Last spring, as people sought outdoor hobbies during the pandemic, fascination with foraging boomed—and with it the popularity of social media personality Alexis Nikole Nelson, a.k.a. @blackforager on Instagram. Her addictive video clips, which show how she gathers and cooks her bounty, are part how-to, part music-and-comedy routine. She has more than half a million followers combined on Instagram and TikTok (@alexisnikole), and one of her videos on acorns has garnered more than 5.6 million views.
People don’t have to live in the forest or the mountains to forage, says the 28-year old vegan from Columbus, Ohio. “I live a hop and a skip away from a very busy road, and I still make it work,” Nelson says. “You just have to look.”
Nelson cherishes the comments from young women of color who tell her she’s helping them claim the outdoors, too. “That’s all I can hope for at the end of the day,” she says, “for other people to feel nature is as much for them as I was lucky enough to grow up thinking it was for me.”
Curious about foraging? Nelson shared some advice on how to get started, with these five foods she gathered near her home and turned into snacks.
Pan-Fried Gingko Nuts
“Gingo trees have beautiful fan-shaped leaves that turn a gorgeous shade of yellow. Look on the ground for their orange, shriveled-looking fruits—they smell like someone left an already-pungent cheese out in the summer heat in Louisiana for two weeks,” she says. “You’re going to want to use gloves or a couple of biodegradable poop bags.” Squeeze the white, hard center kernel out of the pulp, and then discard the pulp, as it contains urushiol, an oily, allergenic organic compound also found in poison ivy. “Not everybody is crazy sensitive to the pulp, which can cause a rash, but you get more sensitive to it with each exposure,” Nelson explains.
At home, wash off any pulp left on the kernel. Then pan-fry the nuts with a lid on, as they will explode open. “They’re delicious—soft and creamy like a piece of Brie, but they taste like salted popcorn,” Nelson said. “They’re not bad for you in small amounts, but the name of the game is moderation.” She recommends no more than five for children or eight for adults in a day. (Overconsumption can cause vomiting and other side effects.)
“Everyone recognizes an acorn. I toss them into a big bowl of water, and the ones that float get discarded, because that usually means they’re not fully formed or an acorn weevil beat you to the contents,” Nelson says. “You can shell with a hammer, which is cathartic, or a nutcracker. Toss the nutmeats into the water, and give them a quick pulse in your food processor to break them up into what’s called acorn grits.” This, she says, speeds up the leaching process—soaking them in water to draw out the bitter tannins, then draining and repeating as needed. “To know when they’re ready to use, try a tiny morsel, and wait about ten seconds to see if any bitterness comes through. When it tastes bland, like an unsalted peanut or pecan, it’s ready. I have a white oak close to my house, and its acorns leach in two days—closer to one day if I’m really on it about changing the water.”
To make the jelly, a popular, earthy-tasting dish in Korea, Nelson strains the acorn grits through a cheesecloth or nut-milk bag and collects the milky white water in a bowl. “What is suspended is starch,” she says. “Let the starch settle in the water, pour off that water, and keep replacing it with fresh water for a couple days. Try the starch to see if there’s any bitterness from the tannins, and if there’s not, discard the last bit of water. If it’s still bitter, continue replacing the water.” She then scoops one tablespoon of starch, adds it to two cups of water, and sets it to boil. “Wait for it to bubble in a way that’s reminiscent of volcanoes in cartoons, with one big thick bubble coming up to the surface and then exploding,” she says. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased silicone mold or glass pan, let it set in the fridge, and then flip it out. “The sauce in my post was made of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced field garlic cloves and field garlic greens—both foraged—and red pepper flakes, topped with a nasturtium for a peppery kick. It’s like something from a high-end restaurant that I can’t afford, and I made it myself!”
Asiatic Dayflower Tempura
According to Nelson, these adorable blue flowers are very easy to identify—they’ve got two large blue petals (“like mouse ears”) and a single white one that’s significantly smaller and hangs straight down. “A lot of people see it as a scourge in their gardens,” says Nelson, who would disagree. “Take a handful of shoots, give them a rinse, and dip them in a batter”—she uses a combination of flour with dried plantain seeds (to thicken things up), seaweed salt, and cracked pepper, all mixed with sour beer or seltzer water—“then fry in hot oil. They’re mild tasting, like peas. They’re like high-end veggie straws you get in the snack aisle.”
Fried Osage Orange Seeds
“Osage orange trees were a predecessor to barbed-wire fences. They get very spiky thorns, and their wood is known for being resistant to rot and hard enough that people have broken their chainsaws on it,” Nelson says. “Osage oranges are big, green, wrinkly monstrosities that look similar to a jackfruit. You can pluck them off and still avoid touching the thorns.” She’ll chop one in half with a big knife, and use the tip of the knife to fish out the seeds, then dip them in water and fry them with oil, salt, and pepper. “They’re comparable to pepitas,” she says.
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom Jerky
Nelson recommends seeking out hen-of-the-woods mushrooms at the base of an oak. She says you’ll find them in varying shades of grayish brown. “They pull apart in a meaty way—like you would imagine cooked chicken pulling apart—and the fronds are already pretty thin, so you don’t need to slice the pieces thinner,” Nelson says. “I clean them super thoroughly, because they tend to get dirt in them, then I boil them in broth for 15 to 20 minutes.” (Her broth is made with vinegar, seaweed salt, bayberry leaves, maple syrup, garlic powder, cayenne, black pepper, liquid smoke, and olive oil.) After that, she pops the mushrooms into a dehydrator set to 135 degrees and lets it go overnight, about six to eight hours.
If you’re not comfortable indentifying mushrooms, which Nelson acknowledges is more complicated than identifying plants, “don’t feel any shame in using store-bought mushrooms,” she says. Hen-of-the-woods are also known as maitake, and specialty grocery stores (or even some big chain grocery stores) will get them in season, or you can buy them from your local farmers’ market, Nelson says, adding, “You can also do the recipe with portobello caps or baby bella slices.”