When it comes to local, seasonal foods expertly matched with wine, the name Chef John Ash often comes to mind. After all, the two-time James Beard Award winning author, educator and restaurateur is considered the “Father of Wine Country Cuisine.”
His namesake restaurant, John Ash & Company, in Santa Rosa was the first in Northern California wine country to focus on local, seasonal ingredients used to create dishes that complemented wines made in the region. He has written four acclaimed cookbooks and has led classes at cooking schools including the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California. When I heard his keynote talk at the 2016 International Food Bloggers Conference, he charmed us with his memories of meals with preeminent food writer M.F. K. Fisher.
But what many might not know about Chef Ash is that he’s rather wild about wild foods. “My grandmother taught me how to forage wild plants such as lamb’s-quarter…, wild asparagus, purslane, and huckleberries, and to catch trout with my hands,” he writes in his new book Cooking Wild co-authored with James O. Fraioli.
The cookbook is one of the more original and delightful ones I’ve read. There are more than 158 recipes for eating closer to nature with wild foods. Readers will find serving ideas for ingredients such as purslane, fiddlehead ferns, wild geese, sea urchins and pine needles. There are unusual and often beautifully photographed dishes, such as Cattail Pollen Pancakes, White Beans with Amaranth Leaves, Slow-Roasted Leg of Boar, Pawpaw Sorbet and even Live Fire Grasshopper Guacamole. Surprisingly, many of these odd ingredients are as close as your grocery store or local market.
Recently, I reached out to Chef Ash to learn more and he kindly agreed me to share two delicious recipes with our readers…
Q) Your newest book – Cooking Wild – features recipes that allow people to eat close to nature. What did you hope readers would learn from the recipes with less common wild foods?
Chef Ash: I wanted readers to see that there is a world of amazing food out there that many of us rarely if ever think about, and those foods can be in all of our futures.
As changes in the global environment impact our food production we may have to rely on some of these less common wild foods to feed future generations. Case in point: Insects!
Q) You were one of the first chefs to talk about “ethical eating.” How do you define this term, and why is it important to you?
Chef Ash: It was a way of talking about doing good on a global level. It was more than “organic” or “sustainable.” It was really a call to action to be aware of the consequences of our choices about food at all levels.
Q) Why did you become involved in the Seafood Watch initiative at the Monterey Bay Aquarium?
Chef Ash: I can’t remember the exact date, but it was more than a decade ago. I, along with Ginger Hopkins and Jim Dodge, helped form the annual Cooking for Solutions program, which has been held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for many years. This has been pretty successful in bringing chefs from across the country up to speed with the influence they could have in making good seafood choices.
Q) You’ve seen a lot of food trends come and go over the years. What do you predict about the farm-to-table trends? Will they stay around for a while?
Chef Ash: I’m a little perplexed by the “farm-to-table” movement.
Aren’t most of the basic ingredient foods that we eat “farm to table?” There is a bit of hype about it all, especially at the restaurant level, like we just discovered this process. This ignores our long traditions of being close to our food. I’d rather see it all called something like “honoring our ancestors.”
Q) What food trends inspire you? What trends keep you up at night?
Chef Ash: I’m inspired by those startups promoting “ugly vegetables and fruits” like Imperfect Produce. They are making perfectly acceptable produce available at a good price, which would otherwise end up in the land fill, because Americans can be too wrapped up in surface beauty.
I’m having a problem with the companies offering home delivery of foods to be cooked by the subscriber. It’s not that they aren’t quality, but they are exceedingly expensive for what you get. They involve a lot of packaging that impacts the land fill, and they isolate you from the shopping experience where you can learn a lot and expand your culinary skills and horizons.
It’s much better to spend that money at a farmers’ market.
Thanks for your time, Chef Ash. It’s our pleasure to share these two recipes from Cooking Wild, used with permission.
TAGLIARINI WITH RICOTTA AND NETTLE PESTO
The first recipe is one of Chef Ash’s personal favorites from the new book. It features nettles, which have prickly leaves, but are healthy and delicious.
“The sting comes from formic acid in the hairy leaves which is neutralized when cooked,” he writes. “Nettles are greens with amazing culinary and medicinal properties. They are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and vitamins A and C (and are also a decent source of protein).”
The nettle pesto is delicious with pasta, but Chef Ash suggests you try adding a dollop as a garnish for creamy soups or fold into softened butter for a delicious topping for meats, fishes and vegetables.
4 – 5 cups young tender nettles
1/3 cup or so extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped green garlic, or 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4cup freshly grated pecorino
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese (sheep’s milk preferred if you can find it)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound fresh tagliarini or fettuccine
Blanch the nettles in boiling, salted water for about 1 minute.
Remove from cooking water and immediately plunge into cold water. Drain again, squeeze nettles dry and roughly chop.
Place the nettles in a blender or food processor. Add the oil, the 2/3 cup pine nuts and the garlic. Blend until well combined, about 30 seconds to scraping down the sides of the food processor. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the pecorino and ricotta cheeses. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile bring a large amount of salted water to a boil in a heavy pot for the pasta.
Put the pesto mixture in a large saucepan. Whisk in about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water and the butter and heat till hot but not boiling. Cook the pasta till al dente, about 3 minutes. Drain pasta and toss with warm pesto. Serve garnished with remaining pine nuts.
SPATCHCOCKED PINE CHICKEN
A spatchcock was once another name for a young male chicken, but today, the term refers to the technique of removing the backbone of a chicken and flattening the bird before cooking, which allows it to cook more evenly.
Adding pine needles to this dish provides a fresh, minty, pine-like flavor. Use younger needles, as they tend to have a milder flavor and are softer than older needles.
1 (3 1/2 pound) whole roasting or large broiler-fryer chicken
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped young pine needles or shoots
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher or sea salt
Remove any excess fat from the chicken. Place the chicken breast-side down on a cutting bard and, using poultry shears, cut completely along the backbone, starting at the neck. Repeat on the other side of the backbone. Cut off the wing tips and save both the backbone and tips for stock.
Spread the two chicken halves apart like a book and press down on the breast with the heel of your hand to crack the breastbone so the chicken lies flat. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, pine needles, garlic and red pepper flakes. Rub this mixture all over the chicken and under the skin, then refrigerate the chicken for at least 2 hours. Season the chicken liberally with salt.
Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill for medium indirect heat.
Place the chicken skin-side down over the cooler side of the grill with the legs closest to the heat. Cover the grill and cook until the skin is nicely browned with grill marks, about 25 minutes. Using tongs, turn the chicken over so it is skin-side up and transfer to the hot side of the grill with the breast facing away from the heat. Cover the grill and cook until the chicken is well browned, about 15 minutes. Finally, flip the chicken skin-side down over the hot coals and cook, moving the chicken as necessary to prevent flare-ups, until the skin is well crisped and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh registers 165 degrees F., 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and loosely tent with aluminum foil to keep the chicken warm for about 10 minutes before carving and serving.
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