Foraged Foods Becoming Commonplace in US Restaurants
Food trends are some of the fastest-changing in the world. In 2018 alone chefs have had to contend with everything from pickling, fermenting and veganism to nootropics, booze-free beverages and homemade condiments. Another trend that is becoming more commonplace across the globe is foraging which may sound suspiciously similar to hunting-gathering but does not entail giving up your day job to live in the wilderness.
Although it is true that a few chefs have been using foraged produce for decades, it has now become a food trend rather than a rarity. In fact, an increasing number of chefs in the USA are making regular use of foraged ingredients to set their menus apart from their competitors’. In order to have a better understanding of the role of foraging within the restaurant industry, it is important to take a closer look at how and why to include foraged ingredients on a menu as well as examining the increasing popularity of the trend.
Reasons to include foraged food on your menu
By searching for fruit, vegetables, herbs, and roots in the wild yourself (or by making use of a professional foraging service) you will be able to offer your patrons a unique dining experience and simultaneously contribute towards the well-being of the environment. Not only are indigenous crops generally more drought-resistant but your carbon footprint will also be significantly reduced due to there being a very short traveling distance between the farm and the restaurant. Foraged produce also contain significantly more nutrients as they tend to be less exposed to harmful chemicals than their commercially-farmed counterparts.
Cooking with foraged food
There are countless ways in which you can prepare your foraged foods and present them to your diners. On a colder day, you can prepare a fragrant slow-cooked dish or gather your pots and pans and make a delicious wintery broth filled with freshly-foraged vegetables and herbs. As a chef you are more than qualified to create tantalizing dishes using an array of foraged ingredients including wild mushrooms, nettles, sorrel, squash blossoms, and goosetongue. Don’t limit yourself to conventional cooking either as you can create delicious syrups, sauces, pickles, and condiments such as fennel sauerkraut, elderberry syrup, green onion kimchi, and walnut ketchup from your foraged produce.
How popular has foraging become?
There are a number of restaurants across the USA that have actively incorporated foraged food into their offerings. Chef Eddy Leroux of Restaurant Daniel in New York works closely with a professional forager to acquire wild shoots, stems, leaves and petals to create mind-blowing dishes such as wild herb ravioli and dandelion flower tempura. Another chef who frequently makes use of foraged ingredients is Dan Barber from Blue Hill Stone Barns, also in New York, who went as far as to start his own seed company to ensure that he always has access to the freshest produce. He also has his team of chefs forage for ingredients and allows his geese to forage for figs, lupin bush seeds and acorns instead of force-feeding them.
And on Lummi Island in Washington Chef Blaine Wetzel at the Willows Inn has gained an impressive reputation for having his staff forage for local greens, berries, mushrooms, and seaweed as well as growing much of his produce.
Finding foraged products
As noble as it may be to forage for your own ingredients, it is not always practical. This is exactly why there are an increasing number of vendors offering their foraging services across the USA. While most states are home to a number of fresh produce markets that sell foraged produce, there are also numerous online stores that can be utilized for your convenience. Foraged & Found is an organization that supplies a number of the country’s most renowned restaurants as well as countless home cooks with foraged berries, wild greens, mushrooms and tea. Apart from having an online store, they also sell their produce at various markets in and around Seattle. If you find yourself on the East Coast, you can enlist the services of Regalis Foods who pride themselves on their exquisite variety of foraged ingredients.
One of the most important factors to consider when making use of foraged foods is their seasonality. While there are certain edibles such as mushrooms that are available year-round, others, including persimmons, chestnuts and asparagus are a lot more seasonal and are only available fresh during certain parts of the year. If you want to include foraged foods on your menu it is imperative to be very knowledgeable with regards to the seasonal availability of your local foraged produce. You can benefit greatly by printing out a foraging calendar or visiting a reputable online site that can supply you with accurate and relevant information.
Flavor profiles of foraged foods
While it has already been determined that foraged foods are more nutrient-dense than their store-bought counterparts, it is important to also understand the differences (and similarities) in flavor profiles. Wild watercress, for example, is known to have a lot more flavor than the supermarket variety while salmonberries can be most closely compared to gooseberries and raspberries. If you are looking for a foraged substitute to onion and garlic, you can make use of three-cornered leeks which has a very similar taste profile. Wild plantains look a lot like regular bananas but have a firmer texture that is quite starchy. When ripe they are sweet in flavor and can be prepared in a similar fashion as regular supermarket bananas. These are just a few examples of foraged foods and how they compare to commercially-purchased produce. The best way to draw similar comparisons is to either experiment yourself or to conduct further research on the topic.
