robust umami of beef stock?

Nettles (collected from a city park) with chicken stock and heavy cream makes a great soup. But I could also fry the nettle as a savory/bitter garnish. Oxalis, with its sour bite, is great in salads, but what if I used it to make a canary-yellow aioli, a high note to offset the deep, intense flavors of fried salt cod?

Iso cooksI love the prep. A whole day spent in the Zen-like calm of chopping, mincing, braising, roasting, filleting. Listening to music, drinking coffee, and as the day turns to night, beer. Then the rush of serving this carefully prepared food, trying to anticipate all the things that could possibly go wrong, and fix them before they do. This is what I’ve spent the last year learning; how to plan for the un-plannable and how to make weeds into beautiful food.

Wild Boar Porchetta

Wild boar is a tough animal. A whole life lived running and rooting makes it very muscular, which needs to be taken into account when trying to make it delicious. Slow and low is the rule with this dish (AKA braising). If you don't have 12 (or 24 hours) to cook it, cook something else. That said, most of the work is done by the oven, so the actual prep time is about 20 minutes.

2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 anchovy fillet, minced (intensifies the other flavors rather than giving a fishy taste)
Salt and pepper
2 quarts chicken stock (home made if possible, but store bought works too)
Several sprigs fresh thyme, rosemary, and oregano, finely minced
Butcher's twine
Large shoulder wild boar meat. (This can be bought from Broken Arrow Ranch if you don't know any hunters. Make sure to tell them I sent you.)

1. Heat oven to 200F.

2. Butterfly the meat, gently separating at its natural seams first with your fingers then with a knife, until it is about 2 inches thick (don't stress too much about getting it perfect, the idea of this step is to get the herbs into the meat, so you just want to make sure to get into the center).

3. Mix herbs, oil, garlic, salt and pepper into a paste, and rub all over inside of roast, and then use twine to tie it up. This takes some practice to get perfect, but it doesn't really need to be, just make sure it’s all together. There's a good video here.

4. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, anchovy, and boar to large pot with a tight fitting lid (liquid should come up at least halfway on the meat). Bring to a boil on the stove, then place in oven for 10-20 hours, checking periodically to make sure you have enough liquid, and turn roasts over after 6 hours of cooking. Seems like a long time, but just put it on before you go to bed, and the next morning it'll be done.

Gleaned Kumquat Mostarda

This is nice and simple. The hardest part is making sure you get all the kumquat seeds out.

2 lbs freshly gleaned kumquats (collected from a place they would have otherwise gone to waste, like a neighbor's back yard)
1 cup white wine
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp mustard powder
2 tbsp champagne vinegar

1. Blanch the fruit. Place in salted, boiling water for 5 minutes, then remove to a bath of ice water (this helps them keep their color).

2. Take out all the seeds, then rough chop the fruit.

3. Bring the wine and sugar to a boil, dissolve the sugar.

4. Add the fruit, mustard seed, vinegar, and mustard powder, and gently simmer for 10 minutes

That’s it! Let the pork rest about 15 minutes before cutting, and serve with a bit of the mustard. (I like to put it under the meat, but it's your call). I realize what you're thinking..."20 hours! I'll never make that." But you should, because all it takes is a bit of planning, and it’s amazingly delicious. The low, intense flavors of the boar offset by the high citrus notes of the fruit make me hungry just thinking about it.

Images courtesy of Lizabeth Steinhart.