When I talked to Michael Hendricks in late March, he took the call from somewhere in the northeast Georgia woods. That’s where he works, foraging for wild foods. It takes a keen eye and an awareness of the possibilities. Where you and I might just see sprigs of green or bits of brown, Hendricks sees delicious potential.
Hendricks is a dedicated forager. Whether deep in the woods or surveying the edges of cultivated land, he’s traveling through northeast Georgia looking for wild edibles to tempt local chefs. One dedicated client is Ryan Smith of Staplehouse who began cooking with the results of Hendricks’ expeditions while at Empire State South. “Right now, Ryan will take most everything I can find. In the height of summer when mushrooms are growing all around us, I can spread the love out a little bit to a few more chefs.”
What he was finding when we talked were common weeds that make great edibles, plants like chickweed, henbit, wood nettles, dandelion and Japanese knotweed.
That was late March. By now, the range of things he is collecting has grown to include mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
Yes, fresh bamboo shoots. The bamboo shoots that come in cans are sprouts, the growing tips of this year’s bamboo canes. “There are hundreds of varieties of bamboo and I’ve researched many of them. The ones we commonly see around here are edible. Not our native river cane, but bamboo.”
Bamboo is an introduced plant to North America. And like many introduced plants (think kudzu), it’s grown to be a nuisance. Hendricks semi-jokingly suggests that one way to deal with it is to have it for dinner. “Eat as much bamboo as you can. It has a pretty nice aesthetic but it’s become invasive.”
To harvest bamboo shoots, you can break them off at ground level, or if they’re a little bigger, whack them down with a sharp knife. Hendricks says they’re best when they’re from six to 12 inches long. He enjoys them just boiled and then sprinkled with a little sea salt. “I’m not much of a chef and not too experimental in the kitchen. I like things simple and easy.”
Fresh bamboo shoots are available all year at the Buford Highway Farmers Market and at other stores specializing in Asian groceries. But for a limited time, local bamboo shoots are available fresh from farmers who also do a bit of foraging, such as Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet at the East Atlanta and Grant Park farmers markets, as well as Global Growers.
When you get your fresh shoots home, treat them as you would an artichoke. Slice a quarter inch or so off the bottom and peel off any tough outer leaves. Cook the whole shoot in boiling water until tender, which can take 20 minutes or more, depending on how fresh your shoots are. Once you can pierce the shoot with a skewer, drain and cool, then peel off the leaves to get to the heart of the shoot. You can serve it whole, or slice into bite-size pieces.
If your only experience with bamboo shoots is finding pale yellow thin slices of canned bamboo shoots in your favorite Chinese dishes, fresh bamboo shoots will be a revelation. Sweet and slightly crunchy, they resemble succulent artichoke hearts with no “canned” aftertaste.
Grilled Bamboo Shoots with Carolina Rice Salad and Spring Onion Dressing
This recipe from chef Zeb Stevenson of Watershed on Peachtree is one he likes to bring out when the foragers arrive at his door bearing fresh bamboo shoots, and local farmers are cutting the scapes off their hardneck garlic and harvesting beautiful spring sugar snap peas.
Carolina Gold rice is offered by Anson Mills of Columbia, South Carolina. This particular variety of rice is prized by chefs because it cooks up differently depending on how it is prepared. It can cook up as individual grains, serve in place of Arborio for a creamy risotto or make sticky Asian-style rice. You can order Carolina Gold rice online at http://ansonmills.com.
For sale at local farmers markets
Vegetables and fruit just coming to market: kohlrabi, morels, sugar snap peas
Vegetables, fruits and nuts: arugula, Asian greens, asparagus, beets, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards, cornmeal, cutting celery, escarole, fennel, frisee, green garlic, green onions, grits, herbs, kale, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, polenta, potatoes, radicchio, radishes, ramps, spinach, strawberries, turnips
From local reports