“Food shopping” with Seattle’s Melany Vorass can get a little loud, as cars and trucks whiz by the sidewalk where we stand.
“We are going down to the Burke-Gilman trail. Not too far from Gasworks Park,” Melany says as we walk from her car.
Melony is an urban forager who gleans 90 percent of her family’s produce from her garden and from foraging what most people consider weeds and unrecognizable roadside plants.
“This is Lathyrus latifolius,” she says pointing to a plant growing wild on the side of the road. “It’s a perennial sweat pea and it has these incredibly flamboyant bright pink blossoms. These are delicious. They do have a pea flavor and they’re very tender.”
Ever since Melony pointed them out to me, I see them everywhere and have had a bit of a roadside nibble on my own. She’s right, the curly tendrils taste exactly like sugar snap peas.
I first interviewed Melany in 2011, when neighbors and friends often asked her not to bring a dish to the potluck.
“They totally think I’m crazy, yeah. When we first started inviting friends over to have dandelion salads, and things like that, there was a lot of fear and trepidation at putting that first biteful in their mouths.”
But this week, she released her first book, The Front Yard Forager. The book includes 60 recipes, including thirty different plants commonly found in yards and parks across the US. It also includes identifying photos and information about the plants.
“Nipplewort, white bean and sun dried tomato crostini. Doesn’t that sound good? Mmmmm! For main dishes I have amaranth spanikopita, bedstraw lentil curry, cat’s ear and clam linguini. Oh! Japanese knot weed chutney with roast pork loin.”
Over the years, Melony and her family have subsisted more and more on things found in the yard, including some pesky proteins.
“Right here in my yard I have these brown garden snails. Well guess what, these very snails were brought from France to San Francisco to be used in restaurants for escargot. You know, 100 years and they were able to migrate up the coast to the Pacific Northwest and they’re all over the place. So, you know, I go out on a wet day and there are like 20 snails out there. All right! Escargot for dinner!”
Melany says there are many reasons why people think urban foraging is weird and off-putting.
“Lack of knowledge. I mean, we’ve forgotten all these plants. A mere 50 years ago a lot of people were still doing this kind of foraging. We just haven’t grown up with it. I think that part of it is because in The Depression and World War II they were seen as starvation foods. There was some shame in it.”
The list of benefits is long for Melany. She likes knowing she’ll have a food supply in case of a natural disaster, her family saves a lot of money, and she says many of the plants have medicinal properties, not to mention more nutritional value than kale.
“I’ve gotten off coffee. You know, when you eat a bowl of steamed nettles, I’m not kidding, it’s like the energy of having a double latte. You can feel it through your body. I know that sounds just like, ‘oh God, one of those herb ladies,'” she laughs. “But I do. I feel like I’m getting a more nutritious diet.”
Out on the trail, Melony and I gather up wild fennel fronds, which seem to grow everywhere, to put into a batch of sugar cookies. She says the airborne contaminants can be easily rinsed off. She soaks them for about ten minutes, rinses again, and spins them dry before coarsely chopping and adding them to the batter.
“Now we’re going to add the eggs,” she says adding a fresh egg from one of her chickens.
Beyond the nutrition, and the cost savings, urban foraging is just fun. It’s basically a big old treasure hunt.
“You know, once you start learning about this, you look around and it’s just a full pantry all the time.”
Excerpted from The Front Yard Forager by Melany Vorass Herrera
Wild Fennel Cookies
I often use wild fennel when I want to add
a subtle licorice flavor. This recipe is a combination
of an Italian comfort food, anisette
cookies, and an American comfort food, sugar
cookies. If you prefer a stronger licorice or
anise flavoring, you can double the fennel
quantity without harming the recipe.
Makes 1 dozen
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup wild fennel fronds, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon wild fennel seed, ground
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, cream
butter and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy.
Add egg and beat to combine. Add wild fennel
In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking
powder, and salt. Stir dry ingredients into
butter mixture one-third at a time. With your
hands, shape dough into 11/2-inch balls and
place on lightly greased baking sheet.
In a small bowl, mix ground wild fennel seed
with remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Dip the bottom
of a glass in water, then into the sugar mixture.
Gently flatten each cookie using the bottom of
the coated glass.
Bake cookies for 8-10 minutes or until very
lightly browned and puffed. Remove cookies
from pan immediately.