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Steve Brill became an instant celebrity in 1986 when he was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park. The arrest brought Brill, who calls himself "Wildman," coverage in New York newspapers and guest spots on radio and television shows like "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee."

Brill invited me on a foraging tour recently through Central Park, and spent some time discussing his latest cookbook "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods, with More than 500 Recipes" (The Harvard Common Press, $29.95). Wearing a canvas hat over a sweatband, polo shirt, shorts and carrying several water bottles and bags to gather foraging treasures, he looked like every child’s favorite camp counselor - the one with the goofy sense of humor, who took campers on nature walks and lovingly described each plant.

He is still a counselor of sorts, albeit a sophisticated one, with three cookbooks under his khaki belt. His foraging tours through New York area parks delight participants, who are "served" edible plants carefully selected by Brill. (After his arrest, then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern hired Brill to lead tours through the city’s parks. Brill now works as a freelancer in Prospect Park and other parks, undisturbed by Parks employees.) Those attending my tour were offered handfuls of redbuds (tiny, lilac-colored blossoms that grow in lacy bunches on trees) with the comment, "This bud’s for you." And children enjoyed picking pale purple wisteria blossoms that have a honey-like aroma and taste a little like apples.

When a woman asked, "How can I tell a poisonous mushroom from a non-poisonous mushroom?" Brill deadpanned, "Feed it to your in-laws."

The children were warned against eating white snakeroot plants and were serenaded with Chopin’s "Funeral March" played on the "Brill-O-Phone."

What’s a Brill-O-Phone? In the Wildman’s own words (he gave himself the name Wildman 20 years ago while practicing yoga and listening to Jelly Roll Morton’s "The Wildman Blues") the Brill-O-Phone is "a personal, musical instrument made by clapping my hands over my mouth." In reality, Brill played his "personal, musical instrument" by shrieking a melody into his hands loud enough to leave me momentarily stunned.

By the book

"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook," Brill’s third following "Shoots and Greens of Early Spring" (1986) and "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places" (1994) is the definitive cookbook for those interested in foraging for and cooking wild dishes. The book is a pleasure to read with Brill’s offbeat humor apparent throughout its 484 pages. The book supplies both new and experienced natural food enthusiasts with techniques and advice culled from Brill’s 20 years in the wild foods forefront. But it’s the way the natural world opens to us after reading the book that makes it so valuable.

In the introduction, Brill, a former professional chess player and self-described "authority on edible and medicinal wild plants," describes his evolution from health food novice to wild foods enthusiast.

"I took a crucial step toward becoming hooked on wild foods when, while riding my bicycle in a local park in Hollis, Queens, I saw Greek women in traditional black garb who were busily foraging for plants. I stopped to ask them what they were doing, but their answers were all Greek to me."

After that experience, Brill began studying field guides to help identify and choose edible plants, and started adding wild plants to his diet. Cookbook authors, to whom Brill turned for wild, edible plant recipes, proved to be a disappointment. What was lacking in their books, Brill found, were recipes that preserved the nutritional value of the plants and actually tasted good.

"The authors," he explained, "were botanists who wouldn’t recognize a kitchen if one fell on their heads. And wild food cookbooks offered recipes for death: Boil the nutrition out of your greens or cook them in enough bacon fat to induce cardiac arrest."

"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" fills the void in the market for a wild food cookbook that offers instruction on healthy cooking techniques and recipes that produce tasty meatless and dairy-free dishes. His experience is evident throughout the book, with a thorough introduction broken into sections with titles such as "Foraging and You," that warns readers to "Use only those wild foods that you’ve identified with 100-percent certainty."

Interested foragers will need to refer to Brill’s "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants" or other field guides for illustrations and descriptions of plants. He goes on to a discussion of "What Makes Wild Food Special" that describes the benefits of a high-fiber diet and the ills of modern diets, so often based on refined foods rich in fat and carbohydrates and devoid of nutrition. Other areas covered in the book are food preparation methods, an herb and spice user’s guide and a "how-to" guide for turning tofu into an assortment of dairy-free cheeses.

