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Review: ‘Preserving Wild Foods’ for Foragers

Chef Matthew Weingarten and "Preserving Wild Foods."

Chef Matthew Weingarten and "Preserving Wild Foods." Credit: Storey Publishing

Foraging is the best way I know to stay immersed in the landscape I love. Equally important, I forage because it stocks my kitchen with scrumptious, high-quality food. I live at the base of the Rocky Mountains, where there are booming growing seasons and long cold winters, so preserving my wild harvest is the ideal way to have access to foraged foods throughout the year. As someone who puts up wild goods regularly, I was very excited to read “Preserving Wild Foods,” which addresses how to take advantage of wild products through pickling, preserving, fermentation and curing.

From the outset, it is apparent that author Matthew Weingarten not only forages, but enjoys it immensely. What is most intriguing about “Preserving Wild Foods” is the perspective the author brings to the subject as a chef working in New York City. He’s not someone who lives next to a remote stream in the woods. Rather, he’s a city dweller who still finds a valuable connection with the land through wild harvests. In this book, Weingarten and co-author Raquel Pelzel tackle products from environments ranging from ocean-side all the way to the countryside, transforming fruit, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, fish and game, into tempting jams, chutneys, charcuterie and more.

Inventive wild food flavors

“Preserving Wild Foods” shines when Weingarten uses his sensibilities as a chef to both wake up standard recipes and introduce new flavor combinations. Take for example samphire pickles, in which he seasons the coastal plant also known as sea beans with chiles, coriander and garlic. Weingarten adds a slightly unexpected flavor twist in his old world rose hip jam by adding cardamom and grenadine. He also shares some recipes that may be new to the home cook, like crab apple mostarda, or frutti di bosco compote, which is made with wild mushrooms, blueberries and herbs.

Intrigued by the unusual flavor pairing, I tried my hand at a half batch of pecan and fennel seed brittle. I didn’t want to chance ruining the two cups of honey required by the full batch. The instructions were easy to follow, and even included a bit of advice I’d never before tried when making brittle: to put a second pan on top of the freshly poured candy, and press it with a rolling pin to made an evenly thick product. I found pecan and fennel seed brittle to be especially good crumbled over ice cream.

Foraged, feral and garden-grown

I was a bit surprised to find that one of the chapters in “Preserving Wild Foods” contains many recipes for agricultural or gardened food products. I appreciate the argument that feral foods, those that used to be kept but have since gone wild, bridge the gap between foraging and gardening. And I can also see that for a person operating in the heart of a major metropolitan area, visiting the farmers market feels a bit like foraging. But I found the appearance of a recipe for watermelon pickles in a book about wild foods to be a bit of an incongruity.

Instead of including recipes for dill cucumber pickles, pickled peppers and bacon, I would have preferred to see the chef share more recipes made with wild foods, perhaps with a focus on ways to preserve unloved weeds that thrive in the city. I’d love to see how the Weingarten would use his experienced palate to approach preserving lamb’s quarter, sow thistle, dock or the lemon clover he mentions in passing on a page dedicated to the joys of spring greens.

“Preserving Wild Foods” would benefit from a cleaner presentation. The mish-mash of recipe introductions, tips, drawings, formal photographs, and Polaroid-style snapshots seem to be an attempt at warmth, like reading the journal of a chef, but the overall effect is a bit jumbled. I would have loved to see this book broken into two volumes, one about plants, and the other with the focus on charcuterie. A full third of the recipes in “Preserving Wild Foods” are for meat or fish, so be aware if you are expecting all plant-based dishes or are vegetarian.

“Preserving Wild Foods” is a book packed with all manner of recipes for putting up wild products. I especially enjoyed the author’s clear delight in foraging. As someone who is adventurous in the kitchen, I was excited to see more unusual recipes like that for modern garum, a fermented fish sauce made from heads and guts. However, given the level of skill required to can and cure at home, this may not be the ideal book for home cooks who aren’t already fairly comfortable in the kitchen. Novices might be intimidated by some of the recipes, and it should be noted that this is a cookbook, not a field guide. While the author writes lovely introductions about the highlighted ingredients, there are no warnings to stay away from red elderberries or beware of angelica’s dangerous look-alikes. “Preserving Wild Foods” could potentially be a valuable book for aspirational foragers, preserving geeks, and people who forage regularly and serious about preserving their finds.

Chef Matthew Weingarten and “Preserving Wild Foods.” Credit: Storey Publishing

Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty is a wild foods enthusiast dedicated to showing people how to transform abundant, "weedy" plants into free and nutritious kitchen staples. She is the foraging instructor at the Laughing Coyote Project, and shares her favorite wild foods from the Rocky Mountain region at Hunger and Thirst.