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Gathering, foraging and harvesting


Wild caught Shrimp on Sweet Potato Ribbons, with Garlic, Butter, Herbs, Heirloom Tomatoes, sprinkled with Wild Harvest Medicinal Mix

When I think of gathering, I think blueberries in Alaska, asparagus on the Big Sur highway, fiddleheads in Santa Cruz, mangos in Hawaii, pearl tomatoes in Mexico, and ramps in upstate New York. As a chef and a gourmand, this has been an exciting part of cooking; the gifts of the earth, for only the labor of the picking. I grew up, primarily in Santa Barbara, California, and Grants Pass, Oregon. A fair amount of our food was harvested from a wild source, fish, abalone and mussels from the sea, blackberries from the ditches in Oregon. As an adult, I've traveled a bit and it's always been a great day when I could find something that grew wild, spend the day harvesting, and produce a lovely meal for all who helped, were interested, or brought something complementary to the table.

Foraging, to me, is a Shroomer term. Never brave enough myself, I leave that to people I trust and who test. Although, I have friends who forage chanterelles and morels, do not test, and none of us has dropped dead from it yet. As a chef, those foraged mushrooms, instead of bought at $50 a pound, are a thief's cache to parlay into a seven course meal with our best wines. Okay, not entirely true, I picked puffballs off the front lawn of the Farm Lodge in Alaska, but the kids ate them first. The kids who had harvested all their lives. Best omelets ever.

My family camped every summer, for the entire summer. My father taught me how to find food and water. We found wild cucumbers, which I think were actually some kind of tuber, since we had to pull them, acorns, and how to leach the bitterness with water, (part of my Chumash heritage), wild cress, prickly pears and other parts of cactus, how to sling shot a small animal, how to fashion a fishing pole, and also that Oleander was a death sentence. The air and water were clean, the soil changed with the seasons and the smells of summer were herbaceous. In 1969, Santa Barbara was victim to an enormous oil spill and it's the first time I ever questioned the safety of our environment. What was going to happen to our world and how could we deal with it?

San Juan County has had its share of mishaps, water issues, clean up issues, and probably a lot more of which, I'm unaware. But here's the thing: it's still relatively clean here. It's manageable, if we do it. Rather than judge, let's take care of it. Face it, we all drive cars, paint our houses and spray goatheads with toxic waste. I'm a bleach user. The point is not to point the finger but to be aware. I would like to always be able to enjoy wild foods, piñons, juniper berries, prickly pears and nopales.

How much food is available without cultivating? What's available? I suppose it depends on where you are. I know I've written quite a bit about our food that comes from farmers, but what about what makes it possible for cultivation, or the abundance of wild food?

I recently had the pleasure of visiting with a vendor and tasting some wild harvest at the Durango Farmers Market. Theresa Stone was selling wild watercress, mint and a medicinal mix of about sixteen herbs, greens and weeds. Theresa has HeartStone Farm in addition to managing many other farms and gardens. She can tell you everything about her wild greens. She has a business call Love the Land. I recommend you go see her or get in touch with her to try this food. She is available at [email protected] and by phone 970-901-2547. Her website is LoveDurango.org. I can't get enough of this greenery. I've made cold lamb salad on cress, mint remoulade for shrimp and sprinkled those wild weeds on and in everything for the last week. Cooked, raw or blended, the nutrition is powerful, delicious, aromatic, and keeps me wanting more. It's a good chew.

Life force of wild foods is evident in its energy. It's interesting to me to think of the possibilities, culture and our perception of what is right, safe, healthy and acceptable. In Indonesia, they sell fried rat on a stick. Kebab, anyone? In Morocco, the most shocking thing at market was the sheep's heads on poles, with the wool burned off, ready for preparation. Of course, they're not wild, it was just the surprise of seeing them. My cousin has just returned from Cambodia, and I can tell you some of the available fare, even delicacies, were a wild harvest of insects, larva, snakes I think, and plant shoots. My point is that culturally, I believe it's good to be open, curious and integrate the foods that are available by nature into our diet. It ties us to the land, and reminds us of true sustainability. Take a walk next to the irrigation ditch or any of our rivers. Keep a keen eye and an open mind.

Chef Amber Michelle is a CIA educated chef, cultural explorer, and the cook, cleaner and bottle washer of Holly Ester's Tasty Toffeebread, a wholesale cookie company, and gruvitacos, a seasonal taco trailer, in Navajo Dam.

Chef Amber is taking a break from her column until sometime after Labor Day. You can visit her at "gruvitacos" in Navajo Dam and contact her at [email protected], or facebook.com/gruvitacos

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