Urban foragers give humble weeds their day in the sun
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Tu Bishvat

Urban foragers give humble weeds their day in the sun

Two tours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem find a free, wild, exotic salad bar growing underfoot

The pink peppercorn tree, native to South America, is found across Israel. In a store, pink peppercorns are considered a specialty item that can sell for NIS 150 per kilo. Heela Harel adds them to a foraged salad on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The pink peppercorn tree, native to South America, is found across Israel. In a store, pink peppercorns are considered a specialty item that can sell for NIS 150 per kilo. Heela Harel adds them to a foraged salad on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Going on an urban foraging tour is like putting on a pair of 3D glasses: It transforms a familiar cityscape into something completely different. Clumps of weeds turn into hefty bundles of edible greens, while abandoned lots yield stalks of wild asparagus or cones of crimson sumac.

With Tu Bishvat, the annual Jewish “holiday of the trees” that’s coming up on Saturday having turned into a platform for ecological awareness, foraging the fresh greens growing underfoot is one of the best ways to encounter nature in the cement jungle.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are both home to active urban foraging communities, with weekly tours offering environmental inspiration along with financial savings.

Heela Harel, a designer and community activist in south Tel Aviv, leads biweekly foraging tours around the abandoned lots of her neighborhood, where weeds grow freely and there is little to worry about from pesticides.

“I found it pretty amazing that there are so many things that grow around my house that I don’t have to go too far to find and are extremely nutritious, maybe even more than stuff that I buy in the supermarket,” said Harel, who prepared a salad filled with a rich variety of foraged greens following a recent foraging tour around south Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv’s mild climate helps create a great variety of forageable options in the early winter, while in mid-March chillier Haifa and Jerusalem experience an explosion of wild quinoa and asparagus.

But February is prime time for mallow, locally called hubeiza, or “a piece of bread” in Arabic. It’s one of the most common naturally sprouting plants in the Israeli winter.

The hardy plant grows everywhere, from roadside berms to gaps between old stones in Jerusalem’s Old City, and is a staple of Arab cooking in the winter. Some people dislike the spinach-like green because it is part of the okra family and has the same “sliminess,” but Harel recommends cooking it with something acidic, such as lemon or tomatoes, to neutralize the slime.

Wild asparagus looks like thin branches of the store-bought version, but with the same taste, pictured here in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Wild asparagus looks like thin branches of the store-bought version, but with the same taste, pictured here in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Cooking pointers are essential when preparing foraged food. Likewise, while foraging doesn’t require a degree in botany, it does require a bit of knowledge.

Luf, a type of lily that is another popular Arabic winter dish, can be poisonous if not cooked properly, said Harel. Stinging nettles are deliciously nutty, even consumed raw, but need to have their tiny thorns removed before consumption by folding or rolling the leaves to “pop” the thorns.

Luf, a type of lily, seen here on a foraging tour in South Tel Aviv on February 2, 2017, can be poisonous if not cooked long enough at high temperatures. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Luf, a type of lily, seen here on a foraging tour in south Tel Aviv on February 2, 2017, can be poisonous if not cooked long enough at high temperatures. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The leaves of wild quinoa (kaf avaz in Hebrew, or Chenopodium) taste like walnuts, and the leaves of chrysanthemums are a marriage between carrots and parsley, but sharp.

“Curiosity is the main thing here. If you’re curious about these things you can find the information you need,” added Harel, citing a number of online resources including websites such as Edible Weeds.

It was that kind of curiosity — and the prospect of saving on grocery bills — that drew Jerusalemite Ronit Peskin to urban foraging.

A married, religiously observant mother of four young children, Peskin and her family have always operated within a tight budget.

Ronit Peskin, aka the Penniless Parent, shakes dirt out of a bundle of wild mustard foraged in the Ramot Forest (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Ronit Peskin, aka the Penniless Parent, shakes dirt out of a bundle of wild mustard foraged in the Ramot Forest (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

While researching births without epidurals, the anesthetic often given during labor, Peskin fouind herself in the world of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cloth diapers and, later, homeschooling. Foraging followed as she started to read it about on various blogs by other homeschooling moms who foraged with their little ones.