Always remember to be safe while foraging. Don’t trespass on private property and make sure everything you bring back to the restaurant is, in fact, edible. If you can adhere to these basic guidelines your foraging can give you a nifty competitive advantage while presenting you with the opportunity to put your dish creativity skills to the test.
Gear for Chefs now available at our new online store Chefs Resources Merch!
Chef’s Resources gear for chefs is finally available at our new online store! Over the past few years we have had requests for us to turn some of our MEMEs and kitchen charts into posters to hang in your kitchens. It’s been a long time coming but we have finally found a company which will produce our gear on an order by order basis, meaning we do not have stock inventory, they will simply make it as soon as it is ordered. Check-out our new store at Chefs-Resources-Merch.com!
Chef gear includes a variety of mise en place posters to motivate your staff including “mise en place…ethos of the professional kitchen” and “mise en place…being able to tell that bitch Murphy’s Law to sit the #$!%@ down!” Posters are a available in a variety of sizes both in simple pin up versions and in higher quality framed versions.
Popular useful kitchen charts include “Wild Mushroom Foraging Seasons”, “Wild Foraged Produce Seasons“, “Disher Scoop Sizes & Volumes”, “Steamtable Pan Sizes & Capacities”, “Restaurant Can Sizes” and more. These are perfect to hang on the wall for reference for your crew, or in your office to help with planning menus according to the season.
And of course we have the obligatory coffee cups, water bottles, t-shirts, and utility bags for the small gear for chefs such as tweezers, peelers, oyster knives, sharpie markers, etc.
Tell me some of your favorite kitchen phrases which you would like to see on a T-shirt or poster. Some of my favorites include “Go cry in the walk-in”, “Don’t touch my mise”, and “Six stitches to go home early.”
If there is gear that you would like to see us carry, or a favorite kitchen phrase you’d like to see put on a T-shirt or poster, leave a comment below!
Foraged items lend an exotic, personal touch to a chef’s menu and speaks volumes when it comes to saying, “We keep our menu current and source local products.” But knowing what foraged produce is in season can be a bit of a challenge since many of Mother Nature’s most special treasures never appear at your local market.
I’ve put together a seasonal foraging chart for the Washington State area which should be pretty similar for the Pacific Northwest region in general. Of course, Mother Nature dictates the actual seasons for wild foods but this will get you in the ball park when you are planning a menu.
Finding a Forager
Of course, knowing when a particular foraged item is available doesn’t put it in your kitchen…you still need to find someone to harvest these gems. Talking with people at farmers markets may turn up some leads on professional foragers. Alternately, Charlies Produce and Hendrickson’s Produce both receive produce from local foragers. If you know of other foragers in the Washington area please leave their contact info in a comment at the bottom of the page.
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What is caul fat and why would you use it? From a culinary perspective, caul fat is a magical ingredient which can elevate the normal to the extravagant. It is a beautiful, lace-like membrane (some people actually call it “lace fat”) used to add moisture, impart flavor, and help hold a desired shape in a variety of preparations. The flavor and moisture it brings to a preparation is due to the fat which slowly renders during cooking, essentially basting the dish until done. It can be used both as a type of “casing” and/or as a type of barding.
From an anatomy perspective, caul fat is a web-like membrane which surrounds the intestines of animals including pigs, veal, beef, and lamb. Pork caul fat is generally the favorite among chefs because it has the most fat, the most intricate pattern, the best consistency, and of course, that faint hint of a bacon flavor. Beef caul is the next most used caul fat, while sheep or lamb is the least utilized due to its coarser texture with more “lumps” of fat.
It is estimated that caul fat is about 90% fat and as such it acts as a way to baste whatever it is wrapped around, adding additional flavor because we all know that fat = flavor. And the membrane part acts as a type of casing to hold the meat in place, sealing in the heat and juices. Since it is mostly a delicate fat, the process of cooking will cause most of the caul fat to render away.
What can you make with caul fat?
In the traditional sense it is used for old school classics such as terrines, ballotines, sausages, galantines, pâtés, and crépinettes. However, caul fat also works exceptionally well when used to wrap stuffed meats. Game meats tend to be very lean and can be “dry”, but if you wrap them in caul fat and then sear or roast them they will retain a greater degree of natural juices plus the added benefit of fat from the caul and will therefore be more moist.
