November 20, 2012
Thanksgiving dinner may be the supreme all-American meal, and it’s surely one of the most satisfying feasts that ever has come across a table. It’s starchy, greasy and meaty; it’s both savory and sweet; it’s massive—and usually a sure recipe for leftovers. One could argue that a table set for Thanksgiving lacks in nothing. But we could likewise make the case that a Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most predictable buffets of Americana. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, an absurdly overweight turkey all have their rightful places on the Thanksgiving table. But would it entirely upend a revered culinary tradition to add a little exotic variation to the feast? From turkey to pumpkin pie, Peru to Tahiti, these dish-by-dish suggestions will spice up this Thursday’s banquet with some global flair and fare.
French duck. Turkeys—especially monstrous ones so fat and fleshy they cannot fly—are as American as apple pie, Chevies and suburbs. While Europeans have gained a taste for our largest native fowl, other birds have traditionally taken the seat of honor at their dinner tables. In much of France, the bird of choice is the duck. Now be warned: Most of the guests on your invite list have been waiting all year for their turkey, and if you screw it up they might mob you—so only replace the turkey for a small or particularly adventurous crowd. Ducks are only a fraction of the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, often with far less meat and a thick layer of fat. Don’t expect much leftovers, even if—as might be wise—you serve two ducks. To cook, try this: Brown some hand-sized cuts of the duck with shallots and onions in a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Then add Belgian beer, dried fruit and dried herbs, put on the lid and bake for two hours. Or you might spice up the bird with ginger, green onions, garlic and sesame oil for an Asian presentation.
Peruvian mashed potatoes. The origin of Solanum tuberosum, Peru is home to thousands of varieties of potato, some of which are available in America and, mashed with milk and butter, can add color and flavor to what may be the blandest dish on the table. For a dramatic presentation of mashed potatoes, try a purple potato. In taste and texture, the dish will be negligibly different than the one you grew up on. If you wish to take the same concept a step further, separately mash and season a batch of yellow potatoes. Then, fold the two mashed potato purées together in the serving dish, leaving layers of color.
Nigerian yams. Almost everyone loves yams on Thanksgiving—or at least they think they do. Because “yam” is a misnomer commonly applied to the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), another Peruvian native. You want a real yam? Then look straight to western equatorial Africa, where four-foot-long tubers weighing as much as 100 to 150 pounds are a staple carbohydrate for millions. The vegetable, which is celebrated with annual festivals, consists of multiple species in the genus Dioscorea. Africa’s white yam (D. rotundata) is the most popular and important species, and, like sweet potatoes, may be baked or boiled for starchy, semisweet results. Yams are grown throughout the Caribbean where African cultures took root (sorry) several centuries ago. Some are exported, and in the United States this huge vegetable is available in some Caribbean and Asian supermarkets.
Belizean baked plantains. The sweet syrup that leaks from the splitting skin of a hot baked yam—I mean, sweet potato—is one sure signature of the fourth Thursday in November. But along the belt of the Equator, an abundant local alternative produces a similarly delicious result: a baked plantain. This banana-like fruit, though often eaten as a savory starch source, can be left to ripen until black in the skin and soft in the flesh, which will by now be sweet and sticky. Cooking plantains as a sweet potato alternative is a cinch: Put them in a metal baking dish and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 or 20 minutes. When that syrup starts bubbling, the plantains are done. To serve, peel open the fruits, and the steaming flesh will fall onto the plate. Now, season as you would a yam—or melt coconut oil onto the fruit for a stronger exotic accent. Plantains grow throughout the tropics, but I name Belize as the origin of this dish simply because that’s where I first learned to make it.
Turkish fig-and-cranberry chutney. Messing around with the cranberry sauce is not as likely to draw unfriendly fire from expectant diners as, say, replacing the turkey with a scrawny avian cousin, so take this idea as far as you want. Following a Turkish theme, add dried brown figs—a major product of the nation—to your usual cranberry sauce recipe. Then, go incrementally further, ingredient at a time, to make a spice-laden chutney. Simmer the cranberries in a cup of fortified red wine (a.k.a. Port) and begin adding elements of the East: Dice and toss in the figs, some lemon and orange zest, garlic, ginger, cloves and cumin. Sweeten with honey and, after the stew has cooled, garnish with chopped mint and serve.
