Foraging for Your Dinner: Q&A With Alan Muskat

Photo Credit: No Taste Like Home
I've eaten dandelions. Have you?

When I was a tiny tot, my Brownie troop (that's the step before becoming a Girl Scout) ventured into the wilderness and gathered wild edibles, including those robust yellow weeds that most of us wage a war against each spring as we groom our lawns.

Fast forward thirty years or so, and foraging is again back on my radar.

After e-meeting Alan Muskat, the king of finding and feasting on natural foods found in nature, I knew I had to let you all know about his mission.

In addition to spreading the word about eating healthy, simple foods, he teaches people how to safely go into their backyards and find wild foods to make for dinner via his company, No Taste Like Home, and his hands-on tours dubbed Wild Foods Adventures in Asheville, North Carolina.

Muscat encourages "find dining" and looking for food "off the eaten path".  So today, we're going to learn a little about foraging and how it's a healthy whole foods way of living!

Hi Alan! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for my curious Whole Foods Living Readers! Let's get started.

1. What exactly is foraging? I suppose it's a little more than picking fresh veggies out of the garden, right?

Yes. Foraging means gathering free food (the word actually means “to pillage”). You could call it “opportunivorism.” In most cases, it’s used to refer to gathering wild food.

But, you can also “glean” cultivated but unused food, like fruit from a “feral” tree: one that was planted and is now neglected, like an apple or chestnut tree. And then there are trees that have been planted for decoration and no one is eating the fruit. In many cases, that fruit is even considered a nuisance. Their “trash" can be your treasure.

2. So, I live in a small city, near rural areas. Where can I safely forage for wild edibles?

There is actually more wild food in the city than the country. Chickweed, violet, dandelion, and wild onion are just a few ultra-nutritious greens that thrive in urban environments. You don’t need woods for weeds. However, see next question.

3. I'm an adventuresome eater and have no problem trying new leafy greens or an uncommon berry. But, my biggest concern is eating something that may have been treated with pesticides or some other unnatural chemicals. How do you address that concern among your tour group participants?

Yes, contamination is a much greater concern than mis-identification. And I don’t have a simple answer. A person should avoid golf courses, railroad tracks, pristine lawns, landscaping, roadsides, and cemeteries: in short, anywhere that might be sprayed. You don’t want to be near a building or even in an old orchard (where they used to use arsenic and lead). Sadly, heavy metals stick around for hundreds of years, and with any nuclear leaks like Chernobyl, clouds of radioactive dust spread across the world. Wild food like nettle, lambs quarter, and mushrooms in general just soak them up. That’s why they’re so high in minerals.

There’s really no escape from pollution. We literally reap what we sow. The only solution is to start thinking about our children’s children as much or more than ourselves. Besides, if you’re really worried about chemicals then you need to start by buying only local organic food (not USDA “organic”) and eating out as little as possible.

Photo Credit: No Taste Like Home
When you start asking questions, you may not be prepared for the answers!

4. So, what are a few health benefits of foraging and incorporating this practice into our daily diets?

The healthiest food is natural food — food that has not been hybridized — because it’s what we evolved to eat. Wild food — i.e., natural food — has been shown to be 10 to 100 times more nutritious. A single leaf of a wild plant each day is better than a multivitamin. It’s not that wild food is so good for you, it’s that anything else is not. A multivitamin can cause more harm than good. Why reinvent the wheel when the best “super food" is available, free for the taking, right outside your

The act of foraging has other benefits, less tangible but even more important. One is spending time out in nature. Vitamin D is measurable, and we get it best from sunshine, but our need for Vitamin “N,” when chronically unmet, can lead to Nature Deficit Disorder. Gary Snyder says "nature is not a place to visit; it is home.” We evolved to live in “the wild," not in artificially lit and heated little boxes. Comfort and convenience can come at great cost. In the long run, is it really worth

These are difficult, uncomfortable questions. But like C.S. Lewis says, “if you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth.”

There’s one more, very tangible health benefit to foraging: it’s more sustainable. We can’t be healthy in a polluted environment. And the most destructive thing we’ve ever done to the environment, without question, has been agriculture. Most of what we call “local food” is hardly that. You can put a golf course in the Amazon and call it “local.” Most of what we have been growing, grain in particular, is not only bad for humans but terrible for the environment. Deserts and dust bowls have both resulted not from factory farming, not from GMOs, but from organic, subsistence agriculture. That’s yet another truth to wake up to.