When ready to begin cooking with caul fat, bring it up to room temperature (this will make it pliable as cold fat can be hard and brittle), use a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Lay out the lacey material and go to work! You can cut it to any size/shape you need, and it is very easy to work with. It naturally “attaches” to itself, so the need for butcher’s twine, toothpick, etc is not necessary, which is another good reason to use caul fat instead of those items to bind your preparations. The end result will have no indents from string, no punctures from toothpicks or skewers, and speed of service is increased because you do not need to remove string or picks.
Other possible uses:
Wrap your meatloaf in it to add additional richness, or form a unique shape
Wrap duck breast, pheasant, or lamb
Wrap Havarti cheese mash potatoes (or other flavor), form into cakes and deep fry for a cool side
Top halibut with a crab-smoked salmon forcemeat, wrap in caul fat, sear and roast
Combine an Indian Harvest Rice blend with veggies, wrap in caul fat, sear and roast as a side dish
Combine crab mac & cheese, wrap in caul, sear, fry
What to look for
Most chefs prefer to work with pork caul fat because it is more delicate and renders to almost nothing during cooking. The caul should be mostly white. Sometimes it does have an “offal” aroma, if so, it is recommended to soak it in a little vinegar water. It freezes well so buy extra if you come across it. Simply wrap in plastic wrap and foil, or vacuum seal, and freeze for up to two months. Thaw in the cooler or refrigerator overnight when ready to use. Once thawed, use it within about 3 days.
For the Chef, your meat vendor should be able to source it for you. Sysco currently stocks it (demand status 2/2011) so I assume other broad band suppliers such as FSA, US Foods, etc also have access to caul fat. For the home cook, it can be more tricky because you’re not going to find it in your local supermarket. You can try talking to your supermarket butcher to see if they have a source for it, or check your local area for a professional butcher shop. Asian markets occasionally stock it. You can purchase it on Amazon.com (Caul Fat Pork – 10 Lb Case Frozen) as well as other online distributors. Check the pack size as some will only ship a 10 lb unit.
What does Caul Fat taste like?
If you’re afraid that it is going to be like some kind of offal meat, requiring an “educated” or “adventuresome” palate, then put your worries aside. The flavor is very mild and is similar to what the “belly fat” from whatever animal the caul is from, which means that pork caul will taste mildly like bacon.
Ready to give cooking with caul fat a shot? Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Americans have always tended to consume more beef than any other major protein, and although beef consumption is trending down it still remains the meat of choice by most us. Here is a brief comparison from the USDA how consumption has changed over the years (based upon boneless weight):
Average Annual Per Capita Consumption of Meat
Beef Options & Choices
Today’s cattle farmers and ranchers are raising cattle in a variety of ways in order to meet the demand of consumers for a broad spectrum of choices. We want the sultry richness of Kobe beef, the more heart-friendly lean beef, flavor contrast with grain fed or grass fed cattle, organic and naturally raised beef…the list goes on. Today’s cattlemen include over 1 million ranchers and beef farmers nationwide to meet these demands.
Regardless of the type of beef you are looking for, all beef in the United States goes through a rigorous inspection process by the USDA. Each processing plant has an inspector and all meet is subject to strict governmental guidelines regarding safety and quality.
Grain-fed cattle represent the vast majority of beef processed and purchased in the United States. Virtually all beef start off as grass-fed, grazing open pastures after being weaned as calves. The average time it takes for grain-fed cattle to reach market size for butchering is about 18 – 24 months, and it isn’t until the last 4 – 6 months of their lives that they are moved onto a grain based (usually corn) diet at feedlots.
There are a number of reasons for this switch to a grain fed diet. First, it gets the cattle to market size faster, which results in a lower overall cost to the ranchers and to the consumer. Second, it helps improve meat consistency and contributes additional fat which adds to the meat’s tenderness and juiciness. Third, a younger cow will yield a more tender cut of meat than an older cow.
Perhaps the biggest complaint against grain fed cattle is the time they spend in feedlots, which some same is an inhumane way to treat the animal. And, while in the feedlot, many managers will give the cattle growth pomotants.
Natural Beef and Naturally Raised
Beef with a “Natural” or “Naturally Raised” label on it may not be what it you think it means. If you are looking for all natural, no hormones, preservatives, antibiotics, etc, then you will have to look deeper. According to the USDA’s definition of “natural” it simply means that there are no artificial coloring, flavoring, ingredient, preservatives, etc which are added at the time of processing. It does not include anything which happens to the animal prior to butchering!
