Once I make it over that daylight savings hump, spring never fails to jump in my lap with an energetic playfulness and a longing to share whatever’s been silently incubating under the veil of winter skies. This past one was spent traveling solo through Southeast Asia, which brought on a great deal of reflection and reconsideration of the professional path I’ve been forging, but also found me dipping, dripping, drowning in new flavors that I love so much I can’t help but bring them into my work. So as I continually align work and play and try to stay true to myself, I have some new offerings that I am very happy to share with the community.
Part of the reason I moved to California was to have regular access to sun-saturated nature (the other part was to open a wild plant restaurant…hold that thought). But deep visions are obscured by the myopic details and the first couple layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’ve always lead a hand-to-mouth existence, but once I entered the bustling realm of kitchen life, the big picture was buried underneath mile-long prep lists that kept the repo man from knocking, and as I scratched out “mise pate” and “tarragon vin,” I also erased the word “balance” from my lexicon. If you’ve ever worked in one, you know kitchens can do a number on the body and mind. The aggressive, adrenalin-driven nature of making massive quantities of food in a high pressure, time-sensitive environment can lead to hyper-focused tunnel vision that begs for an explosive escape. Usually that takes the form of partying your ass off after working your ass off, but the escapes that I’ve really craved are ones to the mountains. To be on the trail alone, pushing myself in another way, releasing the accumulated build-up in a way that reconnects my body to the land, a literal grounding that feels so basic, but vastly profound.
I first got a taste of this as a middle-school girl, fortunate to be in the hands of teachers who relentlessly sought grants for a 2-year-long program that would bring city kids into the wilderness to teach them leadership and self-reliance skills. We spelunked and canoed, rappelled down cliffs, camped and romped around in moccasins we stitched by hand, and completed a 4-day backpacking trip up a 14,000’ mountain in Colorado. I remember feeling so empowered—so joyfully alive and utterly confident—during these outings. I distinctly recall the lack of doubt, completely trusting my abilities; an “of course I can do this” instead of my typical feet-dragging eyeball-rolling “it’s too hard” approach to schoolwork. Such a stark contrast to the self-conscious, puberty-dreading gal moodily doodling in the back of the classroom. I felt at home outside, and gladly undertook whatever challenge was set before us. It made me feel like a badass.
Somehow I ended up in art school and was convinced the only place I could ever pursue my work was in a city, a diehard urbanite. So diehard the soles of my boots rotted off between camping trips. I liked to think of myself as an outdoors person and decorated my life with sprinkles from the wild—mushroom foraging, the occasional river or lake swim, weekend dashes to the woods—but never felt like these things fulfilled that side of me that needed to come face to face with cold, hard earth and really know her. Instead of satisfying my needs, they left me wanting, aching to be closer to the wild, to be wilder and untamed myself.
In the wake of my mother’s death, I was completely lost. I upheaved my entire life, making changes that seem irrational to an uninformed bystander, but make total sense if you really zoom in. Losing my mother was like losing half of my archival myself, half of my history. One of the two people who have known me most intimately from the day I was born no longer could be there to help me remember who I was, to help me keep my form, in the way we use the past to draw the lines that determine the shape we interpret in the present. If my dad couldn’t remember something that had happened 20 years ago, I felt a warped frustration that could be equated with despair, a feeling that my identity had unraveled and there was no one to validate my existence. I felt very alone, and very unhinged. In a devastating cloud of grief, I began to float, untethering myself from a past that I had designed but could recognize no longer served me. I was able to remember things I had disguised and hidden with the performative maintenance I had been doing my whole life, the continuity of character concept that I, admittedly, have re-adopted into my life four years later. But in those first few months after my mom died, I had peeled away so much of the self I had designed and was left with the stripped core of raw selfhood. I was able to make abrupt changes, to say “fuck it” so much easier, and know from eye-witness that you really live this life once…so why not do it how you want to?
