Chef and James Beard Award Semi-Finalist Rob Connoley recently returned to his hometown of St. Louis after many years spent away in the southwestern United States. There, he became known for his skills in the art of foraging and preparing food from what he foraged.
“So often, when we go grocery shopping, the second you look at the grocery list, things get scary,” Connoley said. “It is no longer simple food. The whole foraging movement is trying to say: know your food, be connected with it and be comfortable with it.”
By mid-2017, Connoley hopes to open a restaurant in St. Louis that focuses on foraging called Bulrush (the British term for cattail, one of the foraging ingredients he champions).
Connoley is set to release a new cookbook this week about foraging called “Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field,” which Epicurious recently listed in the top 25 cookbooks they are most excited about for the fall.
Connoley, who has lived here for three months, has been impressed with the amount of foods you can forage locally. This year was good for mushrooms, for example, because of the amount of moisture that hung around through the summer.
“In New Mexico, I was dealing with 40-50 plants,” Connoley said. “Here, I’m looking at over 100 and all are easy-to-find.”
Here are four tips for foraging in Missouri:
1. Forage where you can’t see a road.
“One of my rules is: If I can see a road, I don’t pick it,” Connoley said. “That’s my personal standard.”
That’s to avoid soil toxicity and runoff. Connoley avoids foraging in urban areas because it is hard to get a grasp on the quality of the plants.
2. Avoid foraging for mushrooms if you’re a beginner.
Mushrooms can be tricky to identify and some are poisonous.
“Mushrooms I don’t even put in my book,” Connoley said, remarking that popular kinds of mushrooms often have “false” compatriots, such as a the morel mushroom.
3. Utilize publicly-available foraging resources.
In addition to his book, Connoley invites would-be foragers to follow him on YouTube or Facebook for more tutorials. He also recommends posting pictures to the Wild Edibles of Missouri Facebook group to get feedback on plant identification. The Missouri Department of Conservation, for example, has a mushroom identification field guide.
If you want some in-person training, the Missouri Mycological Society organizes group tours and training.
4. Try your hand at cooking cattails (yes!) and purslane.
Cattails and purslane are two vegetable growths that are easy to find and prepare in Missouri.
Connoley likes cattails (pictured here) because you can prepare them almost all year and they are easy-to-find next to a water source you trust.
“In March, April and May, I cut it just above the water, peel off the woody outer layers and eat it,” Connoley said. “Tastes like cucumber and has the texture of a soft vegetable.”
In June, when the top starts to shoot up and grows a brown, furry section, Connoley said you can either saute the top or use the pollen from the stick of the plant to make a yeasty, citrusy condiment. In the fall, harvesters can eat the roots of the plant, which taste like water chestnut.
Another easy plant to harvest and cook is purslane (pictured here), which grows as a weed in many people’s gardens.
Connoley said that purslane is actually considered a “superfood.”
“Purslane is so phenomenal,” Connoley said. “I like it raw, plain and simple. It has a succulent nature to it and the texture is fantastic.”
Break up the purslane and take off the woodier stems, then add the plump leaves to various dishes. Connoley is partial to adding purslane to risotto, which he said adds crunch and freshness to an earthy dish.
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