The food in our backyards
The Hudson Valley is surrounded by nature. Untapped nature, to be more precise. The Hudson River flows 315 miles through our area. The surrounding ecosystem includes mountains, forests and stream beds that are mostly untouched. We have hundreds upon hundreds of “local ingredients” within that territory.
All you need to do is step outside to see why the Hudson Valley is a bread basket to the rest of New York, especially restaurants in the Big Apple. I like to refer to the Hudson Valley as the “Bigger Apple” when describing the bounty we have just outside our door.
Here, we have endless wild food sources that foragers like James O’Neill of Deep Forest Wild Edibles want you to appreciate. If you love morel mushrooms, stinging nettles, wild blueberries and the like, this is the place to be. Foraging for wild edibles not only sparks interest on the dinner menu, it also adds diversity, flavors and textures to our plates. Most importantly, it’s sustainable for the food system.
Let’s “Meet our Forager”!
The ethos of Deep Forest Wild Edibles
One thing is for sure, James of Deep Forest Wild Edibles is on a mission. A Hudson Valley native, he is passionate (some would even say a bit fiery, at times) about improving our food system and sustainability.
I have been fortunate to work with James across many tables, kitchens and events over the years. His professional culinary training, allows him to take a chef’s approach when it comes to showcasing ingredients at the dinner table. His menu always features hyper-local ingredients, beautifully arranged — a feast for both the eyes and a hungry belly.
James is on a mission to get more local restaurants into wild edible cuisine. He explains that many restaurants use popular foraged ingredients such as morels, ramps and chanterelles, but there are countless wild ingredients in the Hudson Valley that deserve the spotlight. Besides tasting great, they are diverse and sustainable. Some restauranteurs are simply unfamiliar with many wild edibles, or they prefer the comfort zone of cooking with vegetables we all know, James says. Yes, those vegetables may be local, but they are kind of cliché.
Beyond making meals taste delicious, James envisions a more sustainable way of eating. His passion is to change the way we view our planet and the food system as a whole. “Your food dollar speaks loudly,” he says. “Where we spend our money, how we spend our money, counts.” At Farm2ChefsTable, we couldn’t agree more. Keeping the local economy strong by supporting companies like Deep Forest Wild Edibles is a big part of that. Whether you make it to the polls or not, you can vote with your food dollar.
As a chef, forager and proud Hudson Valley resident, he wants local chefs to represent the Hudson Valley food scene well. James acts as a liaison between chefs, restaurants and foodies alike. He is selective about selling wild edibles to restaurants. He believes the chefs that buy them are responsible for carrying the torch toward a more diverse and sustainable Hudson Valley. His work does not end at foraging and selling edibles, of course. He works closely with local chefs to develop recipes for these unsung ingredients.
Refining and developing Hudson Valley cuisine is part of the mission. When you think of world cuisines, the first few that come to mind are Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese, right? Now, if you take a closer look at those cuisines, you’ll see that there are regional variations. Southern Italian staples are rarely made in the north of Italy due to changes in climate, culture and ingredient availability. We see that here in the United States as well. Southern cooking is completely distinct from California cuisine.
So, what is Hudson Valley cuisine? To be honest, that’s a loaded question. Sure, we are known as the bread basket to NYC’s world-class culinary empire, but there must be something more. Without it, Farm2ChefsTable wouldn’t exist, nor would James’ foraging career.
As present, there isn’t really a defined “Hudson Valley cuisine”. Our area does not yet have a solid culinary identity, despite an abundance of locally grown food. James wants to put Hudson Valley on the map of world-famous cuisines, much like Northern Italian, Provence or Szechuan cuisine. Aside from fresh local ingredients, the Hudson Valley has something else going for it: We are a cultural melting pot of our own. James’ goal is to merge our area’s cultural diversity with our food bounty to shine a light on the potential of developing Hudson Valley cuisine.
How Deep Forest Wild Edibles got started
James literally stumbled into being a forager, as he describes it. During college, he attended forestry school only to realize that wasn’t the right path for him. However, while he was studying the forest, he stumbled upon wild mushrooms…and that opened up a new world of opportunity for him. He became obsessed with learning the science behind them and how to cook them.
After leaving forestry school behind, James headed to Prince Edward Island to cook with his cousin, celebrity chef Michael Smith. Cooking alongside him exposed James to an array of wild edibles. Michael introduced him to cooking with chanterelles, and would take him into the woods all over Prince Edward Island to forage for local ingredients. This is how a chef became a forager.
James was hooked. It was only a matter of time before he started Deep Forest Wild Edibles.