Many of the recipes that feature wild, edible plants offer suggestions for cultivated plant substitutions making the book accessible to those who will only forage as far as their supermarkets or green markets.

One recipe for a mock coq au vin (chicken cooked in red wine with mushrooms) substitutes wild chicken mushrooms for the usual chicken. The success of many of the recipes lies in Brill’s ability to season dishes with spices that can sometimes mimic the flavors of traditional meat or cheese-based dishes. A Spanish sausage recipe uses breadcrumbs, lima beans and spicy seasonings such as hot paprika and chili paste to imitate the taste and texture of a standard meat sausage. A recipe for coconut rice (below) calls for coconut milk, tamari soy sauce and the unexpected addition of vanilla extract. The rice tastes surprisingly beefy, and the coconut milk gives it a creamy consistency.

Brill even takes on the much-loved, but unhealthy, fettuccine Alfredo by substituting tofu cream cheese for the usual heavy cream, and tofu grated cheese for Parmesan. (Recipes for the cheeses are included in the book.)

Expensive taste

Of the 500 or so recipes included in "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" several, like the coconut rice recipe, are simple to forage for and easy to prepare - perfect starting points for beginning foragers or natural foods cooks. But there are recipes that will prove costly and overly labor-intensive for those readers without a well-stocked natural foods pantry. Trips to green markets and health food stores for provisions will be necessary - and hours will be spent in the kitchen if a cook is committed to trying dishes with "from scratch" cheeses and wines.

The wild blackberry cheesecake, for instance, calls for 22 ingredients - basics like salt, corn oil and cinnamon would probably be stocked in a home cook’s pantry, but more esoteric ingredients such as liquid stevia (a natural sweetener), lecithin granules and five different extracts, would need to be purchased adding up to a very costly cake.

Since my meeting with the Wildman, I have found myself foraging in unexpected places. I’ve created beautiful salads by picking violets from my garden, (the flowers have no taste but the leaves are slightly hot) and walking past a neighbor’s home, I spotted a redbud tree in bloom, grabbed a handful of blossoms and ate them. The neighbors, sitting on their porch, looked horrified.

"Redbuds," I said. "They taste like sweet peas." I could imagine the Brill-O-Phone blasting as I walked away.

Wildman Steve Brill will lead a late-spring "Wild Food and Ecology Tour" of Prospect Park on May 25 at 11:45 am. The four-hour tour begins at Grand Army Plaza. $10 adults, $5 children under 12. To make a reservation, call (914) 835-2153 24-hours in advance. For more information, visit his Web site at www.wildmanstevebrill.com.

"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not so Wild) Natural Foods, with More than 500 Recipes" by "Wildman" Steve Brill (The Harvard Common Press, $29.95) can be purchased at A Novel Idea Book Store [8415 Third Ave. (718) 833-5115] in Bay Ridge, BookCourt [163 Court St., (718) 875-3677] in Cobble Hill and 7th Avenue Books [300 Seventh Ave. between Seventh and Eighth streets, (718) 840-0188] in Park Slope.

 

 

Coconut Rice

Adapted from "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook"
Coconut milk is a common ingredient in lands where coconuts grow, so it’s no wonder that this rice recipe tastes like something originating in Southeast Asia, despite its wild American seasonings.


6 bayberry leaves (or 3 regular Bay leaves)
2 cups brown basmati rice
One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 cup red wine
2 cups water
2 small chilis, chopped, seeds and ribs removed, or 1/2 tsp. Cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. tamari soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. dried lemon verbena or mint, finely crumbled
1/2 tsp. dried wild ginger or regular ground ginger
1 tsp. Vege-Sal or 1/2 teaspoon salt

Put the bayberry leaves in a tea bag or tea ball or tie them up in a piece of cheesecloth.

Place the bayberry leaves in a large saucepan with the remaining ingredients. Bring the pot to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Remove and discard the bayberry leaves before serving. Salt to taste.

If, after 40 minutes, the rice is still too chewy and the liquid has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup to 1 cup of water and continue to cook on a low flame until the rice is tender.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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