You can save money and avoid chemicals and preservatives by eating wild plants, but you need to know what you're doing.
When you go on a hike, you might notice how amazing the fresh air feels pumping into your lungs, or that jolt of energy you get from being in nature. But when Marcel Vigneron is out there, he's thinking about dinner. The chef and owner of Wolf and Beefsteak, two Los Angeles restaurants, is a big proponent of foraging. He regularly makes trips out to Runyon Canyon to source wild ingredients, which end up in dishes at his restaurants. (Psst...Check out these benefits of hiking.)
"For me, it's a way of life," Vigneron says, adding that he grew up foraging ingredients in his home state of Washington. "It's increased in popularity over the past couple of years for many reasons, and I think one is why wouldn't you utilize nature that's around you?" Foraging makes sense economically (those free herbs are a whole lot cheaper than what's for sale at the farmers' market), gives people a chance to interact with nature, and lends a unique flavor to the final dish. "If you're foraging for ingredients in your backyard or your neighborhood, it can really give your food a sense of place," Vigneron says.
Karen Stephenson, a master naturalist and wild food educator behind the website Edible Wild Food, adds that people have also turned to foraging as a result of being sketched out by the processed food available at the grocery store. "There are a lot of people who feel they have no control over the food they eat, so they turn to wild food," she says. "And when you really get into it, you find out how great it is for your health." Straight-from-the-earth plants are free of chemicals, preservatives, GMOs, and other questionable add-ons, so you're able to tap into nutrient-rich ingredients in their purest form, she says.
It's not exactly as simple as heading out to your backyard and eating whatever's growing, though. "Some plants can be dangerous, so you need to be careful and know what you're doing," Vigneron says. Here's how to prep for a (safe) foraging excursion.
Do some research ahead of time.
Start by walking around your lawn or neighborhood and familiarizing yourself with the plants around you (hint: there's likely more than just grass). Stephenson says you'll probably find creeping Charlie, dandelions, and purslane. Turn to online resources (Stephenson's site is a great place to start) to identify plants and find ideas on how to cook with them.
Stick to safe plant families.
Stephenson recommends first-time foragers seek out two plant families: mint and mustard. "All of the plants within these families are edible—no matter what the plant is," she says. "It's easy to know a plant belongs to the mustard family if the seedpods appear along the stem between the leaves and the flowers, which always have four petals." Mint plants will have perfectly square stems.
Be creative in the kitchen.
Stephenson recommends making a salad dressing with the mint and using mustard plants to create garlic mustard pesto—or make a horseradish dip from the roots. Cooking with what you find in your area means you may be using ingredients you've never encountered before, such as dandelion leaves. Stephenson is a fan of subbing those in for kale in a kale chip recipe for a tasty (and more affordable) snack.
Go off the beaten path.
Vigneron has spotted garlic chives growing in the median of a busy street in Los Angeles, but that's not exactly where you want to forage. "Go into nature and stay away from streets and roads where there could be some potentially hazardous contaminants," he says. You should also avoid iffy legality situations by staying off private land and not picking any endangered plants.
Do a DIY allergy test.
In general, you shouldn't be too scared of eating what you find. "The good news with wild plants is, yeah, there are some toxic plants out there, but they are few and far between," Stephenson says. "You won't die—you might just sit on the toilet for a day." She suggests doing a quick allergy test for anything that seems questionable: Break the plant apart, rub it on your forearm, and wait an hour. "If you have any reaction whatsoever—redness, rashes, lumps, bumps—do not put it in your body," she advises. If you take medication or have a health issue, you'll want to be extra cautious. Talk to a pro, ideally a naturopathic physician, before digging in.