Jeremy Umansky looks like a lot of other trendy, 30-something guys in his line of work. A few tattoos and piercings, an unconventional haircut and some fading scars mark him as a chef, which he most certainly is: He's one of a small team of culinary innovators at Trentina. But unlike his peers, Umansky is not a line cook. He's a full-time forager, spending his days between the kitchen and the woods looking for edible weeds and barks he can turn into hyperlocal, super-seasonal dishes that change like the weather. "What's special about what we do [with wild plants] is the scale that we do it on," he says. As of April, Umansky has foraged 180 species of plants from grasses to roots to flowers and more than 70 species of fungi. "Part of [my interest] is pushing the boundaries of what something is," he says. "What's a traditional use, and what else can we do with it? It also leads me to be a good steward of the ecosystem and the environment I'm in." He shares some of his recent finds with us.
Wild field garlic
If you've ever frolicked barefoot through the grass, you'll recognize this plant, also called onion grass or garlic grass. It's the culprit behind that subtle onion smell from freshly mown lawns. "[It's] very sweet and garlicky at the same time," Umansky says. "We use these fresh, as one would use chives." The flowers are also edible — throw them into salads for color and flavor — and thicker stalks may indicate larger underground bulbs, which can be used like onions.
The most well-known variety of this wild plant is stinging nettles, which looks like a cross between poison ivy and mint. But slender nettles and wood nettles are also edible species belonging to the same urticaceae family. Find the leaves sauteed, pureed and in pasta fillings at Trentina, but Umansky's favorite application is making vinegar from the liquid left behind after blanching. "I can take nettle stock, feed it with a culture, let it turn to alcohol and then to vinegar," he says. "It's super savory, it's nutty — it's fantastic."
Growing out from a dense, tangled center, hairy bittercress leaves resemble a bushier version of thyme with small green and purple leaflets budding from dozens of tender stems. "It's in the mustard family and is neither bitter nor hairy," he says. Along with its cousin wintercress, these pungent greens show up in salads, soups and even desserts coming from the Trentina kitchen. "[Executive pastry chef Vince] Griffith was working on a new dessert that he's actually garnishing with bittercress," Umansky says.
Tall and stalky with broad, flat leaves, milkweed is easy to spot due to the large, alien pods that shoot from its stem. "I love using milkweed,"Umansky says, "because it's indigenous to this area, and it's a sign of a healthy ecosystem." In addition to gathering the shoots, he also collects the unopened flower heads (which look similar to broccoli rabe), the leaves (which are used both raw and sauteed like spinach), the flowers (for garnish) and the seed pods. "I can't compare [the pods] to anything," he says. "It's just a wonderful food."
Tiny purplish-green lily pad leaves sprout from a long, thin root. "This is one that gets a lot of press around here. It's horribly invasive and crowds out other things," Umansky warns. Heavy-handed harvesting is thus beneficial to the ecosystem, and Trentina reaps the rewards at virtually every stage of the growing season. "Right now we're using the roots," he says. "We make a condiment that's similar to a grated horseradish." The roots can be also used as a stand-alone root vegetable similar to young carrots.