Jason Wilson of Crush restaurant has been spending a lot more time outdoors lately, thanks to his five-year-old son Ferrin, who he feels responsible for teaching the origins of where his food comes from. "Some kids still think chicken comes from the freezer section of their local grocery store," says Wilson, who has been teaching Ferrin about foraging since before the kid could talk. In addition to finding wild edible plants around Puget Sound, Wilson and his wife Nicole maintain a lovely garden gifted to them by a customer whose dad passed away. Not only can the Wilson offspring identify nasturtium and nettles, he's growing his own herbs and can apparently cook. In this week's Counter Balance, Wilson shares with us the same valuable tips he's taught his son when it comes to scouting plants that are worth eating.
Jason and Ferrin.
We have a garden space in the back of a customer's house. It's a family house. It's been in their family for 67 years or more. They came to us two-and-a-half years ago and said, "My father recently passed away. We want someone to use this land in the back of the house; it's good enough for a restaurant like yours and one of his last meals before he died was at Crush." So, we went in and just decimated all of the stuff that was growing on the land--the grass, all of the weeds--and tilled it up; I had the soil looked at by George from Skagit River. He's like, "Grow, man! The soil is great! Go for it!" We put in nine 16-foot boxes. Now, we have our intern daily going up there and picking.
How close to the restaurant is this place?
Seven blocks to the north.
How much acreage are we talking about?
I think it's like two-thousand square-feet. So, it's not acreage; we're not growing tomatoes out there, obviously, but we are growing lettuces, radishes, carrots, turnips, onions, 17 different kinds of herbs, Japanese and lemon cucumbers.
Yeah, we'd have to go to the farmers markets. When it came to the more interesting stuff, we found that we could grow it ourselves, things like saltwort, Jamaican lemongrass that we use in sorbets and purslane. I've always loved purslane and it's hard to get. It was growing in this family's backyard already because he grew it. And they have a kiwi tree that's as big as this room [ed note: Jason is pointing to the main Crush dining room downstairs].
It's two trees. It's remarkable! In November the kiwis come out, so we'll have kiwis November and December and January.
I'm curious to know what makes good soil. What was George looking for?
I think it was a level of nitrate in the soil. You want to make sure it's high enough. And the level of clay as well. I also asked him to look at the soil and see if it was contaminated, if there had been an oil spill. Well, not an actual oil spill, but if someone had worked on their car in the yard or something, but that was not the case.
Do you find that you're more outdoorsy because of Ferrin?
Yes, totally! The whole foraging thing started when Ferrin and I would go down to Foster Island in the Arboretum. We'd go park, we'd bring the dog out and just go walking and we'd find stuff. I first showed him nettles and he was like, "What is this?" and I talked to him about it and showed him the part that would sting him. He had a bag we collected the nettles in. He reached over and grabs a bunch of nettles and I heard him scream and I could see his hand start to swell up. So, I took him over and found a lady fern bush. In the bottom where the fiddleheads are, you pick off a couple...fiddleheads have cilia essentially, brown hairs coming off the sides of them. If you rub it where the nettles stung, about two minutes later, the pain is gone.
That would have been nice to know when I was a child.
Jeremy Faber taught me the trick. We were out in 2007 in the Kirkland watershed and Ferrin at that time was about 8-months old and I had him in the Baby Bjorn while Jeremy and I were foraging for stuff--we were getting nettles and salmonberries and watercress. So, Jeremy and I start to hit each other on the back of the neck with this stuff, just playing around like stupid guys do, and I said, "Man, that really itches," so he says, "Hold on," and goes over and gets a fiddlehead and rubs it on my neck and I thought it was the weirdest thing. Then he tells me about how this is Mother Nature at work. It's funny because I was waiting for the time that I could explain it to Ferrin and I finally got that chance.
