You Should Totally Be Foraging for Your Cocktail Ingredients

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Ellen Zachos (image: Rob Cardillo)

One only needs to look to the bar for evidence of how foraging is having a moment. Seeing wild greens on our plates may not be new, but weeds, flowers, shrubs and edible plants have made their way into the glass as well—and cocktails may never be the same. Those ready to hunt down their next garnish or base needn’t be on farms either—urban foraging is a real thing, and with a rise in popularity, it’s only a matter of when to start, not where. Still, proper instruction is necessary as not everything that grows is safe for human consumption.

Enter Ellen Zachos, a former Broadway performer turned professional gardener and author who has taught at the New York Botanical Garden, currently resides in New Mexico and has foraged all over the world. Ellen’s latest book is the well-timed The Wildcrafted Cocktail, due out in the spring of 2017 from Storey Publishing. Here, Ellen talks about crabapple wine, rye whiskey and why everyone, anywhere, can forage too.

Black locust flowers make a great flavoring for gin. (image: Ellen Zachos)

Is foraging something anyone can do, or do you need to live in a certain part of the country or have access to certain kinds of parks?

I lived for many years in New York, and so many people are surprised that you can forage well in New York City, but the parks in New York are great. There are rules about foraging in parks—I should mention that—but a lot of the things you’re foraging for are weeds, so you’re not really hurting anybody if you pick them, although a park ranger may disagree.

But the fact is, even in urban areas where you wouldn’t expect there to be a big variety of plants, there’s excellent foraging, whether you’re in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Dallas. I have foraged in all of those places. What you forage for will vary from place to place, but you can forage almost anywhere, because there are so many edible plants that people are unaware of.

Zachos makes the Black Locust Lady by infusing gin with black locust flowers. (image: Ellen Zachos) 

How you would recommend people going about finding weeds and plants to put in their food and drinks?

The first thing you should do is to take a class or buy a book. There are foraging classes taught across the country; there are also private individuals that teach throughout the United States.

I’m curious as to how you eat and drink. Do you go to the grocery store like a regular person, or do you grow everything yourself?

It’s a little bit of both. I can’t grow coffee or olive oil or salt. There are a lot of staples that I still buy at the grocery store just like everyone else. But as far as my fruit and vegetables go, I very rarely buy them. I try to harvest a lot while something is in season and then can it or freeze it.

For example, last week, the black locust flowers were out in abundance, and they make a great a flavoring in gin. You can also cook with them and eat them raw in salads. But you have to get them when they’re good and do all of your infusing at that one time, because they’re only around for two weeks. I do the same thing with wild mustard plants in early spring. I harvest a large amount, and then I blanch and freeze them so that this time of year, when I want mustard greens or wild asparagus, I can go back to the freezer and use what I picked a few months ago.

Pineapple weed flowers grow in abundance and make for a nice liqueur. (image: Ellen Zachos)

How’re you preserving your food? Freezing, canning, pickling?

It depends on what the food item is, but I freeze, I can, I pickle. Sometimes I’ll juice something or make it into a syrup and freeze that. If you want to have those flavors all year round, you have to learn how to preserve them. Sometimes I dehydrate things—certain herbs, certain fruits. I dehydrate mushrooms a lot, but some mushrooms are better when you freeze them.

But I would say that every day I eat foraged, wild things every day. It wouldn’t feel right not to do that. It would feel odd not to incorporate those types of things in my diet.

If I were to open up your fridge or pantry, what is the strangest thing I’d find in there?

Right now, I have pineapple weed flowers in my freezer because they’ve very abundant. They’re roadside weeds that when you crush them between your fingers smell wonderfully like pineapple. You can use them to infuse cream and make a custard, and they make a really nice liqueur. I do a simple syrup and combine that with pineapple-weed-infused vodka.

Pineapple weed flowers grow in abundance and make for a nice liqueur. (image: Ellen Zachos)

Is it related to pineapple in any way?

No! It’s related to chamomile, but it doesn’t make you sleepy. It’s called pineapple weed because of the smell. It’s a tiny little weed, and it grows in neglected parking lots. Its nothing that anyone plants, but it makes me happy when I find it.

Would you say you use your foraged goods as much for cocktails as you do for cooking?

[Laughs] I do now. If you asked me that three years ago, I’d say no. For the last 10 years, I’ve been making my own wild wine from foraged things, but it wasn’t until about three or four years ago that I started to do more with cocktails, and now I’m fairly obsessed with it. I feel like I’m eating, breathing and drinking foraged cocktails.

What’s your spirit of choice?

I like to say I’m an equal-opportunity spirit appreciator. I love gin and I love rye. What I love about those two is how well they combine with so many different things and how their personality changes depending on what they’re mixed with. So many people don’t appreciate rye—I don’t understand why. I think it’s an amazing spirit. I think it does for the brown spirits what gin does for the clear ones.

Zachos makes her Merry Woodsman cocktail using young spruce tips. (image: Ellen Zachos)

In terms of cocktails, are there any flavor profiles that you gravitate toward?

My go-to flavors are more spicy and herbal. You have me thinking about rye, and one of my favorite cocktails is really simple: It’s a rye cocktail with a sassafras root syrup. We have a home in Pennsylvania and we’re surrounded by sassafras trees; it’s really easy for me to pull up a few young saplings and make a syrup from that root. What I like about sassafras is it has a little bit of sweetness, but it’s also round, complex, earthy, herbal and warm, and it seems to go really well with rye.

When I go to a really good cocktail bar, I’ll ask for something spirit-forward with either gin or rye, not too sweet and not too floral. I like to see what people will come up with, and I have had mixologists make me things that I would never have thought of. I like to see what people come up with, and I really like to experiment. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like the drink and order something else. The best thing that could happen is you find a new flavor combination that you love.

 Zachos (image: Rob Cardillo)

What’s up with your wild wine? What are you making it from?

To strict oenophiles, this will be horrifying, but you can make wine out of many things other than grapes. The first thing I made wine from that was foraged was crabapples. Crabapples have plenty of sugar, and they ferment very nicely. I’ve made wild wine from crabapples, from feral pears, from Japanese knotweed, which is a pernicious weed in all of the city parks and along the highways that has a sour lemon taste, but when you make wine out of it, it almost has a port flavor to it. Don’t ask me to explain it—I can’t.

One of the things that appeals to me about foraging, whether it’s for food or cocktails, is you can’t buy these flavors. The only way to get them is to go out and get it yourself. That kind of mystery and exclusivity is very appealing to me.

Is it safe to assume that you forage everywhere you travel to?

You assume correctly. Wherever I go, I like to forage because there’s new plants, flavors and things to experiment with.

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