Find Dinner in the Park? Go Foraging with a Wildman

"Wildman" Steve Brill walks us through some common NYC greens

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An overview of a foraging tour. Steve Brill, is an a foraging expert.
"Wildman" Steven Brill gives a new meaning to dining in the park. f(Photo by: Jaclyn Einis)

Updated Jul 31, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

At Clean Plates we enjoy dining out, but we also love a delicious meal at home, ideally with ingredients sourced at greenmarkets, our local CSA, or—wait, the park? That’s right. There are plenty of tender greens (and mushrooms, come autumn) fit to be picked right under your feet. “Wildman” Steve Brill, New York’s favorite foraging guru, runs park and trail tours throughout the state and in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. He also has an iPhone app to help you identify plants in the wild… or park.

A self-taught naturalist who uses his bounty for home-cooked vegan meals, Brill has been educating urbanites about what grows in their backyard for thirty years. I recently joined the Wildman for a foraging walk through Prospect Park. Here are a few of our finds, with his observations:

Poor Man’s Pepper (Lepidium virginicum)

Wildman: “Look for alternate toothed leaves with teeth facing the point of the leaf on the greens, and small white flowers in spring and fall. These are bad for insects and good for you! Kills carcinogens. Tastes spicy. Leaves, flowers and seedpods are good for salads, soups, sauces, casseroles and homemade mustard.”

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Wildman: “Look for green saplings by sassafras trees, which have three types of leaves: one oval, one with three lobes and one mitten-shaped. They smell like root beer.” (Writer’s note: The smell is exactly like a brown Mr. Sketch scented magic marker.)

“If there are plenty around, gather several friends to pull up the sapling. Use the green, soil-covered roots to make tea—simmer for 20 minutes. Tastes like root beer and cleans the blood.”

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Wildman: “Look for dark green, kidney to triangular-shaped leaves. The four white flowers are configured as a cross and smell like garlic (good for scaring off insects). The leaves taste of garlic, the seeds of mustard and the roots taste strongly of horseradish. If garlic mustard too bitter raw, try cooking it and mixing it with milder vegetables. Great in pesto.”

Chickweed (Cerastium and Stellaria)

Wildman: Look for short, matted plants with tiny, pointed, oval leaves growing in opposing pairs at the same height on the stem, with little white flowers. Tastes reminiscent of corn. Eat the whole plant raw in salad or cook it–five minutes at most–to achieve a more spinach-y flavor.”

Remember, picking wild plants is at your own risk. If you’re not sure, leave it in the ground. Find more of Wildman’s insights on natural edibles here, and check his calendar for upcoming tours and field walks. Be safe and have fun!

Poor Man’s Pepper image courtesy of “Wildman” Steve Brill. All other images by Jaclyn Einis.