Tahitian stuffing with breadfruit (or taro) and coconut. Your guests may sulk at the sight of a nontraditional stuffing, so approach this idea cautiously. The theme takes us to the Pacific islands, where, lacking the culture and systems of grain cultivation, many societies rely on breadfruit as a major carbohydrate source. Cooked in its earlier stages of ripeness, this round, green, thick-skinned treefruit somewhat resembles a pineapple, but the fruit inside is as starchy and savory as bread or potatoes. Cooking breadfruit is easy; grilling or broiling thick slices with a little olive or coconut oil is a simple method. The challenge, however, may be finding the things, as our blog “Food and Think” reported three years ago. If you can’t find one of these exotic fruits, go underground for a similar result with taro, a starchy tuber of the tropics and also grown in Tahiti. Peel and halve the roots, then bake until steaming and tender. Use the breadfruit or taro as the bread in your favorite stuffing recipe. If you want some tropical sweetness in the dish, you can add cubes of fresh coconut and pineapple.
Italian porcini-chestnut gravy. Where chestnuts fall, porcini rise. That’s because Italy’s favorite mushroom happens to prefer the roots of the chestnut tree as its mycorrhizal companion, and for one who wakes early to beat the competition, a walk in the woods in November can provide a double whammy of wild gourmet loot. The mushrooms are considered relatively unmistakable, with no dangerous look-alikes (but if there’s any doubt, throw it out) and chestnuts, well, they’re as easy to harvest as pine cones. At home, de-husk the chestnuts, bake and peel. Using a blender or a hand potato masher, make a smooth paste using half the batch. Coarsely chop the rest of the chestnuts. For the mushrooms, brush off the grit, slice and dice, then sauté in olive oil until brown. Make the gravy as you normally would, using bird broth as the base and the chestnut mash as a thickener in place of flour. Add the porcini and chestnut chunks halfway through the simmering process.
Moroccan pumpkin pie. You might not subject each pie on the table to exotic experimentation, but try this idea for one: Follow your favorite pumpkin pie recipe, but reduce the quantity of molasses and make up the difference using purée of Medjool date, a variety believed to have originated in Morocco. The date is the world’s sweetest fruit, with up to 80 percent of its mass being sugar, meaning you can expect a rather seamless swap. Additionally, coarsely chop a handful of dates to fold into the pie mix. Sprinkle the pie with toasted almonds and orange zest, and you’ve got a North African rendition of America’s most sacred pie.
September 28, 2012
If you’re frustrated with medical care in the United States, try getting appendicitis in Antarctica. This potentially deadly condition can strike essentially anyone at any time—and no time was less opportune for Leonid Rogozov than April 30, 1961, at Novolavarezskaya Station, when the 27-year-old Russian scientist was the only doctor within 1,000 miles. After several days of pain, Rogozov concluded he had appendicitis and might die unless he did something. So he lay down in a hospital cot, had assistants tilt a mirror just above his lower belly, administered a shot of Novocain and called for a scalpel. In an epic feat of bravery and anatomical mastery, Rogozov sliced himself open, found his appendix, removed it, sutured himself shut again and proceeded with the finer things in life at the bottom of the world. A similar episode occurred on February 13, 1984, when Dr. Igor Mogirev removed his companion Valentin Gorbachev’s appendix during a tractor journey between an Antarctic landmark known as Dome C and Mirny Station, from which the team was about 600 miles away. The operation was successful—and conducted in the blistering cold after the diesel heater was shut off to keep the fumes from entering the tent and Gorbachev’s abdominal cavity.
