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Profile: Forager & Wild-Food Cook Mia Wasilevich

  • 1/18
    Mia Wasilevich
  • 2/18
    Sage Hazelnut Chocolate Cake
  • 3/18
    Mia baked the delicious cake and brought it to our meeting. She used a smaller, 6-inch cake pan resulting in a higher cake.
  • 4/18
    Dried whole sage leaves infusing olive oil.
  • 5/18
    Dried whole sage leaves infusing heavy cream.
  • 6/18
    Place the cacao powder in a small bowl, and pour ¾ cup boiling water over it. Whisk to combine. Mix in the espresso powder.
  • 7/18
    Mix the hazelnut flour, baking soda, salt and dried ground sage in a medium bowl.
  • 8/18
    Beat the eggs and the brown sugar with an electric mixer, or by hand, in a medium bowl...
  • 9/18
    ...until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  • 10/18
    Stir in ½ cup of the sage-infused olive oil.
  • 11/18
    Add the cacao powder mixture and combine.
  • 12/18
    Fold in the flour mixture, mixing lightly to not overwork the batter.
  • 13/18
    Line the bottom of a round, removable-bottom 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper.
  • 14/18
    Brush the bottom and sides of the pan with some of sage-infused olive oil.
  • 15/18
    Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake in the oven for 45 to 50 minutes.
  • 16/18
    Baked cake.
  • 17/18
    Double boiler. Break the chocolate into small pieces, and place them in the bowl. Add the sage-infused heavy cream.
  • 18/18
    Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted completely, and combined with the cream.

Text, photos and food cooked by Michal Martinek

Jan 29, 2016

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Mia Wasilevich is a very good cook. On a recent frigid and windy morning, she and I sat at a picnic table at the edge of Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena, California. She picked this place because, as a forager and wild-food chef, she sees nature as her primal habitat. Later, she’d take me on an eye-opening, very quick walk in the park, pointing out common wild greens that were hiding in plain sight and available to be gathered for a nutritious salad.

Mia started on this interesting culinary journey seven years ago, when she met Pascal, who is now her spouse and business partner. “He took me foraging on our second date, and we clicked,” she recalls. Pascal grew up in rural Belgium, where “a close relationship with land, knowledge of botany and agriculture, and a hands-on approach to sourcing food was a natural way of life.”

Together they teach hands-on plant ID workshops, where one can learn to identify, cook, store and preserve edible plants. One of their most popular ones teaches beer-making using wild mugwort.

“Foraging triggers creativity in people,” said Mia. “The DIY part really inspires them to follow their life’s passions.” The Southern California areas they cover include Malibu, Topanga, Lancaster, Angeles National Forest, Santa Barbara and Pasadena.

“Thanks to different microclimates and various vegetation strata in a single location, we are able to find all kinds of cool stuff,” she continued, naming a few of her favorites: coastal ice plant, toyon berries, wild passionfruit, stinging nettles, fennel, oyster mushrooms, sage, lambsquarters and gooseberries. They pick bark, tree sap, and leaves and use those, too.

“I pickle wild seeds—such as mustard, coriander, clarkia, chia, nettle—and use them in Southern fried quail, my signature dish,” Mia said. She and Pascal don’t eat chicken or beef, preferring more sustainable sources of protein such as mutton, venison or rabbit.

“I am really influenced by my Native American side and pre-colonial food,” added Mia, whose roots are Navajo, Argentinian and Russian. “And with foraging, I feel like my life came full circle.”

Age Ageless — Hometown San Diego, CA, but I consider L.A. my hometown. — Where do you live? In a suburb of Los Angeles not far from Pasadena. — Occupation Cook, bespoke event creator, educator, food photographer & stylist. — Signature dish It changes seasonally, but this year it’s all about sage. I do a forest-brined quail (juniper, white fir, yarrow) that I Southern fry and dust with our native chaparral spice blend. It’s served with a miso maple glaze and pickled wild seeds (wild mustard, sage, clarkia, nettle, lambsquarters, chia, plantain and a few others). — Who taught you how to cook? Although I was in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother, I don’t believe either one of them liked to cook, LOL! My brother and I learned very early on our own and with the help of the emerging food networks. We also traveled abroad a lot as kids, and I think that influenced me quite a bit. — Favorite kitchen tool Tongs, hands-down. I use them like giant chopsticks. Very practical for handling things like stinging nettles, stirring, flipping, you name it. — Always in your pantry I have quite the collection of flours, e.g., hazelnut, almond, tapioca, blue corn, sorghum, chestnut, acorn... and many more. Most of my baking is gluten-free these days, so they just come in so handy. I also always have and always use a variety of vinegars and wines for cooking (mirin, shaoxing, sherry, etc.). — Go-to snack Seaweed broth. I drink it like coffee. It’s easy to make; you just need seaweed (kombu, wakame, dulse, or whatever you have), mirin and a little piece of onion, but you don’t even need that. — Favorite cuisine I could eat Japanese and Korean food, and pretty much any Asian cuisine, every day. — Do you diet? Not so much as cleanse every once in a while. — Food addictions Pickles. I like anything pickled, lacto-fermented, salted and cured—any kind of pickle. — Food allergies Not that I’m aware of, but I definitely have a few things that I’m not fond of. I have to force myself to eat sweet potatoes. — Food fad pet peeve The gluten-free fad bothered me for a while, but I sincerely think that as more of our wheat, if not all, is sprayed with glyphosate, it’s within reason to think it bothers a lot of people. — Who’s your sous chef? I have a few friends who are always in my kitchen and who will always be welcome. They all have their own amazing things going on, but a shout-out to Jenna Jaye and Sara Griffith! — Drinking while cooking? No way. I’d fall asleep! — What’s for dinner tonight? Smoked herring salad, marinated greens and fainá. It sounds fancy, but it’s an easy, almost no-cook dinner. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? I never have milk in the house, LOL. — Best meal you ever had That I cannot answer. Some of the best food I’ve ever had has been from traveling abroad. The most memorable food I can recall is chicken curry from an in-home restaurant in Jamaica, or coconut crab and poisson cru made right on the beach by fishermen in Tahiti. I’ve had some of the best food in my life in tiny out-of-the-way strip malls, made by mom and pop places. Recently, I had a palate refresh at n/naka, which is just so exquisite. — Contact transitionalgastronomy.com

