I walk up a wooded rise through my favorite park in Brooklyn, on the hunt for the first wild greens of the season. The air smells of soil and moisture. As joggers run along the asphalt path down below, I am nearly invisible, crouching among the new shoots and leaves imperceptibly unfurling around me. I snap off a leaf of young garlic mustard and bite into it. My mouth zings with the flavor. Every spring, when New York City transforms into a living salad, I grab my knapsack and go searching for what others try to weed out.
My foraged food not only tastes better, it’s fresher than what I can buy. Further along, I collect young dandelion leaves, daylily sprouts that taste like snow peas, rangy field garlic similar to the Chinese chives my grandfather cooked with and citrusy wood sorrel to chew on. I take only what I need and leave the rest. Soon, my bag is bursting with greens. Usually I make a simple stirfry or a salad, but recently I’ve been inspired by tales of a wild-grass pie my friend’s family makes from edibles foraged on their hillside in Corsica. In the Mediterranean, foraging is a part of the culinary tradition, so I’m eager to taste how they use the plants I love.
As a scrappy city kid, I used to collect wild garlic from our court-yard and nosh on it by the fistful the way other children ate chips. I was curious and I loved getting something for free. But I remained largely oblivious to the bounty hiding in parks and abandoned lots until I was in my thirties. It was a moment of personal crisis, when my grandmother was dying and I’d just broken up with a long-term boyfriend. I needed the meditative quality of searching and the sustenance that nature provided in the form of sweet local mulberries and spinachy lamb’s-quarters, plucked by my own hands. Back home from the park, after giving my wild greens a thorough bath I take out a bag of flour and prepare to make my very first from-scratch pastry dough.
I may be a confident forager, but baking makes me nervous, and suddenly I am struck by the insanity of attempting to make someone else’s cuisine. In the Chinese-American household where I grew up, the culinary traditions were stir-fries and braises. The oven was an alchemical place used for making the occasional batch of Shrinky Dinks. As I add cubed butter and water to the flour, trying not to overwork it, the only thing that keeps me from quitting is thoughts of biting into my savory pie, with its flaky crust enveloping the foraged goodies. When my grandfather was alive, he learned to make wonderful Italian sauces and delectable American fried chicken guided only by his palate, but I am a less experienced cook. Still, in the spirit of adventure, I chop then sauté the wild greens before mixing them in a bowl with grass-fed ricotta, Gruyère and eggs. Then it’s time to roll the pastry out: first the bottom layer, then a few cuts with my grand-father’s Chinese cleaver and I carefully weave the lattice crust onto the top.
The dough begins to sink. I pray the heat of the oven will plump it up. Moments before the timer goes off, I hover, peering into my oven. When it’s finally time, my pie is a golden beauty. The first forkful is a revelation: initially, it tastes like spinach quiche, but the foraged greens and ricotta give it a profound depth of flavor that makes me sigh. I can practically feel those wild nutrients energizing my whole body like a true spring tonic. As the afternoon sun turns my apartment golden yellow, it dawns on me that cooking something unfamiliar, experiencing a new food tradition, is a lot like my early days rummaging carefree through our old courtyard. Long before the sharp warnings of adulthood and the fear of trying something new sinks its teeth in, I am just a kid crawling among tufts of wild garlic and dandelions, sampling all the flavors of the city—bitter, tangy, sweet, oniony—like a tasting menu, never knowing exactly what will come next.