Chances are you won’t be making the dish you see above anytime soon. And that’s OK. The point of the dish, and this post, is to show you what is possible when you fully grasp the amazing wild food opportunities that surround you.
Every climate and region of this country, all countries, for that matter, has something special about it. The plants, the animals, the mushrooms, the culture. As hunters, anglers, foragers and cooks we are uniquely suited to soaking up that awesomeness.
Many places already celebrate their unique wild foods: Smoked salmon in the Pacific Northwest, fried morels in the Midwest, clam chowder in New England. And, more or less every famous dish from Louisiana. That said, as cooks we can explore these foods in our own way.
Take this dish. I could give it some airy, pretentious name like “Faunal Explorations of the Sonoran Clime,” or some BS like that, but I’ve just been calling this “Fancy Javelina,” because that’s what it is. A fancy javelina dish with a bunch of really cool things alongside.
I really could call it “Tongue in Cheek,” because it’s also that: It’s corned javelina tongue with slow braised javelina cheek. Except I have a similar dish named Cheek by Jowl that I like very much.
The dish emerged from a javelina hunt I did with my friend John Stallone in Arizona back in February. I got one, as well as some bits and bobbles that the other hunters in our camp didn’t want, like tongues and cheeks.
Barrel cacti were still fruiting, and their fruits are the only ones from a cactus that aren’t covered in spines. They taste like a love child from a menage a trois between a green pepper, a lemon and an okra. I like them in a lot of ways, but diced small they add tang and texture.
Alongside the barrel cactus, regular prickly pears were all over, as were cholla. Both have edible parts. I happened to have some dehydrated nopales, which are the young paddles, as well as dried cholla buds, which taste like artichoke hearts. Nopales are lemony, and, when you dehydrate them and then rehydrate them, there is no slime.
So that’s cactus, cactus and cactus — all things that javelina eat. Bulking up the dish are Sonoran wheat berries cooked in javelina broth, as well as black tepary beans, which are a bean native to the Sonoran Desert.
Underneath it all is a sauce of local chiltepin chiles, tomatoes, more javelina broth and white sage, which, while not Sonoran, is a desert sage that lives in the same general area. What’s on top? Barrel cactus seed crisps. They’re awesome, and were the most innovative thing on that plate.
I learned about the concept from Swedish Chef Magnus Nilsson, who does it with flax seeds. Both his and my crisps are held together with a starch slurry and slow baked. They are amazing. Crispy, nutty, salty, a little picoso with some powdered chile.
The point of all this is to celebrate that hunt, to highlight the unique and amazing foods that were all around us as we chased the wily skunk pig in the desert. You could do the exact same thing on a whitetail hunt in the woods of New York or Michigan or Minnesota, or a hog hunt in South Florida, or a nilgai hunt near Brownsville, Texas. Anywhere, really.
And it need not be a hunt. It could be a foraging trip in the Pacific Northwest or Maine. Or a fishing trip to the Florida Keys, or hell, just down the road from me on California’s North Coast. I actually did that, with a dish called Tidepool.
Learn about the edible wild plants of your area. Learn its history, its deep culture. What crops are grown there? Once you do, you will never be at a loss for wonderful new combinations of flavors and ingredients that live all around us.
And to get you started, here is a post on all my favorite foraging books.