Monday, April 23, 2012

Foraging for dinner with Charlie Trotter's culinary team

Eric Lester
I’m standing in a patch of open woods in a patch of scrubby weeds with the chefs from Charlie Trotter, a Chicago restaurant, waiting for Eric Lester to lead us on a foraging trip to find morels, ramps and other wild edibles just a mile or two from downtown Buchanan.

What I didn’t realize was that I was already at a prime location.

“This is the most amazing salad bar,” Lester says gesturing around. “Look at everything here we can eat.”

Jim Lester with freshly picked goldenrod
Those of us who aren’t in the know and had never been foraging before with Lester exchange looks. The unattractive plants certainly don’t look like salad bar material to me.     

“Arisaema triphyllum,” he says holding aloft what I recognize as a jack-in-the-pulpit, a pretty spring flower with delicate streaks of white and purple. “Don’t eat the leaves, they’ll make you sick. But the root has a potato like bulb that’s edible when cooked.”

But before we can ask questions, Lester is on to the next plant – one with tiny white florets that form a ball. It’s one that I’m plucked countless times from my yard and thrown away, thinking of it as a weed. But then one person’s weed is another person’s flower – or in this case meal.

“Alliaria petiolata,” Lester tells us pulling the plant out of the ground. “They’re great for salads.”

He invites us to eat a leaf and so we do. The taste is pleasant with the tangy taste of garlic. And there’s a reason for that. It’s an herb belonging to the mustard family with the common name of garlic mustard.

Within minutes, Lester has chefs discovering morels and digging up chicory roots which roasted can be used as a coffee substitute and picking tiny purple violets – a few everyday prevents sunburn and they’re tasty in salads.  Fittingly, Trotter’s 13-yearo-old daughter Violet is given the task of collecting her namesake flowers.

Lester, who learned to forage from his grandparents and parents, appears to have a trained botanist’s knowledge of plants.  
Jim Lester's  vichyssoise made with ramps

“He’s mostly self-taught,” says his father, Jim Lester who owns Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan and has been put in charge of collecting young goldenrod leaves that, after blanching, can be sautéed and eaten like more familiar greens such as spinach or collards. “Eric is working on making a red vermouth out of all Michigan botanicals.”

Both father and son are big believers in bodengeschmack, a German term meaning taste of the earth. It’s about how the soil impacts the flavor of the foods and wines we eat and drink.

Jim Lester, whose wines are on the list at many high end Chicago restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s – no small feat as Trotter’s is famed for its wine cellar which includes a magnum of a rare 1945 Romanee-Conti Burgundy and Chateau d’Yquem from 1845 and 1857 – says the excellent qualities of Southwest Michigan wines are based on the soil.

“We always get a very beautiful green gold color to our chardonnay,” he says. “And you can taste its brown spices and butter. We’ve had some of the Chicago restaurants that buy our wine describe it is ‘Buchanan cocaine.’”

I mention to Eric that Matt Millar, a James Beard nominee for best chef of the Midwest region and executive chef at Reserve in Grand Rapids, mentioned that he’d gone foraging with him.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that you can taste the soil and tells what minerals are in it?”

“I taste dirt quite a bit,” he tells me.

It’s this dedication that brings the culinary team from Charlie Trotter’s to Buchanan several times a year.  They forage for foods to cook in the restaurant’s kitchen, but they also put on a feast at the winery after emerging from the woods.

Outside the winery, as chef Jimmy Phillips fires up the grill and seasons the steaks, he mentions how last year the staff made a Midwest version of amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur commonly served as an after-dinner digestif, out of the roots they wild-crafted here.

“We try to bring different roots to the table,” he says. “And there’s so much here that people who are used to shopping at the grocery store don’t know about.”

Inside Jim Lester adds finishing touches to the classic vicchoyssoise he makes substituting ramps for the traditional leeks, Trotter’s chefs stuff freshly made risotto into morels for grilling, mix cole slaw and pack the interior of a lake trout with the newly picked greens. While they work Eric takes several of us to a spot just steps away from a dumpster.

“This is lindera,” he says. “Its leaves are highly aromatic and you can lay the shoots on a filet of salmon before you cook it and it’s delicious.”

As for milkweeds, which I remember picking as a kid in the field near our house, well – it turns out I shouldn’t have just been snapping the stalks in two to watch the milky liquid ooze out. According to Lester, the tender spring shoots taste like asparagus only slightly milder. As the plant gets older, its fibers can be used to make twine.

But it’s the patches of burdock that seem to most impress Lester. I immediately recognize them as the evil plants I’ve spent hours plucking from my garden and pulling their spiky burrs from my clothing. Instead, Lester informs me, I could have used the burrs as a building material by meshing them together. Burdock, a member of the thistle family is, I find out, a very important foraging food.