Onions and celery. Wild celery is different that the stalks of celery. Wild onions as well. Both of these things are kind of marshy area stuff. You find them in the marshy areas around North Bend and up along the Cascades. They look like baby leeks, the onions do. They're really super green on top so you see them, start digging around in mucky area, and there are these beautiful, almost clear white bulbs of onions and you eat them and they're peppery and spicy, sweet with the fresh water, just really, really cool. And then wild celery. We just got a whole bunch more in. I went out with a guy who supplies some of our fish and told him to show me something different. He's like, "Check this out," and he gets this bag out of his car and tells me to eat it. It tasted like beautiful, bright celery--not lovage, where it's almost sharp in flavor, but really rich. I'm like, "We've got to go find more of this!"
That stuff isn't really recognizable unless you know what you're looking for, right?
It's very true. You're probably familiar with chervil and the way it looks--like really fine parsley--so you can really confuse that with other plants that look a lot like chervil but that make you completely sick.
With Ferrin now, we'll take him to the garden and he's growing herbs in the backyard so he sees that.
You're kid is growing herbs?
He waters them every day and he did mushrooms too, which was really cool.
You're kid did mushrooms?
Not like that! We went to a mycologist dinner at The Herbfarm and we brought the oyster mushroom kit home with us and we told Ferrin, "This is something that grows mushrooms. Do you want to give it a try?" and he said, "Sure!" Nicole put some coffee grounds in there and put it in a planter and put the cardboard over it and all that. A month and a half later, oyster mushrooms are coming out of this thing everywhere. He gets out there and snips them and goes to cook them. It's pretty cool.
So, he's having a really good time with all of this.
It's great that he's interested enough in the herb part so he gets these little pots and goes back there and knows the difference between the rosemary and the basil. We got the basics for him. He'll be making eggs with me in the morning and he'll say, "I want to add spice," so he runs outside--and a couple of times in the beginning he'd bring back the whole plant with him--grabs the scissors, cuts it and brings it in.
That's the next thing we're working on, now that nasturtiums are everywhere. I've shown him that you can eat these things. The big thing is I tell him not to pick them unless I'm with him so I can tell him if it's poisonous or not. He understands that much.
Where did the name Ferrin come from?
It was my grandfather's. My grandfather was Scottish. He came over as Fern and he started in the banking industry in the 20s and wanted a more masculine name, so he switched it to the Irish version which was Ferrin.
So, you're kid who likes foraging is named after a plant? It's like the name picked him.
It did, in a way. It's a real special thing. One of the things I really look forward to is getting out with him and going camping with him on the weekends. And now that the temperature is getting a little more reliable he's like, "When are we going to go?" We make a day out of it where you have a little adventure, you have a little bit of learning time, I show him where the blackberries are going to be. He's growing strawberries at home, which was successful, but he ate them all before they were even done.
For people going hiking this season, what's out there right now they can eat?
I would recommend against using cherry blossoms. As I found out, they're slightly poisonous. When I made ice cream using them, I got a stomachache. But maple trees, you know the maple blossoms, those things actually are amazing. If you find a big golden maple--they're everywhere--climb the tree. The blossoms are coming out and they have these cones, like grape clusters, and they're getting kind of yellow on the end; you can snip them, use them in ice cream and whipped cream and sauces. I've made pancakes with them, I've dehydrated them and made waffles. The taste is maple with a little bit of green to it, but it's just maple. It's really cool. It makes a really great custard, too.
So, cherry blossoms--no, maple blossoms--yes.
Also, Douglas Fir. We started roasting salmon in Doug Fir. The tree we have in the backyard is pretty much barren at this point because we've roasted so much of the fish that we have to go out someplace else and find it. There's a massive fennel bush just up on the corner next to us and it's huge. When it starts to flower, we'll go in and just cut as much as we can get out of it. Trash bags full. We'll bring it back [to the restaurant] and put it on the back patio and literally just tie up bundles of it, hang it up and dry it. So, when we go to smoke fish, onions, parsnips or vegetables, even peaches, we'll use the fennel instead of wood because it gives off a really lovely licorice flavor. The flowers we'll let dry up a little bit and then after a day or two we'll just hit them and all of the fennel flowers and pollen come off. It makes for great butter. It makes for a great addition to sugar.
How do you know if something should not be eaten?
If you don't know, don't eat it. I'll tell you right now, it's a really good rule of thumb.