How I Built a Brunch Around a Plant Foraged From the Banks of the East River
As I've done on so many other New York City Saturdays, this past weekend I had the pleasure of enjoying a late brunch with my good friend (and new neighbor), Bianca. Only this time, instead of hitting the latest neighborhood brunch spot or even just grabbing bagels and coffee at a nearby deli, I came over with a bag full of ingredients to cook my standard weekend breakfast. But in addition to the usual organic eggs, spinach, and mushrooms from the supermarket, and the giant croissant from corner market, I also had the field garlic I had uprooted that morning with my own two hands, and one large stick, just a few blocks away in the East River Park.
Considering it would start snowing just a few hours after my harvest, I got to the park in the nick of time. And to be completely honest, I was skeptical I would find what I was looking for—after all, it was winter in New York City, not springtime in California. But armed with the basic foraging skills I had learned on a tour of Central Park with “Wildman” Steve Brill a few years ago, and his new foraging app, Wild Edibles Plus on my iPhone, I was ready to give it my best shot.
Since it is mid-March in New York, though, the options for foraging are not what they would be in the summer or fall. Still, I knew one plant, available essentially year-round, that I had always been excited to find as a kid just an hour or so north of the city, usually on somebody’s lawn, and often tragically considered a weed. Onion grass, also known as field garlic, is easy to spot, simple to identify, and delicious to eat. Using my new app, I learned that field garlic is most commonly found in “partially shaded and sunny habitats, edges, lawns, meadows, pastures, fields, roadsides, river and stream sides, backyards, disturbed soil, parks, and open woods.”
Despite being familiar with the plant, I made sure to check the “How to Spot” feature on the app to brush up, and walked over to East River Park at Tenth Street, looking for “bunches of narrow, cylindrical, erect basal leaves, sometimes floppy on top.” I knew that once spotted, if I broke off a piece of the leaf, the garlicky odor would give it away immediately, making positive identification a cinch.
And lo and behold, I had taken less than twenty steps before seeing a large bunch of field grass right outside a fenced sports field. If I said I was excited, it would be an understatement. I quickly headed toward the goldmine to perform the all-important odor test. This was it. The real deal. A nice, big bunch of onion grass. I started ripping off the tops of the leaves, but I knew from the app’s “Harvesting” section that there were bulbs underneath.
Unfortunately, the app also said I would need “a shovel or trowel” to get to them. These I did not have. I looked around, spotted a long stick and started digging, pulling, and digging some more. Finally, I pulled and out came a large bunch of bulbs, looking almost identical to those seen on supermarket scallions. The smell was overwhelming. Still following the app’s instructions, I swung the bulbs against the stick (the app recommends a tree) to knock off the excess dirt. I probably could have removed more than I did, but I was so excited to go cook the fruits of my labor that I just stuck them in my baggie and headed for Bianca’s, feeling like I had just pulled a fast one on the City of New York.
Bianca was skeptical, to say the least, about eating something I had foraged in the park down the street. What if it was poisonous? How could I tell the difference? Legitimate questions to be sure, but luckily I had an answer. Field garlic, as the Wild Edibles app told me, does have a dangerous lookalike friend, the Star of Bethlehem. But unlike its perfectly safe doppelganger, the Star of Bethlehem has no smell. After walking four New York City blocks reeking of enough garlic to ward off the entire cast of True Blood, I assured Bianca that we were safe.
After chopping the field garlic tops, peeling the bulbs and chopping those too, I sautéed both in Bianca’s organic, grass-fed butter for about fifteen minutes and set them aside. I made the rest as usual: sliced and sautéed the mushrooms, added the spinach, and then finally, some beaten eggs. When those were done, I sprinkled the crispy field garlic (or what was left of it after a lot of nibbling by both of us) on top of the scrambled eggs. My same-old-same-old eggs were transformed from ho-hum to out-of-this-world.
Not only had my field garlic brought a fresh, truly local flavor to the boring breakfast I had eaten a million times before, it also gave me a real connection to my local environment, not to mention a perfect excuse to spend the morning with one of my favorite people.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at good.is/food and on Twitter at #chewonit.