The onset of appendicitis, which involves an organ that we don’t even need to begin with, often causes pain around the belly button that then “moves” to the lower right corner of the abdomen, according to this medical advice website. Such a pattern of pain is a flaming red flag, and if nausea, constipation, swelling of the abdomen and fever follow, one should seek aid promptly. May you not be the only doctor on the continent. And if you are, here’s hoping you brought the Novocain. Of course, the human body is a complex piece of living geography, and ailments may strike in many forms, in many hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Following are a few illnesses and conditions to be wary of when far away from home.
Giardia. How often have you wished during a hot hike in the mountains that you could step to the edge of a stream, kneel and have yourself a bellyful of cold, clear snowmelt? Of course, most of us know better than to drink the water—because nearly everywhere, in waters still or moving, Giardia lamblia lurks. This bacterium is not a killer—just a nuisance, really, that causes diarrhea and other digestive problems within seven to 14 days of infection, and which may remain in a person’s body for years. Wild and domesticated animals are generally blamed as the source of local Giardia populations in lakes and streams, though in much of New Zealand—home to tens of millions of sheep, cows and other nonnative mammals—locals swear their water is safe to drink. During my time there in January and February, I drank directly from streams and lakes almost every day during several backcountry outings. I never got sick, though that isn’t proof that the waters were clean. You should bring a pump, or at least water purification tablets.
Montezuma’s Revenge. In case you need to be told again, don’t drink the water. In fact, if you’re in parts of Latin America, keep your mouth shut in the shower and drink only bottled water—even when just brushing your teeth. Because Montezuma’s Revenge will spoil your trip to Mexico if you give this bugger a chance. Caused by Salmonella, E. coli and other little critters, Montezuma’s Revenge is itself not a disease but, rather, just a collection of symptoms like stomach upset and diarrhea. In other parts of the world, similar illnesses strike tourists, who may be told they’ve got Delhi Belly or the Turkey Trots. Fortunately, this condition only lasts a few days in most cases and is an annoyance more than a danger—though surely few travelers’ tales can be more gripping than that of Montezuma’s Revenge kicking in on the airplane.
Dehydration: So you’re damned if you drink the water—but you’re also damned if you don’t. A seemingly simple condition with a simple cause and a simple fix, dehydration can kill when water is simply not to be had. The first of its signs may be bright yellow urine. Hours may still pass before one actually feels thirsty, at which point the mouth grows sticky and a person may grow sluggish and lethargic. In advanced stages, the skin may seem to retract in super-slow motion, like bread dough, when pinched between two fingers, and if you feel confused and dizzy and notice that you are no longer able to sweat, it’s official: You need a drink of water. NOTE: Dehydration may occur as a result of another illness that has caused vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Chondromalacia. Say goodbye to your plans to spend three months bicycle touring through Southeast Asia if this nasty condition appears in your knee. Chondromalacia occurs when the cartilage protecting the ball-and-socket joint of the knee becomes inflamed. In severe cases of continued use even after symptoms begin, the cartilage can be worn down to the bone. Chondromalacia causes a dull, throbbing pain inside the knee, with difficulty walking down stairs a distinct symptom. You may even hear cracking and scraping. Icing the joint helps, as does—unfortunately—long periods of rest. Chondromalacia may be caused by the knee-cap beginning to travel off-center in its recurring path over the bone of the knee, causing irritating rubbing. Doctors like to say that treatment is simple—just rest the knee for several months, keeping it elevated and iced every day, while practicing a variety of awkward and seemingly futile leg raises and quad-building exercises. Other overuse conditions that can end a long, body-powered voyage include iliotibial band syndrome, tendonitis and a strained or torn Achilles tendon. Inquire at a bike shop before your next tour to see that your seat height is appropriate, your pedal cranks the right length and your clip-in shoe cleats are properly set.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The virus that infected some 8,000 people, killing more than 900 of them, in 2002 and ’03—when it was first identified—has caused a small scare after the second man within months was recently infected in England. The 49-year-old is alive and now being treated, though a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man died earlier this year of the disease. Scientists have reported that both men were infected by what seems to be a new, or at least previously unknown, strain of the virus (which the World Health Organization has reported is, fortunately, not easily transmitted). SARS symptoms are initially similar to those of a common cold—but with a notable difficulty in breathing. Helpful treatments, including antibiotics, can be administered in patients who suspect they are infected, even if tests later prove negative. The World Health Organization has not issued any formal travel warnings—just a global alert—in response to the latest SARS case, but this is a story worth following.