When the retaining wall shattered, I was pushed in new directions that continue to recourse back to those early experiences as an empowered girl grinning from the top of a cliff she was about to bound down. I always wanted to live in a place where the sun made more appearances than the clouds, to be near the mountains. I wanted to pick up snowboarding again, and start backpacking solo. And so why not do these things? What’s stopping you? Who cares if you don’t have expert skills? Who cares if your gear is 12 years old? Does it matter if it seems like you don’t know what you’re doing? It doesn’t. Because you DO know what you’re doing—you’re being honest to yourself and that’s all that matters. And it was with this state of mind that I decided to be a chef. That I decided to move to the desert. The state of mind that encouraged me to start backpacking in the San Bernardino Mountains shortly after moving to California three years ago, and the same one that prodded me last last fall to start taking survival courses and leading plant identification hikes. The state of mind that begged me to travel this winter and reinvigorate my culinary appetite and swallow some inspiration to awaken my tired palate. The state of mind that’s leading me back into the wilder self. This kind of “work” has all been generated by impulses—instinctual yearnings—and has helped me conceive of new potentials in my practice as I continually redefine and figure out what the hell I’m doing in this mere moment out of millions that make up the shape of a life. So that's why, in an untidy nutshell, I’ve swapped out yucca flowers for chili-laden coconut milk and a pack full of trail mix, at least for this season. I'm sure they'll be back!
old news archive
early fall 2018 menu
sept 27, 28: TONELISE’S Joshua tree homestead
oct 13: yogi goats in pioneertown
nov 10: PIONEERtown motel
galia melon skewered with YUCCA and lightly dusted in chili and lime, jicama soaked in MANZANITA vinegar, served over a pool of PRICKLY PEAR and coconut syrup, punctuated with watercress, cilantro, and a few gritty bitter agents
endive fried in a CALIFORNIA BUCKWHEAT crust, smeared with pioneertown goat cheese and a plopping of ROSE HIP pickled cherry tomatoes, suspended on ephedra branchlettes over a tangy chard soup in a base of EPHEDRA broth, sprinkled with a chiff of sorrel for extra pucker
house-smoked trout—or—jackfruit delicately infused with wisps of desert aromatics, purslane, YERBA SANTA and CALIFORNIA BAY pickled beets with WILD TARRAGON, cucumbers, radish, herby dressing, and manza-pitas (there’s our old friend from footnote no. 2, paired with pepitas—I love me a play on words!)
cervena venison striploin—or—cauliflower steaks, served aside smooth JUNIPER kabocha squash, parsnips or potatoes perhaps, doused in red wine ELDERBERRY jam (is that it?)
ginger mesquite cake (GF!), surrounded by passion fruit plum compote and drizzled in MESQUITE butterscotch, dolloped with a fluffy puff of whipped cream
MEMORIAL DAY MECHOUI 2018
IS A NORTH AFRICAN TRADITIONAL METHOD OF COOKING A WHOLE BEAST (USUALLY A GOAT OR SHEEP) IN A PIT, AND STUFFING THE CAVITY OF THE ANIMAL WITH COUS COUS. MY FRIENDS EMMANUEL AND KILOO AT YOGI GOATS IN PIONEERTOWN WANTED TO PUT ON A SIMILAR FEAST AS A THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO HELPED THEM REBUILD THEIR BARNS AND RECOVER FROM A DEVASTATING FIRE LAST WINTER. BUT INSTEAD OF ROASTING A GOAT, WE PREPARED A PIG. HER NAME WAS PETUNIA, AND SHE WAS A DELIGHTFUL, CHERUB-ESQUE LADY. SHE WAS ACQUIRED THROUGH A NEIGHBORLY TRADE—SOMETHING THAT FEELS SO HONEST AND DOWN TO EARTH, BUT SEEMS RARE IN OUR CAPITALIST, CLIMBING SOCIETY. MORE OF THIS IN MY LIFE PLEASE! EXCHANGE OF TOOLS AND RESOURCES , OF SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE, AND SHARED JOY IN THE RESULT OF COLLECTIVE EFFORTS! LOVE YOUR NEIGHBORS!