Indeed, a multi-purpose plant, burdock leaves can be used as a wrap for foods – rather like banana leaves are often used to wrap tamales and other Central American foods – and then put on the grill, imparting flavor and keeping what’s tucked inside of them moist and tasty.

“Burdock is a very important foraging food,” Lester tells me. “You can also use the leaves like paper for cleaning. The root is a tasty carrot like vegetable and the stems are like celery but bitter.”

Of course, all of this comes with a caveat. There’s plenty of bad stuff in the woods too and so it’s important to forage with someone who knows what they’re doing.

“I had a bad experience picking once,” says Lester. “I love mulberries and when I was young I picked some that were still pink. I ate a couple of fistfuls and then felt really weird. It turns out that unripened mulberries have a hallucinogenic affect.”

The following recipes were created by the Trotter staff using the foods found foraging with Eric Lester.

Stuffed Trout

1 large trout
Rosemary sprigs
Ramp leaves
Garlic mustard leave
Lemon, thinly sliced into rounds
Duck fat (if available) or substitute bacon fat or olive oil

Split open the bottom of the trout and stuff with rosemary, ramps and garlic mustard. Dot the interior with small dabs of duck fat.

Grill on high until fish is fork tender.

Grilled Morels Stuffed with Risotto

5-6 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups morels (see note)
1/3 cup of peeled and minced shallots or 1/3 cup of yellow or white onion, finely chopped

About three cups assorted foraged greens such as ramps, garlic mustard, etc., finely chopped (see note)
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 3/4 cups Arborio rice or other risotto rice
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring stock to a simmer in a saucepan.

Melt two tablespoons butter in a deep, heavy, medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat.

Wash and dry morels. Remove stems. Set aside morel caps. Chop stems.

Add mushrooms and shallots to butter and sauté about 5 minutes.  

In the meantime, melt remaining butter in a large skillet and add foraged greens. Sauté, stirring occasionally.

Add the rice to the mushroom and shallot mixture and stir to combine. Add wine, bring to a boil, and reduce liquid by half, about 3-4 minutes. Add simmering stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring enough to keep the rice from sticking to the edges of the pan. Stir the rice almost constantly — stirring sloughs off the starch from the rice, making it creamy. Add the sautéed greens.

Wait until the stock is almost completely absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. Repeat until all the stock is used. The rice should be just cooked and slightly chewy.

Stir in the Parmesan cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Slit open the morel caps and stuffed with risotto mixture. There will be left over risotto which can be served separately.

Grill for about three to four minutes on each side over medium heat.

Note: If foraged greens aren’t available substitute greens such as fresh spinach, turnip and mustard greens. If morels aren’t available, substitute other mushrooms.

Cole Slaw

Napa cabbage
Green cabbage
Bok Choy
Onions, finally chopped
Candied pistachios
Bacon, cooked and chopped
Pink peppercorns, ground
Pickled onions, finely chopped

Finely shred cabbages, carrots and bok choy into a large bowl.

Sauté onions in extra virgin olive oil until caramelized. Cool and add to cabbage mixture. Add currants, pistachios, bacon, pink peppercorns and pickled onions. Add dressing (see recipe below) and mix.


1 head of garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Meyer lemons

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place garlic in a shallow baking dish and sprinkle with olive oil. Cook in oven for about an hour. Remove from oven and squeeze the soft into a bowl.  

 Add the egg yolk. Using a fork or whisk, add the oil to the egg and garlic mixture starting very slowly, drop by drop. As the mayonnaise thickens continue to add the oil in a very thin stream. Add just a squeeze of Meyer lemon. Continue until all the oil has been incorporated.

If it gets too thick you can dilute it slightly with a tablespoon of warm water but don’t add more oil, it will just get thicker. 

Note: If using a large amount of cabbage, double the dressing recipe.

Jim Lester’s Ramp Vichyssoise

2 cups finely diced raw potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
24 to 36 ramp bulbs (depending upon size), cleaned and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 cups chicken bouillon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A dash of nutmeg
1 1/2 to 2 cups sour cream or heavy cream
Chopped chives

Cook the potatoes in salted water to cover until just tender. Melt the butter in a skillet and cool the leeks gently, tossing them lightly, for a few minutes. Add the chicken bouillon and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the ramps until tender.

Add the potatoes to the ramps and the broth and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Put this mixture in the blender (you will need to blend it in two lots) and blend for 1 minute, or until smooth. Chill.

When ready to serve, mix in sour cream or heavy cream. Garnish with chopped chives.


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