Hank Shaw And The Joys Of Foraging

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Unlike Nova Kim, a self-described native-American wild crafter who gathers gourmet edibles for a living (and who was featured last week on Food Republic), Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook doesn't have a problem with the word forager. And though he has learned most of what he knows about gathering wild plants from native Americans who call themselves foragers, he's never heard of anyone who objects to the term.

Nor does he feel any compunction about foraging (as well as hunting and fishing) as a means to source his food, as you might expect from the author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. When he worked on a newspaper, he supplemented his low salary by fishing — providing for 80% of his protein. But if he wanted to survive on wild foods alone, he'd have a problem: not enough carbohydrates.

This extreme form of carb deprivation is the backbone of the "caveman" or "Paleo" diet. "You need a lot more meat if you don't have carbs," he says. "Lewis and Clark ate seven pounds of meat per man per day." But Shaw doesn't believe this to be a sustainable or healthy way of eating. "Every hunter gatherer has some form of starch." Acorns, Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth and mesquite flour are examples that can be found in the wild. On his blog and in his book, Shaw offers instructions on how to collect, shell, dry and prepare acorns — as well as acorn-based recipes for flatbread, pasta and soup — which he says have a flavor reminiscent of chestnut.

Insufficient carbohydrates aside, plucking your food from the wild makes you feel like a more successful human being. "Every animal in the world has no problem feeding itself," Shaw says. "The satisfaction of being able to do that, even if it's only putting dandelions from the backyard in your salad, knowing that you didn't have to rely on supermarket for sustenance, that you brought it home and fed it to your family – it's difficult to put into words how good that makes you feel."

So how can you get started? Shaw suggests beginning with collecting berries: "[There are] wild cousins of every berry that we eat in the supermarket — wild raspberries, blueberries, blackberries — all taste better and all look the same, except they are smaller." Or you can begin on your front lawn: "Nothing that looks like a dandelion is poisonous; it could be wild chicory or wild lettuce and it will be a nutritious herb," with a pleasant bitter flavor, he adds. Even urbanites can find wild onions and other edibles in city parks.

For those who are more ambitious — and not vegetarians — Shaw offers instruction in fishing or hunting, though the two activities are intrinsically different, and both might not appeal to the same person. When you're fishing, you're in a relaxing, Zen, calm state — even when you're getting a lot of activity. "You are projecting yourself —focusing on an unseen lure. It's an act of meditation. Hunting is an active mind-state, even when you are sitting in a tree stand waiting for a deer to come by, you focus on the entire world around you. All of your sense are instantaneously heightened and enhanced."

There are other books on hunting, fishing and foraging, but in addition to Shaw's personal experience and storytelling prowess, what distinguishes Hunt, Gather, Cook is his approach to cooking. While our typical idea of campfire cooking, or other recipes for animals often categorized as road kill, are rustic in the extreme, Shaw applies modern techniques to wild ingredients. For example, the first animal he shot was a squirrel in a walnut tree ("a single-serving animal"). He didn't know how old it was, so he decided to braise it. Using the Marco Pierre White approach to cooking — "nature is the artist and the cook is just the technician," says Shaw — he decided to cook the squirrel with what it eats. In this case, nuts.

The result was Braised Squirrel Aurora (honed with the help of many squirrels), an adaptation of Penelope Casas' Spanish rabbit recipe that includes almonds, garlic and green olives. Shaw's basic cooking philosophy is that whatever is present in an animal's environment works well on the plate.

When he found rosehips in the gullet of a sharp-tailed grouse, he prepared it with a rosehip glaze, and since its habitat was sunflower and wheat fields, "all of that had to go into the dish." Plus, since every dish needs an acid, he used malt vinegar. "It's silly to use olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a Great Plains animal."

"Wild game doesn't have to be wrapped in bacon," he says. "It has a place in the modern kitchen."