Hantavirus. Fear has crept through Yosemite National Park—as quietly as a mouse. For nine people were infected this summer by the deadly rodent-carried Hantavirus. Three people have died, and the park’s staff is now being served by a voluntary testing plan (even though, mysteriously, not a single employee of Yosemite’s 3,000 annual workers has been infected—yet). The disease, which can take six weeks to incubate in a person before taking effect, usually involves flu-like symptoms at first, like nausea, headache and aching joints, which escalate into organ failure. Hantavirus is carried by deer mice and other like vermin and can be spread via rodent feces, saliva and urine, and it can go airborne via dust particles. Fortunately, the disease is rare, infecting just 30-some people in an average year in America. The death rate, though, among victims averages about 30 percent.
Mushroom poisoning. Mushrooms don’t bite, and the most poisonous of them are only dangerous if eaten (myths abound that just touching a “toadstool” can kill you). Indeed, the only reason mushroom poisonings happen is that some hikers can’t resist taking unidentified mushrooms home, sautéing them in olive oil and serving them at potlucks. The mushrooms involved in many, if not most, serious poisonings are two species of the Amanita genus—A. phalloides, usually called the Death Cap, and A. bisporigera, commonly known as the Destroying Angel. Both reportedly taste quite nice, and guests at the dinner table will likely praise their host’s prowess in garnering dinner from the wild, wild woods—until the stomach ache hits. That’s your liver failing. Go get help. Two to three people have died of mushroom poisoning in America every year for the past 30 years. Note that the death rate runs between 10 and 50 percent of all poisonings—and just getting sick from a Death Cap isn’t fun, a liver transplant often being the only cure. Some people may experience frightening but nonfatal allergic reactions to otherwise coveted edible fungi, like the chicken of the woods, the shaggy parasol and the inky cap (which can cause poisoning if alcohol is consumed within days on either end). Know your mushrooms, and—when eating at a party—know your host. Mushroom rookies should not host mushroom dinners. And, keep your dog leashed in mushroom country. Every year, dogs die when they eat Death Caps.
Learn more about maladies and science-based remedies in Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook. Available here for sale (or as an online PDF via this website), the handbook is hundreds of pages long, bulky as a Bible, and describes everything from treatment for snakebites to witchcraft cures that don’t work to identifying appendicitis to the threats of mosquitoes, and so on and so on. First published decades ago, the book was revised and updated for its 2011 reprinting.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not meant to be used as a medical guide, and anyone who suspects they may be seriously ill should visit a qualified doctor.
Next week: In detail on snakes. No, I didn’t forget about snakebites. Rather, I’m saving this giant topic for next week. For a quick preview, snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000, according to the BBC. In India alone, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. Clearly, this is a topic that deserves a blog post all its own.
Do you have any overseas medical stories to share? Tell us in the comment box below.
August 10, 2012
Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.
No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.
Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.
Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.
Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.
Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”
Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.
Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.
Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.
Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.
Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.
Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.
Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?
July 10, 2012
There is no fruit quite like a fresh fruit. Picked ripe and eaten immediately, fresh fruits exhibit the vibrant sugars and zesty acids that make them so attractive to foraging creatures and a key element in their evolutionary strategy. But fresh-picked fruit is generally unavailable to most of us. That’s because farmers usually harvest their stone fruits, berries, figs and other delicate seasonals well before they’ve even ripened. Then, the pickings spend a week or more in transit, finally arriving in the grocery store dull as a billy-clubbed mahi mahi, often mushy or pithy and a sad exhibition of their species’ full potential. Even sadder is that fact that we consumers must take what we can get, and we live our lives buying and eating this sub-prime fruit.
