Some people pose with their big fish. Frank Becker was all proud smiles with a Giant Chicken Mushroom.
Becker happened to encounter Rivertown Patch editor Lizzie Hedrick the other day as he was hauling a huge “chicken” mushroom out of the . He was planning to bring it home to his wife, who would prepare it.
“I am not a mushroom expert, but I learned a lot about them during my encounters in RSPP,” he said.
Meanwhile, I recently had the privilege to scour the flora of for natural treats with the so-called "Wildman" himself, Steve Brill.
Brill said mushrooms are hard to find these days, especially when it's been dry this summer. They are more abundant in late summer/fall and “like lots of rainy weather,” he said, adding “the chances are against us.” Not to mention any amateur mushroom-hunting can prove lethal. But Brill had no trouble leading this group of eager folks of all ages on the tour to all kind of surprising finds.
It was peak wine berry season and we could have spent the two hours just filling buckets, hats or baggies with these small, sweet wild raspberries. But Wildman urged us along – tearing himself away as well – to see, taste and learn about (among others):
- Garlic Mustard – a dry twiggy looking plant this time of year, which, with a little shake, releases its seeds – a garlic/mustardy easy seasoning that requires no chopping or cooking.
- Wood Sorrel – heart-shaped groups of three leaves, like clover but not clover, with yellow flowers. You can throw in a salad or just eat in mouthfuls like I did throughout the tour.
- Staghorn Sumac – the fruit clusters can be steeped, strained and sweetened to make a sumac pink lemonade.
- Burdock root – one of the few summer root veggies in season now. Takes some digging to get the root out but then you could stew like a potato in soup, rice, stew.
- Acorns – require many rounds of soaking, and more so if you choose a higher tannined red oak (pointy leaf tips) vs. the rounded leafed white oak. Seemed like too much work for me, but maybe when I retire.
- Black Birch twigs – it's the green cambium layer under the bark that has all that wintergreen flavor. You could just chew it, or simmer to make a tea, add a few other ingredients including agar (thickener) and make a jello.
- Sassafras root – also takes some effort to get to the root. Because rats in labs who consume too much of it get sick, it's been banned for mass production by the FDA, but nix on that, Brill said. You simmer and chill it to make root beer that won't hurt you one bit but will taste good.
For a nature guy with a big hat and pants tucked into socks, Brill is pretty high-tech. The Wildman has an app that he makes good use of on his iPad, showing us photos of our specimens through other seasons and growth stages.
He offers hundreds of recipes online, and many on the tour, though I'm too busy stuffing berries into my mouth to write them all down. Brill is not as into medicinal uses (though ever since I met him I make good use of Jewel Weed for our many mosquito bites) as vegan cooking. There is though the easy teething fix: give your kid a birch branch to chew on.
A lot of this felt nostalgic to me, as these were the things I learned from my own dad as a kid. Sadly, these lessons aren't often taught these days, but not if Brill has anything to do with it. He wants to come to kids' schools, adult birthday parties, wherever. He spends his winters writing books and the most every other month doing these foraging tours all over the region, starting and ending his work-year in Manhattan's Central Park.
I wondered how much food Brill forages for his own consumption, and he said about 10 percent of his diet. Back in the '80s, though, when he was “unknown” and had more time, he said he foraged about half of his produce from the wild.
Apparently, foraging is controversial. Brill said, “I get lots of push back,” including hate mail. But his quest continues. “This knowledge needs to be out there,” he said. “It's time to explore similar habitats in your neighborhoods...before they're gone.”
Brill is next at Stone Barns on Sunday August 19 when hunting will focus on Chanterelle mushrooms, gourmet boletes, smoky flavored black trumpets, and more treasures including...the huge chicken mushroom. To register, click here.
For recipes, books, the app and more, visit wildmanstevebrill.com.