Southwest Foraging: 117 wild and flavorful edibles from barrel cactus to wild oregano
by John Slattery. (Timber Press, $24.95)
By Carolyn Niethammer
In the introduction to John Slattery’s new book on wild foods, he states, “If you have not foraged for your food, you have not yet fully lived on this earth.” I couldn’t agree more as there is nothing like popping a handful of sun-warmed orange hackberries into your mouth as I did on my Sunday morning walk.
Although the book encompasses the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Southern Utah, and their great diversity of habitats, Slattery does a good job of telling you not only what you might find in your area, but also in which season you should go out looking for a particular plant.
Although I have been playing with and writing about edible wild plants of the desert Southwest for more than 40 years, Slattery includes many plants that are new to me. I recognize desert willow flowers, but didn’t know that they can be steeped to make a tea.
Slattery makes it easy to recognize each plant with precise color photos, which he took himself on his many foraging expeditions. Some of the photos rise to the level of art and will have you just tasting those juicy berries and grabbing your backpack to go find some for yourself.
I do have one small quibble with the book. Slattery mentions harvesting the bulbs of mariposa lily. As an avid seeker of spring wild flowers, I’m always thrilled to find the gorgeous mariposa lilies. The fact that someone might dig up these bulbs to eat, unless they were truly starving, doesn’t sit well with me. (However if you do find yourself lost and starving, you will be very happy to have learned something from this book). In fact, wild foragers should always consider harvesting anything sustainably and Slattery does address this briefly in the introduction. When you grab a copy of this book and head for a date with Mother Nature to try your luck, and I hope you do, please stick with the other 116 nuts, berries, fruits and greens he suggests and leave the bulbs in place.
Folks interested in wild foraging, but wanting a little more guidance than they can get from a book, can sign up for one of Slattery’s frequent foraging classes and the Sonoran Herbalist Apprenticeship Program. You can find a link here. For a previous article on John showing pictures of the potluck his graduating students prepared look here.
This summer, Slattery has been experimenting with using his foraged berries to make shrubs, which might be described as colonial-era homemade fruit sodas. Using this basic recipe, you can experiment with other fruits. Here is Slattery’s recipe using lovely graythorn berries.
Slattery’s Recipe for Graythorn Soda
1 1-quart canning jar
1 cup fresh, fully ripened graythorn berries (don’t wash them)
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
filtered, or spring, water to fill the jar
Combine the fresh fruit, sugar, and most of the water in the jar and screw the lid on tight. Shake the jar vigorously to dissolve the sugar. Fill the jar to within 1/4 inch of the top with filtered, or spring, water and leave the lid on loosely.
Allow the fruit to ferment for two to three days in a warm, shaded place indoors. We’re simply utilizing the native yeasts present on the fresh, unwashed fruit. Once bubbles are visible and active, strain out the fruit, and transfer the contents to swing-top bottles filling to within 1/4 inch of the top (even if less than 2 days). Here you have the option of adding 1/4 teaspoon of sugar (to 12oz) to encourage more carbonation before placing in the refrigerator for four to seven days. You can leave it longer, if you like. Taste as you go. If the fermentation is particularly active, the sugars will be eaten up very quickly and your drink will become sour. So keep an eye on it!
Once you have your carefully foraged foods, it’s time to think of how to cook them into something wonderful. For complete directions and recipes for cooking with edible wild plants, check out Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants. and The Prickly Pear Cookbook.