Unless, that is, we hit the road and take matters—and super-fresh fruit—into our own hands. All along the roadways of America, and the world, fruit trees grow within reach of passersby, and about now, as summer heats up, these trees are loaded—and their abundant branches are hanging over a fence near you. Here’s a list of best bets for roadside foraging this July:
Loquats. The orange color and the suffix “quat” (think kumquat) lead many people to assume that the loquat is a citrus fruit—but it’s not even related. A native of East Asia and a favorite summer snack in Europe, Japan, Israel and Brazil, the loquat in America is common yet just as obscure. Many homeowners are unaware that the fruits, growing in their own yards, are even edible—which is good news for you and me. That means you can knock on the door, ask permission and, almost without fail, receive the go-ahead to “take all you want.” Some homeowners may appear baffled and say, “Those are edible?” Yes—fantastic, in fact, and surely one of the most under-appreciated garden fruits. When picking loquats, leave a quarter-inch of stem attached to each fruit, which will reduce bruising, and carry them home wrapped in a sweat shirt for padding. Peel the skins and savor the sweet, juicy, zesty flesh. If you have a real bounty to work with, try juicing a portion and making loquat cider.
Avocados. The fact that avocados, one of the most recognized and desired tree fruits, can be had for free along public roadways is simply wonderful. NOTE: This is NOT an invitation to plunder an orchard, which is illegal, taken seriously by Southern California law enforcement agencies and could land you in jail. Rather, this is simply a reminder to cyclists and pedestrians south of Santa Barbara to watch the roadsides for avocado trees, and, when you see one, look to the ground below, or in the culvert along the road. These are the places where ripe avocados go—and if you don’t get them, the rodents will. Avocado trees, happily, fruit almost all year.
Figs. The bulk of the year’s figs arrive in late summer and fall, but many varieties of the fruit produce an early crop, as well—physiologically distinct from the main crop of September. Called the “breba” crop, this first flush of figs usually consists of fewer fruits than the longer-lasting autumn crop—but not always, and in some places, and with certain fig varieties, a bounty of breba figs may weight the tree branches toward the ground. The black mission fig, one of the main commercial and garden varieties of California, produces a heavy breba crop in June and July. So does the desert king, a jammy, juicy green variety. Countless fig trees grow wild or feral along small rural roadways and can be easily and safely accessed. Texas and other states of the South offer good fig-hunting opportunities, too—and Southern Europe is a fig hunter’s heaven, especially in the fall. Breba crop figs grow from the old-growth wood of the previous year, and so they may often be concealed by summer foliage. Push back the leaves and behold the whoppers. Only take them if they’re splitting, sagging and dripping with juices, as figs will not ripen once picked.
Mulberries. An Old World native grown in America largely as a shade tree, the mulberry is a prolific producer and one of the most under-appreciated of tree fruits. Some mulberry varieties are cotton-candy pink, while others are purple, and others jet black—and all, when ripe, are pure sweetness, lacking the tannins that make blackberries and other thorny bush-berries so often bitter and sour. In nations around the Mediterranean, mulberries are loved, cultivated and often eaten dried, like raisins. In many places, fallen mulberries carpet the pavement a half-inch thick during July. In California and the rest of America, most trees are of non-fruiting varieties—often planted along paths and roadways as shade trees—but those bearing berries begin to drop their crop in June. Cyclists have a great advantage in hunting the mulberry, able to cover large distances but moving slowly enough to watch the asphalt; when you see dark stains of splattered fruit on the ground, hit the brakes and look up.
Blackberries. A no-brainer, blackberries are probably America’s favorite wild fruit. The Himalayan blackberry is also one of the most hated invasive species ever to leave its Old World homeland. Introduced in 1885 to Sonoma County by fruit breeder Luther Burbank, the species now grows in wicked bramble patches across the continent, and the world. Road crews and property owners attack the vines with chain saws, but there’s no stopping this thorny invader—and every July and August, it’s pie time. America also has a native blackberry, with gentler thorns than the Himalayan and bearing slender, elongated fruits about a month earlier, beginning in June. Blackberries fall in the genus Rubus, which also includes raspberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries. Blueberries and huckleberries are also a summertime crop, and an easy one to forage.