Sustainability and seasonality go hand in hand with foraging. Deep Forest Wild Edibles is committed to sustainable foraging practices when picking wild edibles. As James puts it, he needs “justification” for picking something for his (or your) dinner plate. For instance, if he is going to take a young birch tree, he needs to justify the decision by planting, pollinating or transplanting more trees. This is the most crucial thing to remember when foraging. If you over harvest, there will be none left in the years to come.
Sustainable ramp foraging is a perfect example of this. Ramps, if you’re not familiar with them, are similar to a wild leek. They are one of the first vegetables to pop up in spring. To learn why chefs go crazy for ramps, check out the ramp post. You’ll also find a delicious ramp soup recipe to try next spring on that page. Anyway, back to how Deep Forest Wild Edibles sustainably forages ramps. Location, location, location is the most important consideration when harvesting them.
James forages for ramps in areas that new housing developments will be built. What does a cookie-cutter house have to do with ramps? A lot! Before the land is developed, James harvests 25 percent of the ramps on the lot, saving them from destruction. He then transplants one-fourth of the ramps he finds in an area that won’t be developed anytime soon. The ramps that have seed sprouts are great for this. The remaining ramps are sold or preserved.
Foraging is highly seasonal, as is the case with ramps in springtime. The growing seasons often come and go quickly. It’s a fun challenge as a chef to change your menu to complement the fast-changing seasons. Preserving foraged foods lets you enjoy them long after the season ends. Mullein tea is a nice example of this. The mullein plant is dried similar to how you would dry an herb. As a sidenote, mullein tea is said to be beneficial for the respiratory system. We could all use an immune boost at times like these!
Deep Forest Wild Edibles makes good use of seasonal foods by preserving them. For example, Japanese knotweed and white spruce are made into a switchel (or haymaker’s punch) that pairs perfectly with gin. I highly recommend Farmers Organic Gin from Crop Harvest Earth Co. to pair with both those switchels. Speaking of alcohol, James is even working on cultivating yeast from wild rose hips. This can be mixed with birch sap syrup to make gruit, a type of beer made by a wild fermentation process that omits cooking the wort.
Deep Forest Wild Edibles also makes a conservationist effort to protect native plants in the Hudson Valley. For example, garlic mustard is an invasive green that hinders the growth of many native wild edibles. James includes garlic mustard in almost every weekly Deep Forest Forage Bag that is sold. Garlic mustard is high in nutrients and vitamins. It tastes delicious sautéed alongside steak, or folded into salad greens for a little mustardy kick. Making use of this ingredient in every bag helps curb the overgrowth of invasive garlic mustard.
Currently, James is working with the Cornell Small Farms Program to create regulations for harvesting wild edibles such as ramps and mushrooms in a sustainable way. He also leads workshops to teach the basics of foraging for edibles. He offers literature, photos and recipe ideas for each foraged food. Workshop attendees are encouraged to contribute to the conversation to help each other forage sustainably.
Growth and preservation: Let’s take a closer look at mushrooms
Mushrooms are among James’ favorite foraged foods. Mushroom foraging can be tricky; As with anything in the wild, it takes time, skill and a bit of luck to find them. Foraging for mushrooms requires a keen eye and knowledge of different tree species, seasons and climates, sometimes just to find a single mushroom.
Because they can be hard to find in nature, James is working on cultivating wild mushrooms such as golden oyster and chicken of the wood from the mushrooms he finds in the wild.
How does he do it? In simple terms, he takes a slice from the bottom of each mushroom he finds, and places it in a sterile petri dish. From there, the mushrooms’ mycelium needs a nourishing substrate to help it colonize. You can use anything from grain, wood chips, sawdust, wooden plugs and even straw as a medium for cultivating mushrooms. To create the “spawn”, James blends the substrate and mushroom spores together in a slurry. Then, he inoculates the substrate to get the fungus that produces fruiting mushrooms that can be eaten. Sustainable cultivation allows us to enjoy what we find in the wild in abundance.
Get a taste of Deep Forest Wild Edibles for yourself
Foodies will be delighted to know that James offers a weekly Deep Forest Foraged bag. He posts the wild edibles that are currently available on Deep Forest Wild Edibles’ Instagram account each week. It’s a great way to add exciting new flavors to your meals. Supporting local foragers also helps to reduce your carbon footprint. Your food doesn’t have to travel far to reach your dinner plate, since the ingredients are right at our doorstep in the Hudson Valley. If you’re passionate about sustainability and eating local, give it a try!