She began researching the plants that grow in Israel, comparing and contrasting them with what grows in the US. She joined Facebook foraging groups and eventually started her own blog, Penniless Parenting, in which she writes anonymously about her life as a penny-pinching mom who wants to eat well and healthfully.

Peskin began teaching foraging about five years ago, primarily leading tours in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, where clumps of edible greens and pink peppercorns grow wild in the areas just beyond the cultivated grass fields.

Like Harel in south Tel Aviv, she also loves abandoned lots.

A handful of fresh sumac berries, foraged in an abandoned lot (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A handful of fresh sumac berries, foraged in an abandoned lot (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

She began a recent tour of the Ramot Forest with a stop in a weed-filled space sandwiched between two suburban homes. At the edge of the lot was a small tree sprouting dense cones of dry, crimson berries, which turned out to be the reddish, lemony-flavored spice sumac.

After picking bushels of mustard greens, fronds of fennel, clusters of wood sorrel and a bunch of wild dock, Peskin brought it all to a picnic table in one of the wooded glens of the suburban forest.

There, she heaved two portable burners, several pots and bowls, and her collection of herb-infused vinegars out of a metal shopping cart, preparing to make pad Thai, fish piccata and a salad out of the dozen different greens found in an hour of foraging.

“I’m not afraid to teach foraging because, for millennia, people foraged without a degree,” said Peskin, soaking a clump of cloth-wrapped sumac berries in water in order to create a lemony juice for the piccata. (In order to use sumac as a spice, she lets it dry for about a week and then grinds it in a coffee grinder or food processor before sifting out the ground spice from the inedible seeds of the fruit.)

Foraging has allowed Peskin to branch out in her meal planning and put items on the menu her family wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. (Her kids eat many of the greens, although her South African husband often puts ketchup on her foraged culinary dishes.)

“I’m a foodie, and I like the fact that foraging gives me more to work with,” she said.

A picnic table full of freshly-foraged greens, from which Ronit Peskin will prepare three different dishes (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A picnic table full of freshly-foraged greens, from which Ronit Peskin will prepare three different dishes (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Israeli winter offers a wide variety of greens, but during the dry summers there are more seeds and fruits available. During the rich foraging winter months that Peskin makes vegetable wraps with raw sorrel, fresh ravioli stuffed with greens, or mayonnaise out of mallow seeds.

“I get the biggest kick out of foraging for things you buy in the grocery store,” she said.

Ditto for Harel, who likes using the maximum amount of plant possible, including peels, rinds, seeds, and stems. She documents some of the things she makes, including other art projects, in her blog, “Hi! There. I Make This Stuff.

Extra-dried herbs can be ground and added to coarse salt to make a unique condiment. She uses bitter ornamental oranges preserved in simple syrup, one part sugar to one part water, to make her own juice concentrate (just add soda, or vodka, for a refreshing cocktail).

For these urban foragers, there’s the thrill of the find, and then the pleasure of creating something new and different out of their foraged foods.

Heela Harel believes in using every part of the fruit, soaking peels and rinds in a sugar syrup to make natural sweet concentrates and jelly, pictured here on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Heela Harel believes in using every part of the fruit, soaking peels and rinds in a sugar syrup to make natural sweet concentrates and jelly, pictured here on February 2, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

After several years of guiding foraging tours for individuals and larger, corporate groups, Peskin is now venturing into the world of publishing with her first book, “Penniless Foodie in the Wild, an Adaptable Foraging Cookbook,” from boutique English publishing house Passageway Press.

The book will identify every herb and green that Peskin has researched and offer international recipes on how to prepare various foraged foods.

“You don’t have to be a botanist to understand foraging,” she said. “It’s for the masses; it’s a vital skill for people to have, and it’s a great way to save money.”

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