The only sustainable food is food that thrives where it is grown: food that does fine even if we don't help it. Food that “grows like a weed.” This is what eating local is really all about.

5. Finally, what's the strangest wild edible you've found on your ventures? A rare mushroom? Something with pointy spines you had to cut off  to make edible?

Jeez, I eat a lot of strange things. This weekend, I’m eating roadkill for The Science Channel. And yes, I eat spiny things too. Milk thistle is basically a wild artichoke covered in spines. It’s so good for you, however, that if you eat a deadly mushroom, an extract of the seeds (made by simply soaking them in alcohol) can save you. Instead of dealing with the spines, I simply put it through a juicer. How’s that for a primitive skill?

Thanks, Alan! I think I feel a little more confident about sampling some of the wild raspberries and mulberries that are plentiful during the summer in my little area of the Midwest.

What about you?

Have you ever foraged for your dinner or make it a routine to gather specific wild edibles each season? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Until Next Time,
Choose Healthy!

Angela Tague
Whole Foods Living

Review: Everyday Gluten-Free Cookbook by Camilla V. Saulsbury

I've followed a gluten-free diet since the end of 2011.

My last stomach-churning meal was Thanksgiving, complete with a fluffy glutinous roll, classic green bean casserole topped with crispy onions battered in wheat flour and a green salad drizzled with creamy salad dressing containing barley malt as a thickener.

After that, I decided to get serious about being healthier and allowing my digestive track to heal from the damage caused by Celiac Disease.

Since then I've tried replicating my favorite recipes with gluten-free flours. What a disaster! 

Let me save you some time if you're new to gluten-free cooking. Swapping out corn meal or rice flour for "all-purpose flour" doesn't work. There's a fine science to gluten-free cooking, and thankfully, I've learned to seek out recipes specifically created to be gluten free.

As my cookbook collection grows, I've learned these key tips about gluten-free cooking:
  1. You almost always need a blend of multiple gluten-free starches for baked goods to turn out with a "normal" texture and elasticity.
  2. Gluten-free flours absorb more liquid than wheat-based flours, so when you venture into modifying your favorite old recipes, increase the liquid content.
  3. Gluten-free foods can be just as good, if not better, than their wheat counterparts. Ask my husband about the gluten-free chocolate chip cookies we make. He won't waste time with any other recipe now!
OK, so today on Whole Foods Living I want to introduce you to a book that's won a place on my shelf. It's called Everyday Gluten-Free Cookbook from Bob's Red Mill, written by Camilla V. Saulsbury. She's a food writer, fitness trainer cooking instructor and one heck of a foodie blogger who knows how to make you drool. You can catch up with her online at power hungry.

First off, I adore cookbooks that I can sit down and read as a resource guide. It's no longer good enough just to woo cooks with colorful photos and tasty recipe titles. Like many, I want to learn about the ingredients, and in gluten-free baking and cooking, that's incredibly important for both health reasons and to avoid wasting pricey ingredients.

The first 38 pages of this book are dedicated to educating the reader about gluten-free grains and ingredients that may not be common place in the pantry. Curious about teff? Wondering how to cook quinoa? Not sure how to use milk made from almonds? Wondering if you can use maple syrup beyond breakfast? It's all in this cookbook.

So, beyond being resourceful, the recipes have to be yummy! The first thing that jumped out at me were the uncommon (to me) pairings.
  • Blueberry Lime Millet Shake
  • Lemony Lentil, Quinoa and Zucchini Skillet
  • Scottish Leek and Steel-Cut Oats Soup
Hmmm...I simply had to try that third one. Oats in a soup?? I've never had such a thing. 

So I whipped up a batch of the simple recipe over a lunch break last week. It was fantastic. I said "was" because it's gone. I ate it for lunch the rest of the week. I made the recipe with almond milk and vegetable broth and it reheated perfectly.

If you're new to a gluten-free lifestyle, this cookbook is a great way to launch into a healthier diet. Camilla shares recipes for breakfast, soups, salads, vegetarian dinners, seafood, meat dishes, breads, snacks and desserts.

