Plucking delicious: Last-minute foraging for a dinner party
What a gift it is to have close friends. Fun-loving friends, who support you, and laugh with you, and who won’t balk when you serve them fried dandelions for dinner.
Emily and Ben are such friends, and they came in from Colorado for a visit last week. My boyfriend, Ted, suggested impressing them with a quintessentially Northwest salmon feast. “Great idea!” I said. “We should get some local beers, too.” In fact, what if we gave the entire meal a Northwest theme? What if we sourced everything locally — wait, no, hyperlocally! What if we made foraging the theme? Dinner-party transcendence achieved!
Reality check: It takes a lot of time and planning to pull that off. When Michael Pollan so famously foraged and hunted his dinner in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, taking measures like evaporating his own salt from seawater and slaying a wild boar, he didn’t do it in two days — which is how much time I had to prepare Friday night’s dinner after that foraging brainwave. But, never one to back down in the face of adversity, I set forth to find out just how many delicacies I could manage to get on the table using free ingredients, hand-picked within city limits, at the last minute.
Luckily, I happen to live in Candyland for DIY foodies. All manner of fruits, mushrooms, and greens grow wild here in Seattle; clams, fish, crabs, and mussels thrive. With no time to waste, I turned to local urban foraging expert Melissa Poe. She gave me the scoop on my late-June options in the city: The sweet, red salmonberry was ripe, and the humble dandelion remained open for plucking. Berries and weeds: I could work with those.
There are those who say you should never try out a brand-new recipe on guests. I had never even tried eating a dandelion, much less cooked one in a dish impressive enough for company — but Emily and Ben are adventurous diners. Besides, the golden lawn invader is highly nutritious, full of iron, beta-carotene, zinc, calcium, and a bunch of other vitamins (according to my new foraging bible, Jennifer Hahn’s Pacific Feast.)
So, the morning of the dinner party, I gathered a big bowlful of the yellow blooms from a park 10 minutes from my apartment on foot. I needn’t have even gone that far, as dandelions grow all along my street — but experienced urban foragers warn against picking where pollution from auto exhaust or herbicide could contaminate your bounty. For good measure, I gathered about two cups’ worth of greens, too. Like most Cubs fans, dandelion greens grow progressively more bitter as the season advances, but I thought I’d try some anyway.
The salmonberries also proved astonishingly easy to harvest. Five minutes of Googling gave me the name of a city park notorious for its bright-red crop. “I hope I can find the bushes,” I muttered to myself as I approached one of the hiking trails, nearly bonking myself in the eye with a dangling berry. The glistening little jewels were everywhere. After an hour of peaceful harvesting (it took that long because I was being a polite forager and taking only a few berries from each bush, thankyouverymuch), I had three cups’ worth.
After reading up on pretty much every possible way to serve dandelions, I settled on two appetizer recipes. I’d blend the greens into a pesto, in the hopes that any bitterness would be balanced by Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. Then, I’d deep-fry the flowers into a squishy snack, because people will eat basically anything that’s been dunked and oiled. And the berries? Natural dessert.
Ever the good sports, Emily and Ben showed up eager to try my kitchen experiments. I gave them both a healthy pour of red wine, just to put them in the proper frame of mind, and got down to business. First up: pesto. Using a recipe from Yankee magazine, I combined the dandelion greens, basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan-Reggiano cheese and hit “blend.” The resulting mixture was creamy and bright, with just a hint of the astringent. I watched as my guests slathered the pesto on crackers and took their first tentative bites. “Really good!” Emily pronounced. True to her word, by the end of appetizer hour the bowl was scraped clean.
I’d never deep-fried so much as an onion ring, but I next readied the dandelion blossoms for their oil bath. The recipe came from Langdon Cook, one of the Northwest’s premier foraging gurus, so I figured I’d be in good hands. Turns out it’s not so tough, after all: Just trim the stems, dip the blooms in a batter made of flour and egg, then set them afloat in hot vegetable oil for a few minutes. They browned right up, looking reassuringly like something you might order at any old beer joint.
All four of us eagerly popped a golden-brown bloom into our mouths. Crisp on the outside, pillowy on the inside, with a delightful flavor I can only describe as “tastes just like a dandelion smells.” Success! “I gotta tell you, I wasn’t so sure about these,” Ben confessed as he grabbed another one. “But they’re delicious.”
We moved on to the non-foraged portion of the evening, salmon in lemon relish (perhaps next time I’ll attempt to wrestle the mighty beast myself), then dessert. Compared to the kitchen acrobatics I’d already performed, the salmonberry compote was a cinch. Berries, sugar, and a splash of water broke down into a sweet sauce on the stovetop, which I spooned over vanilla ice cream. I topped each serving with a single cherry. Oh, didn’t I mention I found a cherry tree in the park when I went a-dandy picking?
In the end, about 40 percent of our meal was foraged from within a six-mile radius of my kitchen table — not too shabby for a newbie with a 48-hour deadline. And the food? “Amazing.” “Delicious.” “Way better than I thought.” It took more time than a trip to the grocery store, sure, but it was a lot more fun. Plus, it added a new layer to my landscape — now I can’t help but see salads blooming in the medians and and sauces peeking up along the sidewalk.
My friends, it’s only the beginning. The growing season is still young here, and I haven’t even started with the seaweed yet.
Get Grist in your inbox