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Chefs Gone Wild: Foraging, Texas Style

by Francoise Villeneuve with Will Blunt
Will Blunt
February 2011

Biography

Chef Randy Rucker
Bootsie’s - Tomball, TX

Restaurant

Bootsie’s
112 Commerce Street
Tomball, TX 77375
(281) 516-9699
www.bootsiescafe.wordpress.com

Recipe

Porridge of Steel-cut Oats and Maple with Lichen, Spring Creek Mushrooms, and Smoked Mascarpone Cheese
Chef Randy Rucker of Bootsie’s – Tomball, TX

Photos

Chef Randy Rucker
Bootsie’s - Tomball, TX

Tips for Third Coast Foraging from Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen, a.k.a. Merriwether


  • Avoid foraging around old houses, which were often painted with lead-based paint. Stay at least three feet away from the house to avoid contamination from chipping lead paint that seeps into the ground.

  • You can collect stuff along edges of sidewalks, but I call that the “dog pee zone,” so you want to be careful.

  • Look out for mud pits produced by one of Houston’s many oil wells. Rectangular pits often were dug next to wells to dispose of chemicals. Now those pits are toxic cesspools. If you find a muddy, rectangular depression in the earth—about the size of a hockey field—don’t collect nearby to avoid foraging contaminated plants.

  • Always get permission from the owner of the property before you forage there.
  • Foraging in San Francisco may have caught on like wildfire, but it’s yet to become a pervasive trend on the Third Coast—a term that refers to Texas and its Gulf Coast. No more than one or two restaurants in the Houston area have hopped on the foraging bandwagon in any significant way. But at Bootsie’s in Tomball, Texas, Chef Randy Rucker forages produce for the restaurant, gives foraging lessons, and even educates his diners with “Third Coast” dinners that highlight the regional bounty. And unlike the beginner-friendly sorrel of the West Coast, wild Texas edibles include some out-of-the-box choices. Lichen, for one. Yes, the stuff that grows on trees.

    Preserved Green Lichen
    Preserved Green Lichen

    Texas Terroir

    For Rucker, foraging is a way of experiencing terroir and then communicating it to the guest. “We always forage ourselves … it allows us to connect with our food sources before and after we present it to our guests.” Rain or shine, Rucker collects lichen year-round, leaving some of it raw and balancing the rest with a base to “equalize the acids.” Some lichen harvests are preserved in a 3:2:1 pickling liquid for use throughout the year.

    The Law Won

    Unlike Californian foragers, who enjoy liberal laws on foraging, Texan foragers have to skate around a historic law to gather the good stuff. In the late 19th century, the cattlemen and sheepmen of Texas—pretty hostile toward one another at the best of times—experienced an unprecedented number of violent clashes. To prevent further bloodshed, laws were passed that forbade grazing on public land, which forced both groups to keep cattle and sheep on their own land. A quirky holdover from this law is that people are not allowed to “graze” or gather food on public land. However, many Texas foragers gather their bounties on the land of friends or neighbors, with permission of course.

    Menu Development

    Not that a few hoops to jump would stop Rucker. “The Third Coast is full of natural bounties! We have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s out there.” He’s currently collecting coastal items like clams and scallops for the restaurant, as well as less mainstream fare like whelks, pin shells, sea grass, and algae. When it comes to planning his menu, the foraged produce and shellfish act as the inspiration, and the dishes follow.We always find our ingredients first and then compose our menu … always!” And if they don’t star in a dish, they end up on top. “All our garnish is foraged,” says Rucker, whose main goal is to use foraged goods as much as possible. Even in winter, he serves dishes like porridge (essentially oatmeal) with preserved lichen, wood ear mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, and puffball mushrooms for a warming, earthy and complex take on terroir in winter.

    Evil Twins

    To avoid collecting and serving toxic doppelgangers, safely foraged produce must be carefully researched before it can be considered for a restaurant menu. Rucker’s go-to resource when it comes to foraging in Texas is www.houstonwildedibles.blogspot.com, a blog run by Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen, a.k.a. Merriwether. A sort of Southern version of Wildman Steve Brill, Merriwether is a chemist by day, but in his spare time, he dons his Indiana Jones hat and brings groups into the wilderness to explore the world of wild edibles.

    Merriwether’s parents grew up during the depression, and foraging was a way of getting food on the table. They taught him how to forage, and in time, it came in handy.When I was in grad school there were some pretty lean years.” Word started to get around, and Merriwether now teaches foraging classes at the Houston Arboretum and to local gardening groups. Much moister and hotter than his native Minnesota, Houston’s humid, almost tropical, climate lends itself to year-round foraging. If Rucker’s lichen is too exotic for your diners—or too finicky for beginners—Merriwether recommends starting with easy-to-identify plants, such as:

    Dollarweed
    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

    Dollarweed

    This green weed has a mild cucumber flavor and grows in many Texas yards and in damp areas year-round.
    Culinary Uses: The leaves can be eaten raw in a salad if they aren’t growing in a yard that has been chemically treated.
    Evil Twins: No toxic mimics.

    Spiderwort
    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

    Spiderwort

    Elongated emerald leaved-plant with purple flowers.
    Culinary Uses: The leaves can be used for a salad and have a mild peppery flavor, and the stem steamed and cooked for an asparagus-like vegetable side. The sap can be used to thicken stews.
    Evil Twins: No toxic mimics.

    Spiderwort
    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

    Curled Dock

    This plant is tangy and mild tasting, with kale-shaped leaves.
    Culinary Uses: Baby leaves can be eaten raw in a salad, but intake should be limited to a few leaves. Boiling removes toxic acids and reduces bitterness in leaves that grow once the plant is flowering. The seeds can be roasted or ground into flour.
    Evil Twins: No toxic mimics.

    For more information, Merriwether recommends Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for beginner foragers. Or you could come to Bootsie’s to eat your research, of course.