Until Next Time,
Choose Healthy!

Angela Tague
Whole Foods Living

Disclosure: Everyday Gluten-Free Cookbook from Bob's Red Mill, written by Camilla V. Saulsbury, mentioned in this blog post was provided free of charge for review purposes. No monetary compensation was sought or awarded in exchange for this review. All thoughts expressed in this review on Whole Foods Living are solely my own. ~Angela


4 Healthy Additions to Your Favorite Valentine's Day Cookie Recipe

I love cookies. It's really no secret.
Sprinkle nuts atop cookies! Photo Credit: Flickr

I think the key to sticking with a healthy diet is by having treats on special occasions. (And, by making them just a bit healthier than usual!)

Give your favorite cookie recipe a healthy makeover this weekend for Valentine's Day.

Here are four of my favorite ways to make cookies pack a nutritional punch -- and taste wonderful!

1. Flaxseed
If your go-to cookie contains oatmeal or nuts, consider mixing a few tablespoons of milled flaxseed into the batter. The nutty-flavored seeds are packed with heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, disease fighting antioxidants and fiber to keep you regular, according to registered dietitian Elaine Magee, an expert columnist on WebMD. Although the flavor of flaxseed is mild, it pairs best with a hearty, thick cookie.

2. Nuts
Add some crunch to your cookies by using chopped nuts. Whether you sprinkle them on top of your favorite cookie recipe, or mix the nuts into the batter, your body will thank you. Nuts provide healthy unsaturated fats, skin-clearing Vitamin E and fiber for regular digestion, according to the Mayo Clinic. To trim a few calories from the treats, choose the lowest calorie nuts such as almonds, pistachios and peanuts.

3. Spices
Instead of decorating cookies with colored sugar, try a flavorful ground spice. Cinnamon is an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial spice that can help ease arthritis symptoms and fight the growth of bacteria and yeast in the body, according to the World's Healthiest's Foods website. Cloves also help reduce inflammation, plus they are a source of vitamin C, calcium and magnesium.

4. Fruit
Enhance your favorite Valentine's Day cookie recipe by mixing chopped, dried fruit into the batter. Dried cranberries, raisins and cherries not only provide a dose of vitamins and antioxidants, they also add a festive red hue and chewy texture to your treat. Try giving your favorite oatmeal cookie recipe a makeover with both fruit and nuts. Or, use small pieces of dried fruits to decorate cut-out sugar cookies.

So, how to you like to make your cookies a little bit healthier? Do you have a great refined sugar swap or healthy mix-in you'd like to let readers know about? Comment below!

Until Next Time,
Choose Healthy!

Angela Tague
Whole Foods Living

Note: This article was originally written by me, Angela Tague, and published on Yahoo! Voices on February 17, 2012. Since that website is no longer online, I've chosen to reprint this article on Whole Foods Living after the publishing rights reverted back to me.

My 3 Favorite Gluten-Free Breads

Canyon Bakehouse bread makes great sandwiches. 
Just because I follow a gluten-free diet doesn't mean I no longer eat bread.

I simply choose brands made without wheat, barley, rye or other glutinous grains.

Here's my three favorite gluten-free bread products!

For Toasting...

I've tried many loaves of gluten-free bread, and by far my favorite for toasting is Udi's Whole Grain Bread. When toasted it gets crisp on the outside and stays soft inside. Butter or jelly soaks in easily. I mention that because I've tried some gluten-free bread that's so dense butter won't even melt and penetrate the slice. Strange. I know.

For a Soft Sandwich...

When I want to eat bread right out of the package, my go-to is Canyon Bakehouse 7-Grain Gluten Free Bread. The bread is soft, tears and is perfect for making a classic PB&J or BLT. I even wrote a post about how much I like it!

As a Dinner Roll...

At special meals, I like to have a dinner roll option that's gluten-free. For the last several holidays, I've enjoyed Schar's Multigrain Ciabatta Rolls. They warm up quickly, have a crunchy outer crust and the inside is soft. Perfect!

Do you eat gluten-free bread? Tell me your favorite products in the comments below.

Until Next Time,
Choose Healthy!

Angela Tague
Whole Foods Living

Image Credit: Canyon Bakehouse