Just in time for the spring thaw, Forager’s Cocktails (Sterling Epicure, $14.95), a new book by New York City–based booze expert Amy Zavatto, encourages cocktail makers to get out and experiment with “botanical mixology”—drinks made with weeds, roots and wildflowers, including ingredients that can be foraged in the wild (or perhaps your backyard). We talked with author Zavatto about how to find and work with foraged ingredients in drinks.
How does someone get started with foraging?
I think just making that switch in your brain from thinking everything is a useless weed if it’s not in a neat, pretty garden box or bed to thinking everything is a plant with an identity all its own is a good place to start. Be cautiously curious.
How do foragers make sure they don’t poison themselves by picking something inedible?
That’s a great question and also kind of a big, multilayered question. The very first thing you need to do is learn what different plants look like. Get yourself a handy-dandy basic guide with pictures. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go out to pick anything until they see it, identify it and learn a little bit about the plant.
The first book I bought for my basic region and that I still love is Foraging New England by Tom Seymour from the FalconGuides series. It is paperback, has great info and visuals and is easy to carry with you. I think berries in particular can be confusing, and I like the chart from LoveToKnow’s website on wild berry identification, which gives photos and breaks it down to regions and the all-important: Is it poisonous?!?
Get yourself on a good foraging walk, too. In NYC, Steve “Wildman” Brill is pretty famous for his walks in parkland all over the city. He’s incredibly passionate and knowledgeable. But if you go to your local parks department or nature conservancy, there’s in all likelihood some of nature walk and plant ID’ing program. It’s a great excuse to step away from the vortex of Netflix and get outside. And while you’re out there, take pictures so you have your own visual to compare to your guides.
Any tips for working with foraged ingredients?
Yes! Make sure whatever you’re taking hasn’t been sprayed with anything poisonous. Sounds like a no-brainer, but while we have a multitude of wild acreage where I live among NYC’s parklands, makes sure what you’re plucking hasn’t been in direct contact with, say, rat poison so commonly sprayed in New York and other parks.
Also, something as innocuous as a rose—oh, boy, don’t go picking up a posy at your local deli or florist shop and think you can make a syrup, shrub or some such with that. They are not just sprayed with myriad pest-deflecting chemicals but also other not-good-for-you things for color, to keep them perky, et al. Know the source of your ingredient.
Also, do a little digging to find out if something might cause a skin rash and how to properly handle and prep it, like ginkgo, which you really ought to wear gloves to pick as well as to get the soft flesh from the outside and get at the nut inside. After that, rinse off anything you get really well, gently pat dry and then just taste it. From there, you can start to think about how to best get at the flavor: muddling, infusing, simmering, pickling.
What’s the benefit to working with foraged ingredients versus the usual stuff?
The flavors are bright and vivid and really interesting. Also, I think if you keep trying to work with them over and over each season, you really start to see how weather and climate affect flavor. Big growers are going for consistency as much as possible. To really be able to taste the season in your ingredient is pretty cool.
With that said, don’t be deterred if you don’t happen to have a cranberry bog down the road. Practice with what’s available. Using a fresh ingredient is always going to be better than using some weird factory-made concoction in your drinks. Which, if there is any theme to the modern cocktail movement, that’s certainly a big one: Use good ingredients always.
Wild Onion Gimlet
From Forager’s Cocktails by Amy Zavatto
Look for the skinny, green, scallionlike stalks of wild spring onions growing from the ground in early spring to make these easy cocktail accoutrements. “Why buy some unknown supermarket source of cocktail garnish when I’ve got fresh, perfectly sized, beautiful, gimlet-ready onions in my own backyard?” asks Zavatto.
2 1/2 oz London dry gin
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1 pickled wild spring onion*
Fill a mixing glass half full with ice cubes. Pour in the gin and vermouth. Stir for 30 to 45 seconds. Strain into a coupé or cocktail glass, and garnish with a pickled wild spring onion.
*Pickled Wild Spring Onions
6–12 wild onions, washed, leaving just a little green tail
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp sugar
1 tspn kosher salt
1 sprig of dill
1 tsp juniper berries
1 tsp black peppercorns
Add the onions, vinegar, water sugar and salt to a pot, and simmer for about two minutes. Allow to cool. Drop the dill, juniper berries and peppercorns in a 16-ounce mason jar, and pour in the vinegar solution and onions. Store in the sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to six months.