Sunny skies and hot temperatures (which is an excuse to eat frozen treats at practically every meal) are just a few of the reasons why summer is my favorite season. Summer is also the perfect time to go foraging. Many of the trendy fruits and greens that have been popping up in restaurants and farmers' markets can be foraged yourself. Which means cutting costs and getting a few extra hours outside as well. Fiddlehead ferns and ramps? Both can be foraged in the spring. Wild sorrel, elderberries, dogwood cherries, and lamb’s quarters? Look for them now.
As it turns out, foraging in New York City parks isn’t exactly allowed. Real talk: it’s banned, and could result in a $250 fine. Many foodies do forage, but they do so responsibly and with respect to the parks and the people that maintain them. And just because urban foragers in New York City have to collect with care (and a good pair of running shoes), it doesn’t mean foraging regulations are as strict in your area. Which can only mean great things for industrious cooks and wanderers who enjoy taking advantage of everything the season has to offer, straight from the ground.
A few foraging tips: Bring a guidebook. I did one better and went along with my uncle, a seasoned forager, who showed me the dos and do-nots of foraging. Since foraging requires correct identification of plants, it’s a good idea to vet your bounty before chomping in. Bringing along a pack of mints to clear up any unfortunate tasting picks is a good idea, along with plenty of spare bags and food containers. Scissors speed up the foraging process if you’re picking in a place you probably shouldn’t be and, as always, long sleeves and close-toed shoes make for more comfortable picking. All foraged goods should be thoroughly washed before eating to absolve your bounty of any unwanted pesticides or urban grime.
Most importantly, it’s important to respect the area you’re foraging in. The beauty of foraged foods is the proximity they give you to nature and thus, respect the parks and woods that feed you. Avoid unnecessary trampling and never take more than you need, or more than it seems should be taken to sustain the natural environment.
Currently in season:
Cornelian Cherry (pictured above): Cornelian cherries are a type of dogwood and can be found in North America in mid-late summer. The small weed trees or large bushes have yellow flowers before they fruit, so it helps to keep an eye out for yellow-flowering dogwoods earlier in the season.
Identify: Cornelian cherries are oblong and about the size of a large, plump cranberry or the tip of your pointer finger. They grow in bunches on the branch and range in color from orange (unripe) to a deep, purple-crimson (ripe). Each fruit has one large pit. The leaves on this dogwood are a deep green and have uncommon bowed-veins, which look like a pulled-back archer’s bow running from stem to tip.
Taste: Unripe cherries are immensely sour and astringent, but as they ripen and prepare to fall from the tree, the fruit looses most of its sourness and develops a complex, deep flavor with subtle spice notes. Ripe cherries fall from the branch, so look to forage just before they do.
Use: These cherries are great in jams as they are loaded with natural pectin. With very little additional seasonings, the natural flavor of the fruit shines. I’m going to use my recently foraged bounty to make a tart compote with only water and minimal sugar as a sauce to pair with rich vanilla ice cream.
Lamb’s Quarters (Fat Hen)
Lamb’s quarters are truly a weed, but a tasty one at that. Forgo purchasing it in restaurants this summer, and just pick it for free. Lamb’s quarters can be found along paths and are best foraged when small and tender. It belongs to a large family of herbaceous plants known as goosefoots.
Identify: Lamb’s quarters are most readily identified by their leaves, which are irregularly edged and shaped like a goosefoot. The topmost, youngest leaves are white-grey and become green as they grow larger.
Taste: Lamb’s quarters is a mild herb, similar to a more woodsy spinach. Unlike other herbaceous greens like arugula or basil, lamb’s quarter doesn’t have a particularly pungent scent when crushed between the fingers.
Use: As an alternative to basil and puree lamb’s quarters with a sharp cheese, garlic, and a bit of oil to make a foraged pesto. Substitute some leaves into any salad to add aesthetic variety to the dish.
Other summer varietals to forage: Mountain Mint, Wild Sorrel, and Elderberry
Photos by Nina Lincoff