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Foraging Arizona’s Wild Foods

From the Grand Canyon to Cave Creek, from mushrooms to prickly pear, Arizona has an abundance of delicious and nutritious wild foods.

By Shoshana Leon

From Desert to Table

Chef Brett Vibber, co-owner of Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine in Cave Creek, describes foraging as harvesting the earth’s natural bounty, the wild foods that our world provides us.

“I became interested in foraging from my dad,” says Vibber. “He showed me the ways of the outdoors, and my interest further evolved through Boy Scouts.”

Vibber and his staff forage regularly and find many of the ingredients incorporated into Cartwright’s menu within 25 miles

of the restaurant, including watercress, mint and prickly pear. “Every dish we serve has a foraged ingredient, from our pasta with mesquite flour to the cactus seeds crusting our sushi rolls, and watercress on our venison meatballs,” he says. “For me the benefits are many. I get to have unique ingredients for my dishes, and I get to do something I enjoy while I’m working.”

Close to Home

You don’t have to travel far to forage. “The best place to find wild foods may be your own yard,” says Master Gardener Kelly Athena of Cactus Kelly, which conducts plant walks and cooking workshops, and provides wild desert cuisine to chefs, restaurants and consumers.

Common items found in Valley yards include prickly pear cactus, which can be used to make tea, jam and juice; barrel cactus, which has tart fruit that can be used to make chutney, and seeds that can be used in baked goods; and palo verde beans, which can be blanched and salted similar to edamame. If you are not familiar with the yard or area, be mindful that it may be chemically treated. Plants that have been chemically treated may have yellowing in the leaves.

“The second best place to forage is your neighbor’s yard—with their permission, of course,” says Athena. “I have met many new friends by asking if I could take some of their desert goodies. In many cases, they are glad to have me harvest the beans before they drop from the tree into their yard or pool. I tell them ‘it’s not litter—it’s lunch!’”

ABOVE Barrel cactus RIGHT Prickly pear fruit

Mike Dechter is president of the Arizona Mushroom Society which plans forays across the state. “Start by observing the plants in your neighborhood and work toward identifying them. Plants found in the wild can be identified in books, online or through apps. You might be surprised to find that those weeds by your back fence are a highly nutritious, edible plant,” he says.

“Many common yard weeds start growing in winter and early spring, and are delicious as cooked greens or raw in smoothies,” says Athena. Many of these weeds are highly nutritious, including mallow (Malva parviflora) which can be used to thicken soups and stews, dandelions which are often used in salads and London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) which is a member of the mustard family.

Getting Started

Resources abound for amateur foragers. Vibber recommends “Southwest Foraging: 117 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Barrel Cactus to Wild Oregano” by John Slattery (Timber Press). It covers several types of flora with photos and information on how to identify each plant and areas of caution. 

“Slattery’s book is a straightforward approach,” says Vibber, who provides the book to his chefs. “He tells readers when and where to gather, how to utilize these foods and preservation techniques. It’s a beautiful entry to the foraging world.”

Wild foods enthusiast Peggy Sue Sorenson, who runs the Desert Kitchen Facebook page, which highlights classes, recipes and resources for using foraged ingredients, will be conducting free classes for beginners at the Open Air Market at Phoenix Public Market at 9 a.m. on September 28 and the main branch of the Mesa Public Library on November 4 from 6-7:30 p.m. “These classes provide an opportunity to see, feel and taste some wild foods that you might encounter and can help you identify them,” she says.

Although reading and classes are helpful, experts agree that hands-on experience is invaluable. Slattery has some advice for getting started. “Going for a walk, engaging with your full senses and forgetting what you think you know is the best sort of research a forager can do,” he says. “Seek out experienced professionals in your area who have put in the time and effort to listen and learn about some of the wild plants around us.”

Expert foragers share advice for beginners:
  • For your first foray go accompanied by a foraging expert. The Facebook pages for Desert Kitchen and Cactus Kelly provide information on local events and plant walks.
  • Wear a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, leather work gloves and sturdy boots.
  • On your excursion to collect wild foods, bring canvas bags, buckets, a sharp knife, sharpened pruner, folding saw and folding shovel, and use a book or app and a loupe for close-up detail to help identify plants.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, including other people and wildlife, as well as potential dangers such as rattlesnakes and beehives.
  • Be cautious about collecting in areas such as neighborhoods that may be treated with pesticides or herbicides.
  • Before cooking or consuming, wash your wild food finds and be aware that certain foods, such as fiddlehead ferns and acorns need to be cooked before eating.
  • Prior to ingesting anything, confirm its identity from more than one source, comparing your find to plant identification guides in books, websites or apps.
  • Try very small amounts of any foods that are new to you in case you have an allergic reaction such as itching, rash, watery eyes or scratchy throat.
  • Harvest sustainably—leave enough for the wildlife and for the plant to reseed itself.
  • Some wild foods such as mushrooms require in-depth knowledge. Start with those that are simple and abundant here in the Valley, such as barrel cactus and prickly pear, but watch out for the barbs!
  • There are a variety of foraged food recipes that can be found online and in the foraging groups on Facebook.

 

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