Foraged vegetables are always more fun to cook. So our resident forager, Tama Matsuoka Wong, is introducing us to the seasonal wild plants we should be looking for, and the recipes that will make our kitchens feel a little more wild.
These days I wake up to darkness and a chill in the air. The last of the meadow flowers are blooming, and they’re full of bees getting ready for winter. At this time of year, most of the flowering plants have also gone to seed, and I always try to collect a small amount for seed banking. For the most part, I don’t collect a lot of wild herbaceous plant seeds for eating — they are so tiny they would hardly make a mouthful.
But one of the easiest and most common wild seeds I do collect is that of wild foxtail millet. Foxtails are weedy, non-native grasses in the millet family — an important group of crops in Asia and Africa. The name comes from the fact that its millets form bushy spikes that resemble a fox’s tail. If you look closely at the spikes (or tails), they have stiff bristles pointing upwards; the bristles come off easily to spread their seeds and often end up lodging in the fur of animals.
The giant foxtail (Setaria faberii) reaches two to five feet and is commonly found in eastern and central North America, Canada, and New Mexico. Look for it on farms, the sides of lawns, and sunny, plowed fields. The giant foxtail’s bristly stem nods over because its bushy tail weighs down the slender stem. Yellow foxtail (Setaria pumila) and green foxtail (Setaria viridis) varieties are smaller and stand upright, with yellow or green colored “tails”.
When the seeds turn ivory (and even when they’re still a little green), I cut off the foxtails and stuff them in a brown paper bag. The seeds should fall off easily by shaking the bag — the rest can be coaxed off the bristle by rubbing it with your fingers and bending it. Once the foxtail turns brown, the seeds will have all fallen off, leaving just the bristly skeleton behind.
Foxtail seeds are easy to harvest, unlike other, more familiar cereal grains. For example, wheat must first be threshed to remove the scaly chaff from the grain, winnowed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and dried before it can be ground into flour. Most grains have been further milled to remove the bran, which is the hard outer layer of the cereal grain (the seed). But this outer layer contains oils rich in antioxidants and other vitamins, which is why “bran” and “whole-grain” products are so popular.
I enjoy my own whole-grain wild millet by toasting the seeds on the stove in a small cast iron pan for a few minutes. When the seeds start to pop, I remove them from the heat and crush a few to release the toasty oils. I sprinkle them on pastas, salads, and grilled meats to add crunch and nutrition. The rest I dry and store in an airtight container. They keep extremely well — I still have some from last year.
One of our favorite fall snacks is to make granola made with foxtail and other seasonal, dried foraged fruits and nuts. Eddy Leroux at restaurant Daniel first made this for my daughters as back-to-school snacks; I liked it so much that I started bringing my own stash to work. Needless to say, my desk became a popular destination for my coworkers looking for a mid-morning snack. It was crunchy and munchy, but — unlike other snacks that can make you hungrier — it actually filled you up in a satisfying way.
Before making the granola, we store the ingredients separately in airtight containers. Substitute other nuts and fruit depending on what you can find, but don’t skip the foxtail millet seeds — they are what makes this granola crunchy!
Granola with Wild Seeds and Nuts
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Makes 3 cups
1 cup oats
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup hickory nuts (or hazelnuts)
1/4 cup foxtail millet seeds, lightly toasted
2/3 cup dried cherries
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup cocoa powder or wild raisin powder (optional)