april 27, 2018
WEEDS! (AND OTHER EDIBLE SPRING GREENS)
A weed is just a plant, oblivious to human desires. And ironically, they tend to be people lovers. The more densely populated an area, the more diverse and densely populated are the weeds, too. The science behind it is pretty simple—non-native, invasive species have to be "brought in," and these byproducts of our globalized culture have more outlets to hitch a ride where there's transportation and commerce. The further away from the city, the sparser the weeds. Even here, you'll notice that highway 62 and its businesses tend to be surrounded by fortresses of spontaneous sprouts, but a couple feet from the main road, and you're mostly surveying a native habitat. But some of these plants are aggressively resilient, and extremely fertile with astonishing seed production. A few mustards—Saharan, London rocket, and Hoary Meditteranean—and grasses like Brome, have pushed into the farthest corners of the desert, and are setting up camp in the most remote, rural pockets. So, what can we do to help out the native species and prevent a total take-over? Eat them! Taking these plants out of the ground is not a crime. It's a good thing, and it's one thing foragers can do to encourage native plant dominance. This dinner will feature all three aforementioned mustard species, some grasses, and a few native plants too, like stinky bladderpod, California buckwheat, saltbush, and wild rhubarb. To read more about mustards, the star of the show, scroll down to the March 2018 ingredient: http://www.sarahwitt.net/hdtk/#/hdtk-archive/
APR 27: eat the weeds MENU (and some fun footnotes)
1. fromage blanc seasoned with green tea leaves and SALTBUSH[i] greens, charred radicchio, rutabaga spears fermented with CALIFORNIA BUCKWHEAT[ii] flowers, and a couple cured OLIVES that came from parking lot trees in Yucca Valley
2. house-cured salmon—or—braised fennel and eggplant seasoned with WILD FENNEL seed, crunchy salad of asparagus and cucumber, crispy MEDITERRANEAN HOARY MUSTARD[iii] chips and a sprinkling of its flowers—some fresh, some pickled with tarragon and lemon balm (not pictured)
4. hand-slaughtered and plucked PIONEERTOWN ROOSTER[vi]—or—globe artichoke (both prepared confit-style), sticky Icelandic rye bread, onion confiture, STINKY BLADDERPOD[vii] seeds, LONDON ROCKET[viii] salad with red wine vinaigrette
5. blood orange panna cotta, CAINAIGRE[ix] compote, chia brittle, GLOBE MALLOW flowers, and a little FILAREE for flare
[i] FOURWING SALTBUSH atriplex canescens, chenopodiaceae
Eh, so we’re not starting off with invasives, but saltbush is a survival food-of-a-plant. It’s a tall dusty, grayish shrub with seeds packaged in a little papery sheath that has four „wings“, hence the name. It’s pretty bitter, but if you boil and leach it for a while, you’ve got a simple potherb on hand.
[ii] CALIFORNIA BUCKWHEAT eriogonum fasciculatum, polygonaceae
Again, a native species, recognized by its rusty, spherical flowering heads that bob atop skinny, similarly colored stalks. It’s super abundant in these parts, and the flowers, when coarsely ground into a meal using your hands, have a rustic texture that makes it an excellent additive to baked goods. Or you can steep them for an astringent eyewash.
[iii]HOARY MUSTARD hirschfeldia incana, brassicaceae
Ugh, this one is everywhere. A lot of people think it’s the Saharan mustard, but it’s not. The seed pods are really short and adpressed (shooting upwards against the main stalk). The leaves are pretty damn hairy, and the flowers kind of taste like broccoli! (makes sense, in the same plant family!)
[iv] CHAPARRAL YUCCA hesperoyucca whipplei, agavaceae
In its final blooming season, this particular yucca species sends out a grand asparagus-like stalk from the center of its bursting orb of sharp lance-like leaves. Elegantly, little buds begin to form and create a bushy creamy cluster at the tip of the stalk. Various yucca plants were a toolshed of resources for native populations—the Cahuilla Indians used the leaf fibers for cordage, sandals, and baskets or nets. The roots contain concentrated levels of saponins, meaning it can be transformed into an excellent sudsy soap. And the stalk with blossoms were eaten raw or roasted. Some species are soapier than others, watch out!
[v] FOXTAIL BARLEY hordeum murinum, poaceae
Grass, it’s everywhere. Kind of. While I was researching the most invasive grass species in the desert, I learned that really, most invasives tend to follow people—they need to be transported somehow. Which means out here, in our rural parts, we actually don’t suffer from the same kind of complete take-over that happens in more urban areas. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed, but in planning this dinner, I recognized that my initial plan, to feature only undesireable weeds, was not feasible. But back to grass. Out here we have a lot of bromes—dozens of species—and the tiny clumps of bunch grass, or schismus. I found some attractive downy chess and foxtail barley, and since things dry out here pretty quickly, a juice wasn’t possible. And because seeds are virtually impossible to winnow, especially in the spring when they aren’t really „ripe“ for pickin’, I decided to go with a grassy infusion. It’s subtle sweetness pairs well with the floral aroma of the delicate yucca blossoms. (I think.)
