Foraging a locavore path

Dandelion, English plantain, fennel among wild-growing greens Vancouver chef finds, uses in effort to eat local

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Sebastian Corosi is a man who walks fast and talks even faster — and yet there's not much that slips his notice, especially when it comes to plants.

The 40-year-old Vancouver chef and locavore is well-practiced at foraging, which was how he got many ingredients used at his downtown restaurant Muddy Waters.

"I want to know where my food comes from," Corosi said, picking up his clip as he traversed Esther Short Park. "I don't want to just know that it comes from a truck that (has a corporate logo) on it. I want to know where it was grown, what was the environment like, how did it get here. I want to know everything about my food."

Foraging Resources

Here are some recommended resources for more about local edible plants:

Online Plant Guide.

Wild Food Adventures.

Washington State University plant information.

Book: "Northwest Foraging: The Classic Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific Northwest," by Doug Benoliel.

Book: "Pacific Feast: A Cook's Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine," by Jennifer Hahn.

Muddy Waters closed in January after Corosi decided to look for a better location. He wants to open a new downtown restaurant and a distillery in the next year.

"I want to call it the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, and it'll have all pre-Prohibition cocktails, wild food and game," Corosi said. "I want to make my own dandelion green and stinging nettle bitters, vodka and gin made from local plants."

Corosi likes to brag that he can make a salad from plants he finds just walking around downtown Vancouver. And on a partially rainy morning last week, he proved it.

Just a few blocks south of the park on a weedy, grassy parking lot divider, Corosi plucked a small bounty of early spring greens — and that was just the start.

"There's a huge fennel patch down here," he said, poking around the soft, fuzzy young leaves. "In this little patch, there's also dandelion greens and English plantain."

There's a frugality to foraging, especially when you realize there's a free gourmet salad at your feet. But it's also a healthier way to eat, appreciate the seasons and understand how far most of us have gotten from the source of our food, he said.

"We have such abundance here," Corosi said. "If you think about the river, what was going on in trade down there for centuries, the plants we have here reflect that and the variety of food people ate."

Touting the benefits of foraging

is something of a mission for Corosi. His hands bounce in the air when he emphasizes key points about it.

"You see that guy over there, he's got a culinary uniform on?" he said, nodding his head at a passer-by while gently selecting plantain leaves from the weedy plot. "You want to bet he doesn't know what I'm doing? Food shouldn't come from a factory. I want real food grown from real seeds that haven't been altered in any way."

Corosi's family came to the United States from northern Italy in 1950. The family have long been truffle hunters, and it's a skill that Corosi picked up growing up in Rhode Island and Kitsap County.

Foraging for plants was always just something they all did. And he expanded into mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest by learning everything he could from Veronica Williams, a well-known mushroom forager.

"Most of the things I've learned came from an 81-year-old Hungarian woman who lives in Long Beach," he said of Williams. "I know about 17 mushrooms, and I don't deviate from them."

Mushroom hunting is especially dangerous, and he wouldn't recommend trying it without learning from an experienced forager.

Greens are a bit safer, although there are still some things out there that could make you sick, he said.

"Dandelions, dandelion greens, everybody knows what they are, and they're probably the most urban foraged items," Corosi said. "With that, and some stinging nettles, you've got a great source of vitamin C right there."

Plantain leaves, which have parallel veins running vertically through them, are also fairly easy to spot. Once you identify it, you'll see it everywhere, and it's a great source of beta-carotene and calcium.

In the spring, a lot of the plants are bitter, especially dandelion greens. But that's an enjoyable thing about eating seasonally — the flavors change throughout the year, he said.

"This time of year, you're not going to enjoy anything but a bowl full of bitterness," he said, pointing at the white ceramic bowl he brought to hold his foraged greens. "There's nothing but bitterness in there."

Frying can take some of the sting out, though, and fried dandelion flowers are really mellow and tasty, he said.

After finishing up in the parking area, Corosi hit his long stride up the street on the way toward uptown.

Next to Heritage Square, he stopped and knelt, adding a few sprigs of clover to his bowl. He likes to use it for a garnish, especially when it sprouts little purple and white flowers, he said.

"Sorrel is also good," Corosi said. "It's this big bright lemon flavor and taste."

Sometimes he heads down to Vancouver Lake and picks cattails, which are a truly multipurpose food, he said.

"It has five edible parts, you can live on that all year round," Corosi said.

You can boil the brown top part and eat it like corn, although he doesn't really care for it personally. The inner bottom parts are soft like leeks and are the most tasty part, he said.

"You can eat all of it, basically," he said.

Passing flowers on the way up to Compass Coffee, he noted that most of them are edible, as well. Still, if you don't know which are safe and which aren't, he doesn't recommend trying it.

"Roses, though, they're easy to spot and edible," Corosi said. "And the hips are a great source of vitamin C."

When he got to Compass Coffee, he found another target — an unkempt potted plant on the sidewalk that's been taken over by weeds.

"This pot right here? It's not planted," Corosi said. "This is all wild Syrian miners lettuce."

As he plucked select leaves, owner Bryan Wray popped out and gave Corosi a friendly hello.

"I have no idea how that got here," Wray said. "I don't know if it was a bird or what. That was my guess."

Corosi frequents the shop at 1304 Main St., which he said has become a nexus of locavore foodie culture.

"There are a lot of restaurateurs that come here, and we're really starting to build a critical culture for our own food scene," Corosi said.

Through their friendship, Wray said he's learned a lot more about what's edible around his store.

"I had no idea you could eat those until Sebastian told me," Wray said. "But pretty much everything's edible, right? It's just whether it tastes good."

There can be a few pitfalls for plant hunting, though, especially when you leave the city and go to the forest. If you don't know what a plant is, it's probably best to avoid it.

But if you're desperate, you can look to see if animals have been eating it. If animals appear to have munched on greens you find, they're probably safe, Corosi said.

At the end of his walk, Corosi had a well-rounded selection of greens in his salad, which came out with tasty hints of licorice, lemon and a light pre-spring bitterness.

As the weather continues to warm, the foraging in town will get even better. There are untended fruit trees everywhere, along with wild onions and other vegetables that have been spread about from garden seed and wind — all ripe for the picking, he said.

"People go to the grocery store to get everything," Corosi said. "They pay money for produce that's growing wild all around them. They get used to having everything available to them all the time. It's healthier to live locally. You can find so many seasonal plants, go to the farmers market for other produce — and you know where everything you put into your body has been."