The above is not a typical restaurant menu, I grant you. But when the challenge is to generate a meal made entirely of free ingredients found locally, some creativity is required. The challenge, issued by two friends of mine, Marco and Renee Hatch, required that the main ingredient of each dish come at no cost. That meant harvested, caught or stolen. Anything that couldn't be found for free could be purchased, but it should be produced locally. One couple fudged a little with the buy-one-get-one-free thing, but it wasn't strictly against the rules, so it was allowed.
I was at a loss for what to make until my wife Miriam turned up a copy of Edible and Useful Plants of California, a book that provided a recipe for ice plant (ironically, an invader) and for fried cactus leaves. And if there's one thing we have in San Diego, it's wild cacti. So away we went, Miriam and me, up the hillsides of San Diego armed with a pair of leatherwork gloves and scissors, clipping young cactus leaves and snagging their ripe prickly pears. Young cactus leaves are a traditional dish, but no leatherwork glove could possibly protect us from the needles. The gloves were ruined, and we spent a week extracting bits of cactus from our hands, wrists and legs. We couldn't even get the needles off the leaves in any efficient way, so they had to be composted (though Miriam did make peach and prickly pear crisp, which was tart and delicious).
But for all the spines we survived, we didn't even win the award for “Most Dangerous Harvest.” That went to Marco's friend Chris Condit. Marco and Chris had decided the most efficient way to catch dinner was to don wetsuits and grab spear guns and see what they could catch. They went at night, too, on the theory that the fish would be asleep and easier to catch (though Marco later admitted, “Hey—night diving. Cool.”)
What Marco, a marine biologist, had not told Chris, was that there's a great white shark living off La Jolla shore. When the pair nabbed a fish, Marco made sure it was Condit who carried the net bag with the bleeding, flopping fish in to shore while he followed at a safe distance, thinking unsharky thoughts. Chris survived unbitten.
The “free-est” dish was the ceviche, which consisted of nothing but no-cost ingredients. If you know the places to go, lemons, fish, basil and tomatoes can all be acquired for nothing, and since you don't need a stove to cook it (ceviche cooks the fish with the acid from the fruit), this is the ultimate free gourmet dish.
“Best in Show” went to the topping on the Bread & Cie bread. Somehow Hatch and his wife had found all these ingredients (aside from the bread) in assorted gardens and vacant lots.
Miriam and I did earn an award for “You Can Eat That?” with the ice plant salad. I can't help but feel it was kind of a technicality, though, since although everyone tried it, no one could safely be said to have really eaten it. Ice plant, it turns out, is bitter and gross.
In the end, the evening was a big success. We all left satisfied, having eaten a three-course dinner, with beverage, more or less harvested from the land. We often discuss having another one, maybe at another time of year when different fruits and vegetables are in season. I know my plan is to bust out my Boy Scout handbook and figure out how to set snares.
Those rabbits in Balboa Park look like dinner to me.