Food for free: Mark Hix gets foraging

Edible weeds, sorbets from hedgerows and the freshest shellfish of all... It's time to get foraging, says Mark Hix

Foraging for wild plants, fruits and fungi is definitely on the up, and yet many people still think it's too much hassle to bother. Personally, I love the fact that you can get hold of food for free if you are prepared to do just a bit of hunting and gathering. For some people, it's a way of life – a fun and interesting thing to do outside of working hours. Many unusual foods with great natural flavours can be harvested in fields, river banks and even in your back garden. And what some consider to be weeds are in fact a great source of vitamins and nutrients – plus they make an exciting, unusual addition to meal times.

There are a few professional foragers out there now, providing for restaurants that haven't got time to get into the countryside but that still want to take advantage of the natural world. Foraged produce can also make menus sound more interesting (although it's easy to go completely over the top and baffle the customers with a list of dishes that sounds like something out of The Hobbit).

If you live in the countryside, foraging is a great way to get children away from the computer or TV screen – plus it's a fun way to educate them on real wild food. I suppose it's no different from taking the kids crabbing or shrimping at the seaside. A freshly caught fish or a dozen or so freshly boiled prawns make a real treat – and even those velvet crabs that are in abundance and a regular sight in kids' plastic buckets on harbours and piers can make a delicious bisque or sauce.



Seaweed risotto with cockles

Serves 4

A risotto is a great, comforting thing – and not just for winter in my view. Once you've mastered the art, it can be easily adapted for all sorts of seasonal ingredients. I've used sea lettuce here which you can gather easily from the beach when the tide is on the way out – it gets left behind as the water gets shallower and, handily, it's difficult to mistake with its fine, bright-green leaves.

Live cockles are as much of a treat as clams – except you need to ensure that they have a good old wash under running water for an hour or so, and that they are agitated every so often with your hand or a spoon to remove the grit from the grooves in the shell.

300-350g cockles
Half a glass of white wine
A handful of samphire, cleaned and woody stalks removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the risotto

4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
60ml olive oil
400g Carnaroli rice
1 litre hot vegetable stock
60g butter
1tbsp double cream
120-150g edible seaweed like sea lettuce, washed well (or you can buy a mix for seaweed salad from Japanese supermarkets)

First make the risotto: gently cook the shallots for a few minutes in the olive oil until soft. Add the rice and stir it well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the hot stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next.

When the rice is almost cooked, add the seaweed and keep adding stock until the rice is soft and plump; the risotto should be quite moist by this stage. Then add the cream, butter and correct the seasoning.

Meanwhile, give the cockles a final rinse and place in a pan with the wine and samphire and lightly season. Cover with a lid and cook on a high heat for a couple of minutes, shaking the pan a couple of times until they open.

To serve, spoon the risotto into warmed bowls and place the cockles and samphire over the top with a little of the liquid.

A simple plate of girolleswith buttery Lancashire mash

Serves 4

Foraging has its rewards and when you come across a patch of golden girolles, or chanterelles as they are sometimes known, it's a real treat, both visually and taste-wise, especially when perked up with light, buttery potatoes spiked with mature Lancashire cheese. You may think there is rather a lot of butter in this recipe – you're right, there is. But like hollandaise, it's well worth the risk.

300-400g floury potatoes, peeled and quartered
150-200g butter
Milk to mix
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
60-70g mature Lancashire cheese, grated
2tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
600-700g girolles, cleaned
2tbsp chopped parsley

Cook the potatoes in lightly salted water until tender then drain and return to the pan over a low heat to let any excess water evaporate. Mash the potatoes through a potato ricer or push through a sieve with the back of a spoon to get a fine texture. Return to a pan and stir in three quarters of the butter, season and add enough milk to achieve a sloppy, almost thick, sauce-like consistency. Cover and keep warm.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan; gently fry the garlic and girolles for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often until soft. Season, add the parsley and the rest of the butter.

To serve, spoon the potatoes on to warmed serving plates, scatter the girolles on top and finish off with a knob of butter.

Barbecued mackerel with green tomato and lovage salad

Serves 4

What's wild and foraged about mackerel you may well ask, but if you have a passion for fishing and have access to the coast, those scavengers the mackerel can be pulled out of the water easily and plentifully. And as for the green tomatoes and lovage, that's all down to your gardening skills.

A nice way to cook your mackerel is to butterfly them like kippers and remove as many bones as you can – then they cook in no time and you get by the dinner guests and kids who have a problem with fish bones. If you're not a dab hand with the filleting knife, get your fishmonger to tackle them.

4 mackerel weighing about 300-350g, prepared as above or left whole and gutted
4 medium-sized green tomatoes
2 shallots, peeled, halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp good-quality cider vinegar
1/2tbsp extra-virgin rapeseed oil
A few leaves of lovage, torn

Pre-heat the barbecue or ribbed griddle. Slice the tomatoes thinly and mix with the shallots, cider vinegar and oil, season and leave to sit for about 15 minutes.

To serve, season and lightly oil the mackerel and cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side, or longer if you have left them whole. Toss the lovage into the tomato mix and arrange on plates with the mackerel.

Blackcurrant sorbet

Makes about 1 litre

Blackcurrants have fairly limited uses in puddings because of their tartness, but they do make a great sorbet. You can use blackberries if you prefer, or a mixture of dark berries. I've left this sorbet quite chunky, but it's up to you when blending how much texture you want it to have.

1kg blackcurrants
250g sugar
500ml water
100g glucose syrup

Put the water and sugar into a pan and heat gently for 3-4 minutes until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the glucose and blackcurrants and cook over a low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often until the blackcurrants soften.

Remove from the heat and blend two thirds in a liquidiser to a smooth purée, then blend the other third briefly and coarsely and mix the two batches together. Leave to cool then churn in an ice-cream machine and store in the freezer.

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