After living in the Laurel District of Oakland, California, for 12 years, I take it for granted that I can make a whole meal around foraged food from our neighborhood. A few days after I was asked to create this menu, I saw the abundance of edible plants with fresh eyes while taking a post-dinner walk with my family. Blackberries, dandelion, pineapple weed (wild chamomile), fennel, prickly pears, lemons, loquats, and figs surrounded me. That walk inspired me to craft this meal using foraged ingredients. If I had to describe this menu, I’d say it’s Northern California with an eye on the American South and a nod to Cantonese cooking.
I knew that grilled spring onions with grits would be a nice anchor around which I could build a plant-based meal, especially since wild spring onions grow in abundance in the Bay Area. As I thought about pairing other dishes, I imagined the grits being a blank canvas to add different sides to—much like jook, a Chinese rice porridge served with several accompaniments. The Roasted Wild Mushrooms, Sautéed Miner’s Lettuce, and Ramp-Parsley Pesto can stand on its own or top the grits if you like. The Sparkling Lemon Balm-Infused Chamomile Tea came together pretty quickly using wild chamomile and lemon balm we harvested from a small park nearby. We replanted both in our garden and used them to make a simple syrup for this refreshing drink. My culinary director, Amanda Yee, collaborated with me to create Southern Pine Needle Biscuits, pillowy biscuits using blissfully aromatic pine needles (the biscuits are great for scraping up the remnants of grits at the bottom of the bowl). I’ve worked with prickly pears in the past and knew they would make a brilliant Prickly Pear and Lime Sorbet to end the meal.
While there are many common wild plants that most people can find in temperate zones, I understand that this is a hyper-local menu with ingredients that might not be easily foraged in your geographic location. If this is the case, don’t fret. I offer substitutions when they make sense, and I wouldn’t be mad if you bought mushrooms from the supermarket if you can’t forage them in a local forest or park.
When it comes to foraging wild ingredients, remember; never eat anything unless you’re confident of what it is. If you don’t have that much experience foraging, do some research, attend a workshop, or connect with local experts to help guide you. I recommend gathering family and friends, foraging as a group, then collectively making this menu afterward. You can always double the recipes, so there will be plenty to go around.