Wild Plums. Remember the chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire when he visits Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and describes the fantastic abundance and diversity of the fruit, and the forest floor littered with a rainbow-colored layer of apples? Well, in parts of coastal California, the abundance of wild plums is almost as tremendous. Plum trees—growing wild, sprouted from seed—cover mountain slopes and bear fruits of a dozen colors. A quick skirmish with the brambles, and you’re among the trees. Taste through them until you find the best. TIP: You’ll find that the plums fallen and hiding in the grass are exceptionally sweet, ripened by days in the sun. Enjoy them on the spot, or take them home to make jam—or even wine. Planning on going Down Under? Then watch along the roads of New Zealand, where plums grow as wildly as in California.
The Prince Agaricus mushroom. A fungus fruit, the prince is one of the very best edible mushrooms, with a smell and flavor like almond extract that will knock almost any foodie to his knees as he begs you to tell just where you found these incredibly delicious things. Don’t tell—just share, and perhaps offer the basic scoop: The prince, Latin name Agaricus augustus, is a close relative of the cultivated portobello mushroom. Many other species in the genus are good to eat, as well—but the prince is the king. The mushroom is a summer fruiter, often occurring in areas touched by fog drip or in parks wetted by sprinklers. The mushrooms like to grow in disturbed soils—and right beside roadways is a great place to look. I’ve even encountered the prince while cycling through Bulgaria and Greece. Unsure I had met my old friend so far from home, I smelled the cap—and that almond-anise aroma left no doubt. When the mushrooms are barbecued, the sweet juices of the prince come out sizzling. The texture remains firm—never slimy—and the flavor is a knockout. Try dipping prince slices in egg, then sautéing and serving with a drizzle of maple syrup for mushroom French toast. NOTE: Do not forage mushrooms if you don’t know what you’re doing. This blog post is not to be used for identification purposes.
Don’t know where to start? Fallen Fruit serves as a foraging resource and a guide to collecting fruit from public trees in Los Angeles and beyond. Another group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, calls itself Guerrilla Grafters and stalks the streets, grafting branches of prized fruit varieties onto non-fruit-bearing sidewalk trees with the goal of cultivating a free food resource for public use. How cool is that?
May 29, 2012
For every night that I camp out for free, I consider myself a wad of cash richer. And what trivial luxuries I may miss in the way of a bed, pillows, sheets and all that fuss, or simply the security of knowing I won’t be mugged in the night or trampled by giant red deer in the woods—such sacrifices I make up for by spending lavishly on food. Between grocery stores, wine shops, artisan bakeries and farm stands, I regain each calorie I burn in style and taste—and with the pickiness of a connoisseur. For I won’t eat just anything out here. Fast food, that gel junk that athletes suck from foil pouches, quick-cook camping meals, even baguettes and butter: I don’t want any of it, because in this country there’s much better food to eat, and following are a few of my camp favorites and standard staples of the road.
Beet, orange and avocado salad, with eggs and a walnut vinaigrette. This dish is more substantial than it sounds. I go heavy on the beets, for one thing, and I get liberal with the avocado—an entire fruit or two. Vine-ripened tomatoes add still more bulk. Once all is tossed with a dressing of walnut oil and red wine vinegar, two soft-boiled eggs are splayed on top. Meal time begins as the yolks drain into the nooks and crannies of this sweet and savory salad. I take the science of wine-food pairing very seriously when I camp in the bushes, because a famished cyclist can’t have conflicting flavors skirmishing with each other in the mouth at dinnertime. And so I’ve thoroughly explored the wine options for this dish, and I’ve found that a bulk-bin red Gascogne suits it perfectly, the zesty bite of the wine’s acids going nicely with the beta carotene and citric acid.