The USDA did publish a standard for “naturally raised” beef in January 2009, but it is a voluntary standard which allows for third-party verification (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).
Beef with a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)-certified “naturally raised” claim comes from cattle that have never received growth promotants or supplemental hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed animal by-products.
Grass Fed (Forage) or Grass-Finished
What exactly does “grass fed beef” mean? It essentially means that the animal has lived on a diet of grasses and forage for its entire live (with the exception of milk while it was young), and has not eaten grain. This type of diet results in cattle which take longer to reach market size, about 30 – 36 months (compared to 18 – 24 months for grain-fed beef). In October 2007 the USDA published the standards which qualify beef to be marketed as “grass (forage) fed”. It includes these specific guidelines:
Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.
What about the flavor difference of grass-fed beef?
Some say that grass-fed beef taste “grassier” or less “beefy”. Others say it tastes better, with a “beefier” flavor, or perhaps more “wild” or slightly “gamey”. And yet others are unable to tell the difference. I think it boils down to the specific breed of cow the meat came from, as well as how it was prepared. Additionally, grass-fed can have a greater variation in flavor due to the types of pasture they graze on, while corn or grain-fed beef tend to be more standardized and therefore more consistent.
Grass-fed cattle are much more lean and therefore the flavor you get from fat will not be present. And unlike grain-fed cattle, they roam pastures their entire life, which builds muscle tone and can result in tougher more chewy meat. If flavor is your top priority, chances are that the fattier grain-fed beef will be for you. But this isn’t always the case, so your best bet is to try some grass-fed beef from several different sources. Ultimately it boils down to personal preference, which is of course subjective.
Since grass-fed are more lean you may not be able to cook something like a NY Strip or Tenderloin in the same manner you are used to. Over-cooked grass-fed steaks is a no-no! A much faster, higher-heat sear followed with a longer, slower cook time and bastings in butter may work much better with these lean cuts, but of course that may defeat the purpose of a lean cut if you choose grass-fed for dietary low fat purposes. Cooking Light did a nice comparison on grass-fed versus grain-fed beef.
Is it more healthy?
In recent years consumers have become more interested in grass-fed beef, and there has been lots of speculation and reports about the health benefits of grass-fed verses grain-fed beef. Although it does appear that grass-fed beef does have some health benefits, here are some of the “ins and outs” on the topic.
Has less fat and is therefore lower in calories.
Have more CLA (conjugated lineoleic acid), which some studies suggest may be a “healthier” fat
Have more omega-3 fatty acids (about 15 mm per 3.5 oz serving). However, beef really isn’t known to be high in omega-3 benefits in the first place so the argument may be insignificant. For comparison, an 8 oz portion of sockeye salmon has 14 times more omega-3 than an 8 oz grass-fed new york strip steak (3.3 g -vs- .23 g).
Some studies say that the fat profile of grass-fed beef is “healthier” or better; critics will point out that the actual difference in “healthy fats” is minimal…the noteworthy difference is that grass-fed beef are simply lower in fat overall. The “healthier fat” argument may not hold water when computed as a percentage of overall fat for similar cuts (the tried and true apples to apples argument).
Have more vitamins A and E, as well as up to 7 times more beta-carotene
Have higher levels of antioxidants
Jo Robinson, founder of Eatwild.com, has spent a decade examining the scientific research comparing grass-fed to grain-fed animals. He points out, “If you eat a typical amount of beef per year, which in the United States is about 67 pounds, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year.” Using the price of tenderloin at the supermarket for comparison, it would also cost you about $300 more than grain-fed beef.
Despite a modest increase in consumer demand for grass-fed beef, the market is still pretty small, perhaps as low as 3% of all U.S. beef purchases.
What does “certified organic” beef mean? Unlike “natural” beef, the certified organic label carries with it a strict set of requirements established by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) for livestock. There is both a black and a green version of the label…simply different colors, they don’t indicate any difference in the product, they indicate identical standards. The Organic Foods Production Act of October 2002 sets these standards for all food which is labeled organic (https://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html).
Here are the standards for beef:
Cattle must be born and raised on certified organic pastures and/or feed; free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
Must never receive antibiotics
Must never receive promotants or hormones
May receive certain vitamins and minerals
Must have unrestricted pasture access except under certain specific circumstances.
What certified organic does not mean
This label by itself is not an indication of whether the animal is a grass fed or a grain fed animal. It only specifies that all its feed has been organic. Also important to note, “grass fed” does not in itself mean that the animal is also organically raised.