November 27, 2013
It’s marvelous when a story that I work on merges with an ongoing passion. This happened to me the first time I went foraging. In April 2012, Salt of the Earth chef Chad Townsend took me to the woods to forage for ramps, and, since then, I’ve been out gathering any number of edible goods in western Pennsylvania: mushrooms, dandelions, garlic mustard, and paw paw were just some of my haul this year.
I’m still pretty new to foraging, so I figured the game was up after the weather started getting frosty. Then, somebody suggested I could still forage for ginkgo nuts. I had no idea the foul-smelling fruits of the tree were edible. I knew that the tree’s tender spring leaves have historically been gathered by herbalists to use as medicine, but I thought ginkgo nuts were just something I should try to avoid stepping on as I was walking Pittsburgh’s streets.
(The trees are popular with urban landscape designers because—in addition to being quite stunning to look at—they’re highly disease-resistant, grow well in poor soil, and a unaffected by urban air pollution. However, a smart landscaper will plant male trees because they don’t form any fruit.)
The tip proved true: assuming you can get past their funk, a ginkgo tree’s nuts are edible and nutritious. I asked my friend Dustin Gardner, sous chef at Casbah restaurant in Shadyside, to take a walk in the neighborhood and forage with me.
It’s easy enough to find ginkgo fruits; they smell like somebody vomited on Camembert cheese. I’m assuming this is why most people don’t think to forage for them. Dustin and I put on latex gloves and gathered about three pounds of ginkgo.
We sat on my porch (tip: do this outdoors) and removed the nuts from their slimy, watery encasements. Happily, the nuts separate from the flesh with ease. After a thorough washing, we left them to dry on my kitchen counter overnight.
The next afternoon I met Dustin in the Casbah kitchen, and we experimented with a variety of cooking methods. Boiling only served to intensify the funk, and we quickly crossed that off the list. Shelling the ginkgo nuts and then sautéing them resulted in a bite with a jellybean-like texture; they were pretty good, but not terrific. Also, shelling took a lot of time and energy.
The most successful application was pan roasting in butter. You’ll know they’re ready to eat when shells begin to “Pop! Pop! Pop!” They still have a jellybean texture, but the flavor is mild, nutty, bean-like, and with just a hint of its original wild cheese funk. Ginkgo isn’t the most delicious food that falls from a tree in Pittsburgh, but it’s certainly edible.
I’m not sure if foraging for ginkgo is going to make my list of wild food forays next year, but I’m still glad that Dustin and I made the effort. He summed up our experience pretty well: “People drive by that street all the time. People drive by delicious things all the time. It’s so easy [to find things to eat] if you just stop and look around at what’s out there.”