Saturday, March 30, 2013

Forage the West for a Taste of the East

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”-Chinese proverb... I will never forget sharing a meal with four Indian kids in Jaipur. They liked that I was trying to speak Hindi and that I liked Indian food, and they insisted that I try the meal their grandmother had prepared for them. I was with some rajputs (high class) who had been great hosts themselves, but they literally frowned on me for sitting with these “commoners.” But, I am an American, so what can I say, as soon as I saw I was not supposed to sit with people “below my class,” I was all about it! After all, I hail from the land of the free, and these kind souls just offered to break bread with me; as far as I was concerned I was honored to sit with them and try grandma’s curry. We sat on the ground and ate laughing and joking in a mish mash of English and Hindi, and to this day, the best palak paneer I have ever had was made by the grandmother of my four good hosts, and happily eaten on the ground in Jaipur, India… Well, even though the sea was calm last weekend, she was certainly far from clear! Perhaps a plankton bloom had occurred or maybe there were just more particulates concentrated in the water column; after all we were there at low tide. But as Nicholas Santos made his way toward the kelp covered reef below me, he disappeared into the murk after only a few kicks…bottom line, the vis was not good. Hailing from northern CA however, I am certainly used to that! Unfortunately, the fish were also pretty few and far between as opposed to a month ago. I remembered the same thing happening last year about this time, so we figured they must have moved off of the reef for deeper water. In any case, we managed enough fish between us that everyone went home with a meal. Reilly took a nice kelp crab home as well which he later told us was sweet and delicious!

We had three or four harbor seals shadowing us all day; even approaching up to a few feet away from us on the bottom which was pretty cool. But the real high point of the day for me was when I heard in the distance the hoots and hollers that I recognized instantly as a successful shot! Making my way around the reef I could see both Reilly and Mitch were working hard. Moments after I kicked up, Reilly lifted his head with a big smile and shouted “Mitch got one!” I looked to Mitch, who only nodded with a content grin for a moment and then plunged his face back into the water to look for more. He had landed a nice sized rubber lip perch, his first speared fish, and was very proud and already planning how he was going to cook the fish when we finally hit the shore.

The next morning I got out with my dog, Abalone, for a little hike. She was really amped to go for a swim, so I walked her along a little creek in the Angeles National Forest until we reached a series of small pools. It was hot for February, around 80°, so she swam her little heart out while I skipped rocks and looked for edible plant foods in the shade. I ended up finding a nice little patch of spring stinging nettles which I promptly gathered and carefully stuffed into my backpack.
Once back home, I decided to try a recipe I had been formulating in the recesses of my brain for nearly 11 years. I had learned to love Indian recipes while traveling northern India in my late teens, and a combination of the traditional cooking of the region with my newly acquired spices, and adding freshly foraged ingredients, seemed like a culinary experiment worth trying today! I substituted nettle for spinach (similar tastes), used a foraged lemon to separate the curds from the whey from a quart of whole milk to make the paneer, and made up a batch of nettle saag paneer. Once I had tasted it, I realized that there was no way I could eat it in good consciousness without sharing the fine food with some of our foraging rabble. I invited Bill and Buck Franklin over for lunch the next day and we served up a meal consisting of homemade aloo mutter (North Indian potatoes and peas), roti (traditional flat bread), and the spiced fish fillets from our recent spearfishing trip. We laid down a freshly foraged ground cloth of banana leaves and served the foraged fusion in an abalone shell I had dove for up north, a stone bowl I fashioned a couple years back, a scallop shell from last year’s harvest, and a stone slab from a northern California creek. We ate with contentment, and speaking of seasonality and tradition, began hatching plans for adventures to come. Bill said he liked the nettles better than spinach, and Buck remarked that it was the best lunch he had enjoyed since moving to L.A. As the cook, I was of course, very pleased.
This was just another day, and another excuse to feast like kings on the bounties that our local environment can yield. Remember, we are just like you, and if you wish to enjoy the fruits of a good harvest, get out there and do it! Forage safely, forage ethically, and always keep the old ways alive! - Kevin Smith

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