Into the Wild: Foraging in Urban Landscapes

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Amy Zavatto uses her experience in mixology to take the senses to the next level in "Forager’s Cocktails." By using ingredients that are locally grown or foraged, Zavatto introduces entirely new takes on old favorites
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Learn the ins and outs of botanical mixology with fresh, natural ingredients.

In Forager’s Cocktails(Sterling, 2015), Amy Zavatto travels through farmers markets and speakeasies where the latest trends in mixology are coming from foraged and homegrown ingredients. This guide to imbibing will give you tips on how to forage and preserve the freshest berries, herbs, flowers and more. The following excerpt illustrates the opportunities for foraging within the city limits.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Forager’s Cocktails.

Into the Wild

Living in any urban area, you wouldn’t think you have a lot of opportunity for foraging — and, well, sometimes foraging in a large metropolis simply means finding the one open grocery that has milk for your coffee in the morning.

But as long as there’s sun and rain, dirt and seed, and root, it really is hard to keep a good plant down. I’ve lived in New York City since 1986, when I moved here to go to college, having sprung from a small island town where my mom sometimes sent me to the farm stand around the corner for supper’s side dish. To say I had culture shock when I moved to New York City is an understatement. Here, it wasn’t the woods that were the wilds but the Lower East Side and, at that point in history, unexplored areas of the outer boroughs — where foraging had more to do with cheap drinks, cute boys, and good bands.

About 12 years ago, I bit the bullet and bought a home with my husband in a hilly little neighborhood of Staten Island near that borough’s public ferry. It is an area that’s at once urban but also offers some more space for those of us tired of being stacked up in apartment-building boxes. For the first time in twenty-five years, I had a backyard — and a very overgrown one at that, since my home had been abandoned for many years before we decided to root in and give it some spit and polish. Back then, everything looked like a weed to me. And, to be fair, a lot of it probably technically was. The first wild plant that stood out among the rest, as much for its stubborn, rooted countenance as its incredible smell when I finally wrenched it loose from the earth, was sassafras saplings. It smelled like … bubble gum! And Fruit Loops cereal.  And a little like root beer soda. This dirty, gnarled, funny-looking root of this irksome, incredibly prolific weed turned out to be pretty awesome for cocktails. (You can use the leaves for the secret ingredient in gumbo, too — but that’s a recipe for another time.)

I looked at the world a little differently after that. Spiky leaves springing off dandelions, that suburban arch-nemesis, looked like salad or perhaps something to pop off and pickle. When I went out to eastern Long Island in the summer months, where I grew up, I searched the sandy brush for beach plums, which I knew would make a beautiful garnish, liqueur, or syrup. Wild onions springing from the ground? Martini accompaniments, of course.

Putting fresh ingredients in your cocktails isn’t just a fun weekend experiment; it also makes your drinks better. From the days of the Carthusian monks, reaping a multitude of herbs from their monastic grounds and putting them into tinctures and liqueurs (the original wild cocktail concocteurs!) for countenance curing endeavors, the idea of preserving harvestable with spirits is an old trick that has become new again. It’s thanks to both the thirty-year-old Slow Food Movement and the economic downturns of the early twenty-first century for sprouting the now-avid DIY movement of entrepreneurial tinkerers. But regardless of how we’ve started to re-adapt a thriftier, let’s get- real point of view, it’s pretty exciting to see so many of us kicking pre-fab, mystery-made, store-bought products to the curb in favor of honest-to-goodness identifiable ingredients. No one’s going to proclaim cocktails a health drink any time soon, but using real, fresh, good ingredients in them is a whole lot better (and more delicious) than high-fructose whatever. Good riddance to that.

I am not a professional forager. There are people who do really great work in that realm — many right here in my own city. “Wildman” Steve Brill, Marie Viljeon, Ava Chin are among my favorites (each of whom has a terrific book or two, and I highly recommend you pick them up). I am, if anything, a cocktail tinkerer and abundantly enthusiastic home cook — and this is how I implore you to approach this topic, too. Use this book for inspiration. Be curious. There is nothing more rewarding than using your imagination and integrating a forlorn piece of flora into a glorious gastronomic bit of sipping pleasure. Be careful, too: the plants I list here are all pretty safe bets; turn to the pros like those listed above or other foraging tomes for your area before ingesting something with which you are unfamiliar. Plants, berries, and mushrooms can be a boon to your cocktail shaker, but they can also be poisonous if you mistakenly opt for an unfriendly look-alike to the thing you really wanted. Curiosity and caution are your two best friends.

Don’t ignore the more domesticated side of fresh ingredients, either: your pots of herbs, your prized summer tomato garden, a funny tuft of leafy greens at your local farmers’ market that you have never seen or used before. Challenge yourself. What’s the worst thing that can happen — you make a bad drink? You’ll make a better one next time. The great thing about booze? Unlike the fresh ingredients I encourage you to incorporate here, its shelf life is fairly indefinite.

Be brave, be curious, get your hands dirty, and by all means do me the honor of having fun with this book. May you never look at weeds the same way again!

Try these recipes from Forager’s Cocktails:

Violet Lady Recipe
Lemon Verbena IPA Recipe
Wild Strawberry Margarita Recipe

Reprinted with permission from Forager’s Cocktailsby Amy Zavatto and published by Sterling Publishing, 2015.

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