Randy King has never been a stranger to filling his table with ingredients from the land. An avid hunter and angler, the former Boise chef has literally written the book on turning wild game into delicious meals.
Although King no longer works in a kitchen, he still strives to find fresh ingredients just about anywhere he can. He’s made a habit of foraging, or collecting wild-growing plants, from wilderness hunting units to the Boise Greenbelt — a practice that’s becoming popular with other Boise chefs.
“Foraging for me is something that’s been hugely important my whole life,” King said.
In June, before leading members of the American Culinary Federation’s Boise chapter on a foraging tour of the Greenbelt near the Oregon Trail bridge, King explained how wild-sourced food has saved him in a pinch.
According to King, he was driving home to the Treasure Valley from North Idaho as a student with only enough money for either gas or food. So he caught a fish, slathered it in a mustard packet from a gas station and stuffed it with wild greens before cooking it over a campfire.
Now King’s foraging trips may not be as urgent, but he still makes the most of impromptu foraging. In his half-hour foraging blitz along the riverside in June, King found enough edible plant species to make a veritable veggie feast.
Edible Idaho plants
While there are many potentially edible plants in Idaho, King identified several that can be found in Boise or possibly in your own backyard.
“Your subdivision has more in it than you’d think,” King said.
White clover and dandelion are plentiful across the city and in many peoples’ yards, where they’re considered weeds. Both are edible — the blossoms and leaves of clover as well as the roots and leaves of dandelion — and can be used raw as greens or cooked.
Another plentiful “weed,” mallow, can be used as raw greens in salad. When boiled, the plant becomes somewhat gummy or slimy, like okra. King said marshmallows were originally made from the roots of these plants.
Of course, salad greens are the simplest thing to forage. Lamb’s quarters, also called white goosefoot, are easy to find in abundance.
“It makes spinach look like a Twinkie as far as nutrition,” King said.
You can also satisfy a sweet tooth with foraged plants. King makes plum sauce from the fruits of Asian plum trees, a red-leafed landscaping tree found along the Greenbelt. Black mulberry trees can also be found along the river. Look for a medium-sized tree with heart-shaped, toothed leaves. The mulberries themselves are a reddish-purple and resemble blackberries.
King is also a fan of currants, of which there are several varieties in Idaho found both in the wild and used in landscaping or gardening. He advises looking for the distinctly shaped leaves, which resemble a blunted maple leaf.
The Greenbelt is also home to wild rose plants. You can use the hips and petals for flavoring and to create things such as rose hip jelly. You’ll also find burdock — usually considered a weed with burrs that stick to clothing and fur. King says it’s “like a cross between potato and carrot.” The roots can be boiled or baked.
Along the river, cattails, also known as reeds, have an edible that’s like “white asparagus,” King said. Cook them the same way you’d prepare asparagus from a grocery store by boiling, roasting or stir frying.
King also pointed out Oregon grapes and crabapples. Though the small, green apples may be too tart to eat straight off the tree, they can be pressed to make verjus, a vinegary liquid used to add an acidic bite to dishes.
With so many edible options, it can be hard to know which Idaho plants are safe to eat. That’s why King recommends not eating anything you can’t identify 100 percent.
“Start with your yard,” King advised.
Valuable culinary purpose
If you don’t trust your own plant identification skills, you can still get a taste of local flora while leaving the tricky part to the experts.
At Art Haus, chef Kris Komori and sous chef Kevin Huelsmann incorporate foraged plants into their dishes and drinks. And they aren’t the only ones. Huelsmann said he learned to forage by accompanying Michael Powers, formerly a chef at The Modern. The Art Haus chefs also forage with employees from Woodland Empire Brewery.
“It’s sort of a group learning,” Huelsmann said. “You get a stable of things you’re comfortable identifying. The ones most people know about are what we serve.” Komori said they preserve a lot of the ingredients they forage, but others are best used right away.
“Some things are just meant to be enjoyed fresh,” he said.
Huelsmann said he looks for ingredients in the Foothills before heading up to higher elevations as temperatures rise. Both chefs pick up plants such as currant, spruce tips and elderberries in the city.
“(We use) a lot of small little herby things,” Huelsmann said, such as horsemint, sticky laurel and linden leaves. “If it’s sweet and fragrant, often it’s edible. It’s kind of just paying attention to what’s around us.” And while foraging can be a great excuse to get out of the kitchen, Komori said it also serves a valuable culinary purpose.
“It connects the diner to the food,” he said. “Foraging really defines the environment we’re in here. As much as no dish is an original, certainly we can tweak it and put a (local) spin on it.” Huelsmann said foraged plants can bring diners to a certain place or activity.
“You can re-create something that you smell when you’re on a trail or biking in the North End,” he said.
Both chefs see foraging as an extension of the locally sourced ingredients they purchase.
“We do use local farms a lot,” Komori said. “The idea of using local doesn’t just mean farms. It can mean using the landscape in general.”