Smoked herring, cantaloupe and Chantecler apple. Sometimes, the wine of choice must determine the meal, and when in Sauternes country I sought fatty, salty foods to cut the sweetness of the area’s white dessert wines. Roquefort cheese and fois gras are considered the legendary pairings for this wine style, but after experimenting with other items I nailed a winner: a halved cantaloupe, several fillets of smoked herring and a Chantecler apple, a local favored variety. The honey-sweet fruits prep the palate for the wine to come, after which the salt and oils of the fish allow the Sauternes’ delicate flavors to truly sparkle. Note: You may sink into a blissful stupor during this dinner, but don’t forget to mind your surroundings, and don’t neglect to duck each time those car headlights pass over your camp.
Green lentils drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted hazelnuts and white asparagus. A dish both rich and starchy, this protein-packed salad makes an ideal recovery meal after an especially rigorous day in the saddle. In Bordeaux, after pedaling through the rain without food for six hours and nearly suffering an emotional meltdown when it began to look like I would find no shelter for the night, I prepared this spread in sky-high spirits on my hotel room’s bathroom counter. The 30-minute cook time on the lentils nearly killed my canister of butane before I even got started on sauteing the asparagus and toasting the nuts, and I advise all travelers to keep a second can of fuel available to avoid the heartbreak of a half-cooked dinner (and keep the window open to let the fumes out). In fact, my stove conked out just as the hazelnuts began to turn color, and by the time they went over the lentils and asparagus, they were crunchy, lightly blackened and perfect. Dress with a Tuscan olive oil. Enjoy with a crisp white wine.
Chicken of the woods mushroom, sauteed and sprinkled with melted blue cheese. I lucked out near Bordeaux one afternoon when I found an out-of-season chicken of the woods sprouting from a lumber pile by the road. This strange fungus, as spectacular in sight as it is delicious, is a fall bloomer that grows directly out of tree trunks and which rarely occurs in the spring. Camped among the noble vines that night, I sauteed the mushroom, which was as fresh and tender as tofu, until brown, deglazed the pan with some red wine and drizzled the reduction over the steaming heap of golden fungus, topping the plate with some crumbled cave-aged blue cheese from the Pyrenees. The wine match was a spicy red from the Rhone Valley.
Salad of endive, beet and eggs over a bed of bulgur. A pair of red deer charged wildly past my camp as I cooked this dish the other night in a meadow surrounded by chestnut forest near Lourdes. The animals, which can weigh half a ton, have a habit of hollering like drunken cavemen that is quite unnerving for travelers unaccustomed to the species, and I almost knocked over my entire dinner in alarm when they came crashing out of the brush. When these wild boys saw me, they fled, and I carried on with my business. Now, I have one cooking pot, one eating dish and one utensil—so logistics must be factored into meal prep. For this bulgur salad, I suggest starting by cooking the grain. Once it’s al dente, toss the rustic kernels with the vegetables (buy your beets pre-cooked at a farmers market), then cook the eggs and scrape them out and onto the salad before the yolks turn solid. Lay the endives on top. Dress with a vinaigrette.
Eggs poached in white wine, garnished with wild mint. Get the wine boiling in your steel bowl, then drop in the eggs without breaking the yolks, and voila—this dish practically makes itself. Remove from the heat when the whites have congealed, and the yolks will settle into gooey perfection as you make your cowboy coffee, softened with farm-fresh goat milk. Eat the eggs straight, or serve on a halved mini baguette of whole wheat bread.
Other staples of the road: Pain complet, or whole wheat bread, drizzled with local walnut oil. Cherries straight from the tree; now is the season. Dried figs, stuffed with chevre. Whatever you eat, don’t squander a good appetite on less than the best. That next grocery store may be 15 miles away still, and you might go hungry for a few miles, but nobody starves in the country that first said, “Bon apetit.”
Find the Beer: In Sauternes, on road D116 E1, in the base of the cobblestone rock wall facing the entrance to Chateau Lafaurie-Peyragney, a can of beer now dwells in a hole just 40 meters west of the four-way intersection. Let me know when you find it. The beer’s name starts with an “M,” is as strong as a wine but a whole lot cheaper than Chateau d’Yquem‘s latest release.