local forager

Eating Rhode Island: A Forager’s Foray

By Jan Faust Dane / Photography By Jan Faust Dane | March 01, 2009
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Little did I know that I’d been going along, stepping on my dinner all these years. It’s been decades since the seminal celebrity forager Euell Gibbons urged us to eat a pine tree in a 1970s Grape Nuts commercial, and frankly, it hadn’t occurred to me to do so on my own since.

Fortunately, there is an ever-growing cadre of cooks and chefs more in harmony with nature who recognize that with every season, in every region, the earth is humbly yielding up harvestable foods underfoot and all around to enhance our meals.

Beau Vestal, executive chef/chef de cuisine since 2004 at Providence’s pioneering New Rivers restaurant, is one of these enlightened foragers. New Rivers has built its reputation on spearheading the local/seasonal/artisanal movement in Providence but Beau, a genuine explorer, prefers to get even closer to his food, often scouring the countryside for it himself. As he put it, “Hunting and gathering wild edibles gives you the same charge as fishing—the sense of ‘what am I gonna find?’ The hunt is part of the charm. Sometimes you walk away emptyhanded but the times when the haul is bountiful are both rewarding and fun.”

In Search Of…

On a mild gray day, Beau and I ventured out to one of his favorite haunts in Barrington so he could introduce me to the foraging basics. Clutching a pair of snippers and a softcover book, The Uses of Wild Plants, Beau walked ahead of me along the tamped-down grass of a wooded trail, stalking, oh-so-stealthily, the wild greens and herbs indigenous to Rhode Island.

Unfortunately for the greens around us, evolution has not sharpened their evasive maneuvers and they were no match for the canny hunter. Just yards down our first path Beau kneeled under a stand of trees, where a clump of wild onions cowered amid the undergrowth.

With a sharp yank, Beau liberated green tops from the ground and revealed the small white bulbs at the base. “These can make a fantastic pesto,” Beau offered. “You just have to make sure you rinse them really well but otherwise substitute [the onions] for basil and it comes out sharp and delicious.”

As we tramped along the path, Beau and I talked about his rise at New Rivers, his dedication to cooking throughout his schooling at Johnson &Wales, both in his native Florida and here, and his support for the kind of nose-to-tail eating popularized by Fergus Henderson at London’s St. John restaurant. And while the conversation flowed freely and ranged widely, Beau’s eyes stayed active, finding a fiddlehead here, lamb’s quarters there. Barrington as breadbasket, who knew?

Nature’s Wild Crops

Barrington and many other swaths of Rhode Island, Beau revealed, yield a wide variety of earth snacks, if one is willing to do the basic research. While foraging for greens is generally considered more amateur-friendly than mushroom hunting, which requires serious training and can carry fatal consequences for missteps, there are still risks. Taking care to have a guide is an important first step.

A quick internet search reveals there are dozens of guidebooks that can help with the fundamentals. Best known in the general category is the Euell Gibbons Stalking series (Stalking theWild Asparagus; Healthful Herbs; the Blue-Eyed Scallop.)

Those books are written in the prose of our last national “back-tothe- land” movement in the ‘70s, so the language seems a little dated, but they can certainly get you started re-imagining our relationship to the wild foods around us. There are very specific regional field guides that can tell you what to look for here in New England. Beau listed Edible Wild Plants and Mushrooms of New England by Russ Cohen as one that originally sparked his interest. Additionally there are active topics on websites such as Chowhound.com, and occasional outings organized by groups such as the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Food andWine and the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society.

An Undisclosed Location

When foraging in Rhode Island in the spring, you’re likely to find stinging nettles, fiddleheads, wild onions, ramps, oxalis, dandelion, goosefoot, purslane, sorrel and, if you’re really lucky, morels. A good guide will tell you when and which parts to harvest throughout the lifecycle of the plant, how to cook them, eat them and even heal yourself with them. They are also likely to promote good stewardship, recommending you take only what you need, allowing the plants to regenerate.

What the guides will rarely tell you is where exactly to find your awaiting crop.

So while books are a wonderful asset, nothing beats a real live guide. (Although many of them won’t tell you their spots, either; foragers can be a possessive lot.) As we ambled along, the very generous Beau pointed out several other shoots and leaves with poetic names, most of which I would have walked by and dismissed as, I don’t know…weeds. In each case, Beau shared his plans to weave them into recipes, usually as a garnish or in a supporting role.

After we emerged out of the woods onto the scrubby beaches of Narrangansett Bay, Beau grabbed a handful of the abundant beach peas and launched into a thesis about, essentially, the terroir of the plant.

“The specific flavor of these, from their sandy, salinated soil, makes them a perfect complement to the oysters from this water. At their most fundamental level, they have matched flavors that bring out the best of both.”

We ended our journey with reflections of one of Beau’s favorite ways to get to know his kitchen staff. He says he’ll choose a morning when the schedule permits and take the whole staff out foraging.There, on their joint mission in the great outdoors, doing something so natural and germane to their careers, Beau says he bonds in an entirely different way than in the tight quarters of the New Rivers kitchen.

“It makes me feel connected to the landscape, like we are turning back the clock gastronomically. The way things were done in generations past that have been lost or forgotten through the need for fast, convenient foodstuffs.”

That sounds like the beginning of a very good recipe to me.

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