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For the latest issue of my ‘S’ series, I want to talk about all the free food available around us or, what I have dubbed, being a modern day ‘scavenger.’  This doesn’t mean dumpster diving or fighting the vultures for roadkill, but just being aware of what is available around you and taking advantage of it.

I will admit, I did some less than morally stellar ‘scavenging’ as an undergrad.  My friend and I would occasionally walk her dog through the university research fields and happen to bring a few bags with us.  Also, I had a personal disagreement with some of the campus co-op hippies, so my fireman and I had one epic late night cherry picking excursion in their little communist orchard…  But my indiscretions aside, there are so many opportunities to find completely legal free food if you keep your eyes open.

  • Most colleges, community colleges, and adult education centers have gardening classes where you have the opportunity to garden your own plot and take home the produce.  Check out what’s available in your area!  It’s not completely free, but you learn so much and if you live in an apartment or don’t have garden space it’s a great resource.  I took a few classes like that at UC Davis.  In one, we spent a quarter starting our own row in the research fields and were allowed to keep maintaining it through the next quarter.  However, after they were done being graded on it, most of the students abandoned their rows, giving me free reign over practically an acre of veggies!  I took another class which was essentially volunteering in the 5 acre student run CSA farm, in which I was paid in produce and getting to play with all the fun toys.  I loved getting to drive the gator, ride on tractors, and use the weed flame thrower!
  • As you go through your day, (shopping, walking the dog, even your daily commute) take note of fruit trees and culinary herbs growing in public.  There are so many planted just for landscaping; rosemary plants, apple or fig trees, lemon and orange trees, and sage bushes are some common ones in Northern California.  If I can tell that nobody is taking care of it (ripe fruit on the ground is a dead give away), I think it’s fair game to pick some as long as I’m not too greedy.  I figure if I’ll hassle a cashier about a $.25 coupon, picking some lemons off a tree outside a book store isn’t going to ruin my reputation.
  • Find out what grows locally in your area and what native plants are edible!  I have an edible weed that grows in my yard called ‘lambs quarters,’ it’s tastes similar to swiss chard.  Another example of a common edible plant is dandelion greens; they’re a common Japanese ingredient.  My friends at barbequeforlife.com know how to find morel mushrooms in the hills around Lake Tahoe.  (*DON’T GO MUSHROOM PICKING UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING OR ARE WITH SOMEONE WHO DOES, MANY MUSHROOMS ARE EXTREMELY  POISONOUS*)  There are wild fruits to be had too; my friend, Elissa, and I spent most of the summer driving to the foothills to pick wild blackberries as well as finding lakes to try and catch trout in.  Perhaps the most surprising find I’ve ever had was seeing wild hops (the main flavoring in beer) growing near my adopted Nonna’s house in Tuscany.  So look around you when you’re outdoors, you never know what you’ll find!
  • Don’t forget about your friends and family either.  In my experience, if your loved ones know that you’re a clever and resourceful cook on a budget they will bring your their extras as well as things that they don’t know what to do with.  For example, I’m lucky that my Daddy is a great fisherman and brought me some of his haul from his latest Alaska trip; that’s where today’s recipe came from.  Also, my super cool neighbor doesn’t like fruit (weird, huh?) and if her sweetie leaves fruit behind when he’s away for work it usually ends up at my place.  All this summer my fireman saved me his extra dried apricots from his fire-camp lunches because he knows I’ll use them in things like middle eastern rice pilafs and baked goods, what a thoughtful guy!

I know that I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food ‘scavenging’ and that there are many people out there much more ‘intense’ about it than I am.  How far you’re willing to go to get free food is completely dependent on your own sensibilities and willingness to sacrifice a little dignity, but these avenues for getting free ingredients have been a great starting place for me.

As is usual for me, I made this Thai curry recipe because I wanted to use up a few things that I had on hand.  I’m not very fond of fish that ‘tastes like fish’ so I wanted to pair the rockfish I got from my Daddy with a strongly flavored sauce.  Thai curry jumped out at me when I realized that I had some napa cabbage left over from the Phyllo Mushroom Triangles that I made earlier.  Any firm white fish would be an excellent substitution, with snapper being the most similar to rockfish.  If you’re not a fishy person, chicken or firm tofu would be absolutely fantastic in this dish too.  This yellow curry would be great over just about any type of rice or noodle that you have as well!

Thai Rockfish Curry served with wild rice

Serves 3 – approx $.87 per serving (just for the curry, I would estimate any rice or noodles to be about an additional $.25 to $.50 per serving)


  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 1-2 Tbs Thai curry paste – mine is home made, I keep cubes of it in the freezer but there are many great brands of curry paste that are commonly available ($.25)
  • 2 Tbs jalapenos, minced – optional if you don’t like a lot of spice! ($.05)
  • 1 Tbs garlic, fine dice
  • 1 tsp tumeric
  • 12 oz rockfish fillets, approx 2, medium dice ($0 thanks to my Daddy!)
  • 3 carrots, thin sliced ($.25)
  • 1 medium onion, medium dice ($.20)
  • 1 lb napa cabbage, thin sliced ($.50)
  • 1 can coconut milk ($1)
  • 1 cup vegetable stock or water ($0 if you make your own stock)
  • 1/2 cup lambs quarters – optional, any tender green would be a good substitution ($0, it grows in my yard)
  • 1/2 lime ($.10)
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • salt – to taste

As I do with any Asian dish, I like to gather and prepare all my ingredients before I start cooking.  When you’re ready, begin by heating the oil in a large wok or sauce pot.  When the oil is hot, add the curry paste, jalapenos, garlic and tumeric.  Heating spices really helps to open up the all the complex flavors, just like letting a nice red wine breathe does,  Stir for about 1-2 minutes.

Add the rockfish (or whatever protein you prefer), season with salt, and stir gently.  Next add in the carrots, onions and cabbage.  Saute gently for 5 minutes over medium heat.  Add the coconut milk and vegetable stock and bring to a simmer, continue simmering for 5-10 minutes.

Finish with the fish sauce, lime juice and lambs quarters.  Let the flavors simmer and meld for a few minutes more.  Taste your curry and add salt if necessary.  Now you’re ready to grab a pair of chopsticks and dig in!