The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook
By "Wildman" Steve Brill
The Harvard Common Press, 2002
Only a unique thinker would dream of thanking all the wild plants and fungi that grow in abundance throughout North America. "Wildman" Steve is that unique person who feels wholly indebted to each wild leaf, bulb, tuber, berry, and root he has encountered while gathering, He thanks them graciously in his acknowledgements.
This highly respected person with specialized knowledge in an uncommon field ran afoul of the law early in his foraging career. The "Wildman" was actually arrested for digging up and eating a dandelion in New York's Central Park while leading a wild foods tour.
Today, no law enforcement agency one would even consider interfering with one of Brill's explorations. Now, people eagerly flock to join his wild food tours through New York parks on weekends and holidays. During his busy week, he is sought out to conduct special lectures and tours for schools, museums, environmental groups, libraries, garden clubs, and YMCA's.
Steve Brill's fascination with cooking wild foods began in his twenties when he noticed some Greek women gathering wild leaves. He showed interest, and they taught him how to recognize and select fresh organic grape leaves that he brought home and stuffed.
Having no mentors to study with, he purchased a field guide and learned to identify and collect wild foods on his own. The few wild food cookbooks available seemed incompatible with his interest in preserving the nutritious quality of his efforts. Those books advised either cooking the foods to death or adding refined ingredients to the wild, natural foods.
This exceptional cookbook, with its more than 500 vegan recipes, is the culmination of many years of foraging for wild foods and taking pleasure in preparing them in his not-so-wild kitchen with methods that bring out the finest qualities of these rarely eaten delicacies.
Reading the highly informative and detailed introduction section, one realizes that the Wildman has spent as many hours in the kitchen as he has foraging. His knowledge of vegetarian alternatives to create typical butter, cheese, egg, and meat flavors is immediately apparent. Here he also discusses cooking equipment, salt alternatives, seasonings, chiles, egg substitutes, meat alternatives, the vegan dairy, sauces, baking, dumplings, puddings, winemaking, wild shoots, roots, fruits, edible flowers, wild nuts, and mushrooms.
The "Wildman" truly does go wild in the kitchen. He begins the recipe portion of the book with Unwild Food Recipes focused on preparing tofu dishes that take the place of dairy products, such as Tofu Cream Cheese, Tofu Sliced Cheese, Tofu Sour Cream, and Tofu Feta Spread. This section covers other basics like Garlic Butter Sauce, Mock Yogurt Sauce, Curry Paste, and Cashew Butter. If you have always wanted to make your own Homemade Ketchup or Buckwheat Noodles, he's covered those, too.
The author presents a colossal array of recipes that follow the seasons, beginning with Winter Wild Foods. Here he presents six recipes for winter cress, including Winter Cress Kimchi and Winter Cress Potato Soup. Even the names of the wild foraged foods sound intriguing, names like Shepherd's Purse, Bladderwrack, or Sow Thistle. For "starters" he opens the winter section with a recipe for Sourdough Starter for Dummies.
He swings into the spring season with gathered morsels like Stinging Nettles, Goutweed, Ramp, and Ostrich Fern Fiddlehead. The author tells us that the daylily is the last holdout, a tasty wild edible clinging to life during the chilly month of March. He offers the succulent Daylily Cholent recipe that features daylilies, dried lima beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, and generous amounts of herbs and seasonings.
"Nature provides a greater abundance of wild vegetables and edible flowers in mid-to-late spring than at any other time of the year," says the author. In this Mid-to-Late Spring Wild Foods section we were tempted by the Cow Parsnip Cheese Buns, all vegan, of course. Our curiosity was peaked with the creative combination of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that are stuffed into beets. During this season, the "Wildman" climbs the wisteria vine to gather two quarts of blossoms for making Wisteria Wine.
The Summer Wild Foods season provides the author with some gourmet mushroom varieties that lend themselves to dishes like Chanterelle Custard, Mushroom Millet Pilaf, Hashed Milky Mushrooms, and Baked Boletes in Sour Cream (vegan, naturally). He goes wild with a multitude of mulberry recipes--18 to be exact. Does Red Mulberry Cobbler sound tempting? It certainly whets our appetites, and the preparation appears easy. The Sumac Ice Cream is another temptress.
Brill expresses the greatest enthusiasm for Autumn Wild Foods. "Fall is the busiest time for wild foods. Those greens that are around for the entire growing season are joined by a second burst of cold-weather vegetables as the autumn season progresses," says the 'Wildman." Wild hazelnuts, butternuts, beechnuts, and pecans enter the scene, and Steve incorporates them creatively into dishes like Butternut Fudge, Hazelnut Biscuits, Butter-Pecan Ice Cream, and Granola from the Wild made with wild beechnuts.
For the reader's convenience, each of the wild foods is grouped together. For instance, all nine inviting recipes for wild carrots appear together in the Early Spring Wild Foods section, recipes such as Wild Carrot Croquettes and Wild Carrot Soup.
As a preface to each different variety of foraged food, Wildman Steve imparts some helpful information to make the foraging and cooking easier for the rookie gatherer. For those amateur botanists who love to classify foods, the author even provides the Latin name of each species.
The Appendices provides invaluable help to the reader beginning with an Herb and Spice User's Guide. The author alphabetically lists a compendium of herbs and spices and provides numerous suggestions for using each one. Following is A Quick Guide to Making Dairy-Free Cheese, and A Quick Guide to Wild Wine. The Equivalents table is a cook's guide to saving precious time in the kitchen with measurements for each food in cups as well as by weight. The Flour Substitutions is another rare gem and will aid anyone wanting to use alternative grains for any recipe. The Index is very complete and user friendly.
"Wildman" Steve has certainly broken new ground in The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook with his creative approach to bringing wild foods into our everyday world of fine food and wine. His knowledge of combining these wild foods with just the right seasonings could rival the skill of any Cordon Bleu chef. Possibly, Steve Brill has even surpassed classically trained chefs who have never ever encountered cattails or even a chunk of tofu in their kitchens.
Reviewed August 2002