Sage Hazelnut Chocolate Cake

When she’s out foraging, Mia likes to pick both black and white wild sage, which she dries and then uses to infuse olive oil and heavy cream for this unpretentious, distinctly aromatic, moist and chocolate-rich cake.

Sage (meaning “safe” in Latin) has been around for centuries and is appreciated for both its culinary and healing properties. It’s commonly used in stuffing and pork sausages, and it adds a nice scent to slow-roasted beans. Make a tea out of it when your mind feels foggy, and burn some when you want to rid your house of negative energy.

If you live in a city without access to wild sage, feel free to use commercially grown, organic sage. It is available—whole, crumbled or ground—online or in health food stores. This recipe is quite forgiving; you can also use cornmeal or almond, chestnut or acorn flour. I made the hazelnut flour very easily by blitzing the hazelnuts in a food processor until they had the consistency of breadcrumbs. However, nut flours are now readily available if you don’t want to make your own.

The cake is also great—though not as decadent—without the chocolate glaze. If you skip that part, Mia recommends brushing it all over with sage-infused olive oil. 

O

  1. Serves 6–8
  2. 1 cup dried whole sage leaves, divided
  3. ¾ cup olive oil
  4. ¾ cup heavy cream
  5. 2/3 cup unsweetened 100% cacao powder
  6. 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
  7. 1¼ cups hazelnut flour (ground from 1 cup hazelnuts)
  8. ½ teaspoon baking soda
  9. ½ teaspoon salt
  10. 2 tablespoons dried ground sage
  11. 3 eggs
  12. 1¼ cups brown sugar
  13. 4 ounces 60–70% dark chocolate

1

The day before baking: In a small pot, combine ½ cup of the dried whole sage leaves and the olive oil, and heat over medium-high heat. When small bubbles appear, turn the heat off, cover the pot with a lid, and let cool completely on the counter. Strain the oil into a bowl, and discard the sage leaves.

2

In a small pot, combine ½ cup of the dried whole sage leaves and the heavy cream, and heat over medium-high heat. When small bubbles appear, turn the heat off, cover the pot with a lid, and let cool completely in the refrigerator. Strain the cream into a bowl, and discard the sage leaves.

3

Baking day: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

4

Place the cacao powder in a small bowl, and pour ¾ cup boiling water over it. Whisk to combine. Mix in the espresso powder. Set aside to cool slightly.

5

Mix the hazelnut flour, baking soda, salt and dried ground sage in a medium bowl.

6

Beat the eggs and the brown sugar with an electric mixer, or by hand, in a medium bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Stir in ½ cup of the sage-infused olive oil. Add the cacao powder mixture and combine. Fold in the flour mixture, mixing lightly to not overwork the batter.

7

Line the bottom of a round, removable-bottom 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the bottom and sides of the pan with some of the remaining sage-infused olive oil. Keep the rest of the oil for brushing the sides of the baked cake.

8

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake in the oven for 45–50 minutes. Test with a cake tester or knife—the tester should come out of the center not entirely clean, but not wet, either. There should be just a few clinging crumbs. Let the cake cool in the pan.

9

Create a double boiler. Fill a small saucepan with two inches of water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat, and place a medium metal or glass bowl over the saucepan. Break the chocolate into small pieces, and place them in the bowl. Add the sage-infused heavy cream. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted completely, and combined with the cream.

10

Decorate the cake. Run a knife along the edges of the cake pan. Remove the cake from the pan and transfer to a plate or cake stand. Brush the sides of the cake with the remaining sage-infused olive oil, and spread the still-warm chocolate-cream mixture over the top. Let firm up in the refrigerator. Decorate with fresh berries, chipped toffee, nuts or candied fruit, and slice.

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