Thursday May 30, 2013 | 09:08 AM

More and more people are becoming invested in finding ways to eat healthier, strengthen their local food systems, and in general are paying closer attention to where their food comes from. As this happens, they are also finding opportunities to educate themselves and their children about what they eat. What better way than starting in your backyard?

For thousands of years Native American Indians in South, Central, and North America relied on hunting and gathering to feed themselves. Gradually, over the last fifty years, gathering (a.k.a. foraging) is once again finding a place in our food system.

The latest “trend” in the do-it-yourself/locavore movement “sweeping” the nation; foraging is serious business. There are wild “celebrity” foragers who service chefs at some of Manhattan and New England’s finest restaurants, field trips and smartphone applications, and popular (with chefs, TV personalities…) mycological societies like those in Puget Sound and Washington, D.C. Urban foraging is becoming more a lifestyle choice with groups such as the Fallen Fruit Collective, who encourage picking fruit off the ground right in the middle of Los Angeles, CA. and are taking it to a whole other level with inspired shows at major contemporary art museums. People fly halfway around the world to eat at Scandinavian restaurants Noma and Faviken, whose chefs each forage for many of the items on their menus, and are inspiring countless news articles on the subject. 

In Maine, one need not travel further than downtown Portland for a delicious meal using locally foraged ingredients. Evidence of Chef Andrew Taylor’s preference (and knowledge) of foraged items can be found on the award-winning restaurant Eventide Oyster Co.’s menu. Taylor’s enthusiasm for foraged items, and desire to do it himself led Eventide (owned by Taylor, Arlin Smith, and Chef Mike Wiley) to purchase a skiff this spring for the purpose of collecting seaweeds and other foraging projects.

“While some might count my early expeditions catching crabs, digging steamers and picking wild mussels a type of foraging, I really got into what one would today call foraging when I moved to Seattle in 2004 and started working in kitchens,” said Taylor. “Everyday in the kitchen there it was like a treasure trove walking in the back door. I was amazed that this stuff - nettles, chanterelles, porcini, morels, lobster mushrooms, etc - was just sitting out there in the woods waiting to be picked. Some friends and I started reading as much as we could on the subject and started taking blind trips out to the Cascades or the Olympics or beyond to participate in what feels like a big treasure hunt.”

When I asked Taylor about my interpretation of Eventide’s menu as representing nature and simpler things, and having a sense of joy, he explained “For me, there is certainly something nostalgic about working with all this incredible fresh seafood. Some of my early food memories revolve around catching and trying to prepare fish and shellfish in the summer on Cape Cod. When my family would go to Dowses beach for the day, I was too restless to lounge on a towel so I would occupy myself by catching blue crabs, digging steamers, wading for quahogs, picking wild mussels or fishing for scup and blues on the jetty. The chowder at Eventide Oyster Co. is simply an evolution of the traditional New England Clam Chowder recipe I've been working on since I was 10 years old. It's come a long way...”

A couple weeks ago, I joined Taylor and Eventide oyster shucker Justin DeWalt for a beach/sea foraging expedition. Wetsuit and all we set out for treasure, and were not disappointed.

Taylor cautioned me our visit might be a little premature, and that June and July are the best months for foraging most beach greens. What we would find would not be as vibrant and plentiful. Additionally, some items e.g. goose-tongue greens, sea beans, sea blight, beach rose petals, and rose-hips would not available till between June and mid-late July. Miss that window, and by late August and September he said most of the greens will be a bit fibrous and not nearly as pleasant to eat.

Still, within a few minutes of searching the shore for wild edibles, we had found four different edible beach greens. I felt overjoyed, as if Robert Louis Stevenson himself had mapped out our expedition and more buried gold was further down the beach.

What we found as described by Taylor:

Beach peas. These are good in the spring if you just pick the shoots and use them much in the way one would use most pea shoots - sauteed or dressed in a salad. In the summer there is a fleeting time that they actually have pea pods with beautiful little peas that one can treat like english peas.

Beach mustard. This can be used like any other mustard green. Dressed in a salad, sauteed, braised, pureed, etc. Also in the summer, beach mustard has beautiful edible yellow flowers for garnish in plates and adding a little mustardy snap to dishes.

Sea rocket. It is so named because it's spicy flavor is reminiscent of arugula(called rocket in England) It is an incredibly strong green, and is best used in moderation if put in salads. We like to puree it raw into aioli or pistou's. Sea rocket should not be cooked as it turns horrifically bitter when heat is applied to it.

Sheep sorrel. Delicious bright and tart green like most other varietals of sorrel. Sheep sorrel is not specific to beaches and probably grows in your backyard. On our way back to the dock we made a stop at a raft, where Taylor and DeWalt dove for 'digitata', lamanaria digitata (a sort of purple seaweed with leaves like fingers), and I harvested 'sea lettuce', ulva lactuca (bright green stuff) off the ropes attached to the raft.

Taylor explained 'sea lettuce' is delicious raw. He said it has a slightly chewy texture so it's best to cut it into a fine chiffonade or small pieces. Blanching the sea lettuce brightens the color, tenderizes it a bit and extends the shelf life...don't overcook it though. You can also dehydrate it to preserve it indefinitely. At that point simply rehydrating it in cold water will produce a delicious and tender leaf. At Eventide, he said, they use sea lettuce for seaweed salads, wrappings for fish, garnishes in various chowders, etc.

He said 'Digitata' is a bit too tough to eat on it's own so Eventide primarily uses it as a flavoring agent. They make dashi, stocks, and as an ingredient of marinades when raw. When dehydrated, they either use it whole for dashi and stocks or they powderize it to add to seasoning mixes like homemade ramen packets or flavored salts.

Recipe: Andrew’s Beach Green Salad with Seaweed Vinaigrette - Take some dehydrated digitata and mill it to powder in a spice grinder. Add a little soy, a little mirin, a little rice wine vinegar and canola oil. Lightly whisk to make a broken vinaigrette. Clean all your foraged beach greens thoroughly. Dry well. Dress greens with seaweed vinaigrette and add some pickled vegetables if you have any on hand and enjoy.

Prepping for a seaweed foraging excursion.
***Go with someone who is experienced, watch the weather report, and do not go alone. Foraging is fun, but it’s also serious business.
Chef Taylor’s tips: Whether to wear a wetsuit, a drysuit or just a bathing suit is determined by water temperature. Since all seaweed is edible, the biggest danger you face when foraging is hypothermia. It is really important to be safe in this regard, particularly in northern climates in the winter and spring. A mask is critical, fins are important, a snorkel helps if you are harvesting a lot of seaweed, and some people actually scuba dive for seaweeds. A dive knife really helps to cut through stems. We use old oyster bags(we have plenty of them for seaweeds. For beach greens, a pair of scissors is all that’s really necessary. We typically would use a box with a tight fitting lid for our foraged beach greens.

Resources:
Chef Andrew Taylor recommends: River Cottage Handbook No. 5: Edible Seashore'by John Wight for information on both beach greens and seaweeds.

In Maine, there are ample opportunities to learn more about foraging from experienced foragers such as Tom Seymour, who authored the foraging guide Wild Plants of Maine, and leads summertime foraging tours on Sears Island. 

From time to time, Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine holds workshops on programs related to Maine's coastal and marine resources. This could be a good resource if you are interested in learning more about foraging beach greens and the edible seaweeds being harvested from the waters of the Gulf of Maine. 

Photos of boat in harbor and Chef Andrew Taylor by Winky Lewis. Photos of foraged greens by Sharon Kitchens.

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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