[vi] BACKYARD CHICKENS….I tried. Confession: these birds were not from the most tender flock. But I’ve been questioning my consumption of meat lately, and after learning how to process chickens from my neighbors (two French men who also raise goats), I was determined to serve this homegrown-style meat at this dinner. So we snagged six roosters and in a matter of hours, they kind of looked like the birds you’d find at the grocery store. With unbelievably smaller drumsticks (I’m talking thumb-sized here folks) and a few lingering feathers, these guys were decidedly rustic. They were cooked low and slow for many many many hours. Alas, they resemble well-done beef more than succulent poultry. But!
They had great lives, free-range runnin’ chicks that foraged on the same desert plants we’re eating tonight, and were slaughtered humanely by good people with good intentions. There’s more artichoke if anyone, well, chokes…
[vii] BLADDERPOD peritoma arborea, cleomaceae
It’s not called stinky bladderpod for no reason. The aroma is complicated, kind of like burnt popcorn laced with jalapenos. The pods grow into bloated little capsules, and the longer they sit, the spicier they become. The seeds are less pungent, and pack only a tiny punch of heat. The Cahuilla Indians used to bury the pods in a fire pit for days. I tried fermenting them with cabbage, but here you’ll eat them as a little garnish on the salad.
[viii] LONDON ROCKET sisymbrium irio, brassicaceae
Perhaps my favorite of the invasives, rocket is delightfully spicy and fresh. The leaves resemble arugula, and kind of taste like it too, with a little more kick. The leaves I collected are so delicate that I decided it would be a shame to cook them, so they’re in their purest form, as a simple salad. Collect this one in your local parking lot now before it ages too much and loses that baby-green appeal!
[ix] CANAIGRE or WILD RHUBARB, rumex hymenosepalus, polygonaceae
Another desert native, it’s one of the few leafy greens you’ll find out here. But it’s not everywhere. It grows in little pockets throughout the Mojave, and the stems can be used similarly to cultivated rhubarb. The leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and shouldn’t be eaten unless you leach them well. The roots contain excessive tannins and can be used in a dye. But the stems have a nice weedy, front-lawn tinge that makes it...well, special.
January 20, 2018
Pinus Monophylla (Pinaceae): Single-leaf piñon pine
Inarguably one of the most potent food sources for native populations, piñon pine nuts contain nearly 3000 calories per pound of raw nut, nutritionally rich in the fat and protein categories. The harvest window for the nuts (which are contained in the cones) is very small, and these prized nibbles are also a favorite of critters, so as soon as they hit the ground, it’s over. Cahuilla Indians would stay near the groves throughout the short-lived piñon season in August, shaking boughs to loosen mature cones and catch them in baskets. The green cones can be harvested before they open into toothy balls, which would extend availability backwards to June, but the immature cones are tightly closed and require quite a bit of rendering to coax the seeds from their shells. Traditionally, this is done by roasting them in a pit, opening up the cavities to reveal the nut still tightly bound by its casing. So additional battering ensues. All other times of the year, the needles can be snipped and infused in teas, sauces, oils, vinegars…any liquid really! The resulting flavors can range from bitter and woodsy to punchy and riding the edge of citrus. The flavor of pine is pretty strong and can quickly wipe out any complimenting elements to a dish, so start out modestly. As with juniper, if you’re infusing a stew or sauce, it’s good to contain all the plant parts in a cheesecloth sachet so you can easily remove the needles when you’re satisfied with the flavor; as romantic as it sounds, picking individual pine needles out of your mouth while you’re trying to eat is rather unpleasant and distracting. Trust me, it’s no fun, even when you’re sitting around a campfire in good company.
PINYON PINE MENU
1: pine nut pate, prickly pear pomegranate seed confiture, pine vinegar candied orange rind, fennel and carrots pickled with california bay, juniper and pine needles, wild buckwheat crackers
2: curried pine tea soup, mango pinyon freme fraiche, sweet potato and beet chips, butternut squash tangles, lime
3: pinecone smoked egg, watercress, radish sprouts, pea shoots, pinecone smoked black sesame seeds, beets, sherry garlic vinaigrette
4: braised lamb shanks-or-oyster and enoki mushrooms, cinnamon pinyon persimmon sauce, cous-cous, mint
5: cardamom ice cream, meyer lemon meringue, candied pine needles, fennel pollen, pinyon pine syrup