Spring means many things in Southern California--the end of citrus season, the beginning of masses of bright green reappearing in local farmers' markets--but it is not associated with the food-gathering traditions long upheld elsewhere in the country. The first somewhat warm, wet months that follow winter bring about morel hunts in the Midwest, ramp digs in Appalachia, fiddlehead fern gathering in New England. Like the king of wild ingredients, the truffle, these highly season, intensely local foods are loved not just for their taste, but for the traditions which have built up around their seasons, the effort needed to experience their aromas, flavors and textures.
But other than hoping a plane to Iowa and somehow convincing a seasoned mushroom hunter to take you to his or her most treasured tract of woods (author's note: this is goddamn impossible, and I can say that from experience. The locations of reliable morel grounds are the most tightly held of secrets), how can we Angelenos get in on the foraging action? There's the Fallen Fruit approach, of course, which we wholly endorse, but there's a lot of edible goods to be had which aren't hanging over your neighbor's fence, but actually growing in the (relative) wilds of the Southland--whether in a park or along the fire roads and trails cutting through the mountains hemming in our city.
Following is Squid Ink's list, alphabetically, of 10 best and most interesting foodstuffs to be foraged for. It goes without saying that you need to be careful about what you eat that's picked from the wild, and where you pick it, so always exercise caution.
1. Bay leaves
In more ingredient-driven cookbooks, recipes will sometime call for not just any old bay leaf, but will stipulate exactly which species to use: Turkish or Californian. Bay leaf is an easy ingredient to skip in a recipe, with ancient, dried leaves adding little flavor to a stew, sauce or braise, regardless of their provenance. But cooking with fresh bay leaves is much more than a ritual addition--they pack an intense amount of flavor. While its easy enough to buy fresh bay leaves, California bay leaves, in Los Angeles, you can find them in the wild too. Per the name, California bay leaves come from the California laurel tree (Umbellularia californica), which is native to our coastal forests. And if you find a tree--or already know where one is--let us know, if you're willing to share.
The capers available in stores are made from the buds of a bush that grows readily in the wild throughout the Mediterranean. And while the caper plant can and does grown well in our Southern California climate, there's a much more readily available source for making what canning blogger Kevin West calls California Capers: nasturtiums. The vine-y flower is wholly edible, from flowers to leaves to shoots, but if the flowers are left to form seed pods--these capers come from the opposite end of the plant cycle from the traditional ones--they can be picked, run through a few changes of brine, then stored in vinegar and used in any recipe calling for capers. As a common landscaping groundcover-cum-vine, nasturtiums are more Fallen Fruit-style urban foraging than other edibles on this list, but if you looked hard enough, I'm sure there's some opportunistic wild tangles of the flower to be found in the Southland too.
3. 4. & 5. Fennel seeds, fronds, pollen
If there is a vegetable equivalent to the nose-to-tail philosophy of eating meat, its mascot would be fennel to the carnivore versions pork. From bulb to flower and pollen, from stalk to seed, fennel offers a variety of flavors and textures throughout its growing season. Unlike domestic fennel, the kind you buy at the grocery store or farmers' market, a lot of wild fennel doesn't produce a bulb, so cooking with it is a slightly different game.
If you get at a plant early enough, when its still very small the stalks haven't begun to get woodsy, it can be treated like cultivated varieties, but if that window has closed--which, this far into spring, it likely has--there are plenty of other ways to approach the plant in the kitchen. Stalks can be used in a broth or as a bed to roast meat or fish atop of. Fronds, which are a bit tougher than the wispy, dill-like greenery you're likely used to, will make pork of any variety sing--just be sure to sauté or blanch it, to soften it up. And come fall, after the plants have bolted and shot up to over six feet tall, there will be fennel flowers and, after that, fennel seeds to forage for. We tried gathering our own fennel pollen from flowers last year, a laborious effort which will forever remind us of why the stuff is so expensive to buy, but arguably worth the effort; as good as a bone-in pork chop coated with wild fennel fronds tastes, one dusted with fennel pollen tastes infinitely better. Fennel flower-infused liquor is another recipe we have our eye on.
After the small clusters of yellow flowers turn in on themselves and develop into small clusters of green seeds, fennel's last offering of the year can be had very easily: the seeds can be harvested by the handful and just a few minutes of picking will probably give you a years supply. If you're are looking to stock your spice rack for the long haul, wait until the seeds have dried out somewhat and the seeds are no longer sticky.
America has come a long way from the days of iceberg wedge salads and creamed spinach, having embraced the wonderful variety of lettuces, chicories and other greens that have becoming increasingly commercially available. As a result, pre-washed, clamshell-packaged of bagged baby greens practically have their own isle in the grocery store. But the history of many of these greens, especially those of Italian provenance, are as foraged foods, with the likes of arugula never seeing any kind of large commercial cultivation until the 1990s. Dandelion greens are plentiful and easy to identify, although they become unpalatably bitter after they've bolted, so its best to pick leaves from plants sans flowers.