Work on my first book: The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora is almost done, and I finally have some material to share with you. Every week I share an article or special recipe with you, but, over the past three years, I wrote and tested an extra 200 or so recipes, and took thousands of images—most of which I’ve been keeping close to my chest. I thought I’d take this week to share with you a bit of the process of how my first book came to be, and what to expect.
I’ve been writing this website for about 8 years, but it wasn’t until after Lucia’s closed in 2018 that I started working full time on a book proposal. The biggest question I had to grapple at first was an important one: “what’s it going to be about?”. Many people know me for my work with mushrooms (my first wild food love) so it probably came as a surprise when I shared that I was writing a book without a single mushroom recipe in it.
Flora, Fungi, and Fauna
I could’ve written a book on mushrooms, but I decided to split up my world into three pieces to ensure that everything has room to be given it’s due when the time comes. So, I pitched a three-book series: Flora, Fungi, and Fauna, or vegetables, mushrooms, and meat, the names inspired by the tasting menus I worked on when I was at Heartland with Chef Lenny Russo.
Working on the book has been a journey, and almost 3 years have passed since I started jotting down the outline I presented to the publisher Chelsea Green. I thought it would be relatively straight-forward, I mean, I have hard drives filled with hundreds of folders of recipes from life in the kitchen, along with menus, ideas, outlines, and images numbering in the tens of thousands. Easy right? Not exactly. Once I started really working on the book, I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw (thanks for the perfectionist tic, Mom) so I re-wrote something almost completely new over the coming years.
Lessons wild plants taught me
Flora is the vegetable portion of my life, but it’s a lot more than that, it’s a statement about lessons that natures taught me. Being a chef in a restaurant taught me how to cook, and you might think that having purveyors and farmers bring anything you want with the flick of a finger on an Iphone might mean you have access to all the foods available, and in a way you do. But, in a way you don’t.
Being locked in a kitchen is also a sort of isolation from nature. It might surprise you that I’d been harvesting wild food for years before I met my first pumpkin growing in a garden. When I saw a thick, odd-looking vine, I didn’t know what it was, since there was no fruit. The vine was beautiful though, and I remember just kneeling down and holding the fairytale end of the shoots in my hand thinking that they looked delicious. They are.
I quickly learned I could eat squash shoots, and it was the start of a relationship with nature I never expected, but squash were just the beginning—one of many rabbit holes I followed that are woven into the book. I started to see that the foraging intuition I’d nurtured wasn’t just about wild plants, it was a lens I could look at anything through and ask the all important question: “Can I eat that?”.
Research and commercial harvesting (2019)
Freed of the chains of the restaurant, I had more time to research than I did before. I searched out things I thought were interesting, rare and novel, but also useful—stuff I just like to eat. I was outside every day, more than I’d ever been in my life, completely immersed in my own world, following wherever the passion pointed me.
I also harvested more plants, in a greater variety than I ever had while I supplied the Bachelor Farmer during the 2019 growing season. My work and collaboration with Chef Jonathan Gans helping to push my creative vines out in new directions, where they took hold and made fruit of their own.
Here and there I had breakthroughs and bursts of inspiration, moments that helped me articulate some of the concepts and higher level ideas in the book. One was at a grill-out where I was serving people little green cakes made from plants. Someone asked my if there were artichokes in the cakes, which struck me as odd. I didn’t think anything of it until a second person came up and mentioned the same thing to me. “Why would people think these green patties tasted like artichokes?” I thought.
Plant families and the flavors they share
It dawned on me that the green cakes tasted like artichokes to people because I’d made them all out of Galinsoga, which is in the same family (Asteraceae). Then I remembered that sunflower sprouts and cold-pressed sunflower oil taste similarly.I ended up writing a keynote speech on the how related plants can carry flavors as a sort of botanical heritage, and the abbreviated essay of it in the book is one of my favorite parts.
From there, it was only a matter of time until I started trying to understand how I could use botany and Linnean nomenclature not only as a way to efficiently categorize plants, but as a way to understand some of their flavors. There are two shorter essays on culinary application of botany for both understanding and combining flavors in the book.
What’s in it (Chapters)
A big selection of things to do with leafy greens, with deeper dives into some of my favorites. Instead of going down the line, plant by plant when many plants are interchangeable in recipes, I suggest a few options, and note where specific species may be traditionally used or were the inspiration for particular dishes.
Herbs and aromatics
My idea of what constitutes an “herb” is more broad than an herb garden. I cover a few interesting herbs like lovage and prickly ash, but also things like spruce tips, cedar cones, and almond-scented meadowsweet flowers, along with a particular herb you can use to make wild vanilla extract.
Interesting and time tested things I like to do with garden vegetables, as well as things I’ve developed for them based on inspiration from my study of wild plants.
Nuts, Grains and Starches
I cover a few of my favorites in depth here: wild rice, black walnuts, hickory nuts, and a couple new items I haven’t discussed before. There’s recipes, but also different ways of using the whole plant, leaves, or unripe versions of the fruits, as well as light discussions of harvesting and processing.
- 180 recipes divided between: leafy greens, herbs, vegetables, nuts and starches
- 230-240 original images
After going through the process, part of me lets out a heavy sigh when I see the stats of the book, knowing what went into it. My original manuscript ended up getting massive, and we had to cut 25,000 words, about 70 images, as well as the entire chapter on fruit. In order to come out with the 180 recipes and roughly 240 images it will contain, I started with the following:
- 1300 image options, whittled down from the ~ 12,000 I took
- 250 recipes
- 110,000 words
- 2 years of my life
I’m still finishing up an extra 20 or so images to fill spaces we identified after seeing the layout and page design, so there’s still a little work to be done, but you can see the pre-order pages below. The official publishing date is June 17, 2021.
Special thanks to those who have been reading for many years through the ups and downs of my restaurant work. The gentle nudges and hints of “where’s the book?” helped push me in the right direction. I appreciate all of you very much.