Posts Tagged ‘edible weeds’

Green Odds and Ends

On my occasional staycations I have time to interact with my garden and kitchen in a leisurely way. I have time to notice things. Unfortunately, some of what I notice is at best a call to action and, at worst, a problem unfolding itself.

Take lambsquarters. This  weed is a real nutritional powerhouse, and also is happy to take over your world if you allow it.   I have written in the past about how to make it behave itself, and I do wish that I had followed my own good advice this year. But I foolishly let some plants go to bloom, which means that the leaves are scant and seeds will shower on my garden soon.

Well, all is far from lost, because Chenopodium album is still producing something edible. Notice the branch tips and you will see the clustered buds ready to pick and cook. This common weed is a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

To the right above, you see tightly packed buds, perfect for cooking. The single branch to the left shows looser formation and tiny little yellow stamens, indicating that it’s gone to flower. It’s still edible at this stage but the stem is tougher. A little later the seeds start forming and, to my taste, a slight unpleasant bitterness develops and the stems get noticeably tough, so I try to eat it up before that point, but the seed clusters look a lot like the initial bud clusters. Chew a bit raw if you want to be sure. If it tastes mild and green but not bitter, and the stem can be snapped in your fingers without undue effort, it’s kitchen-ready.

Steam or cook in a skillet in a little good olive oil until done to your taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and eat. I steamed a batch for dinner and had some leftovers the next day, enough for one but there were two of us, which is how I came to use the cooked leftovers as the basis for a thick pesto to eat with halloumi and eggs.

The lambsquarters buds are very mild, so I chose a handful of fresh dill leaves to be the dominant seasoning, and some young carrot leaves chopped finely for the bright fresh green element (my parsley didn’t do well this year.) I put a clove of garlic in the mini-prep, added 1/3 cup of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, ground in the cooked lambsquarters buds, and then turned it into a dish and stirred in the chopped dill and carrot leaves to avoid too fine a texture. Add more olive oil or lemon juice if called for, salt and pepper to taste, and it’s ready to serve alongside nearly anything. If you don’t like dill, use something else. Only fresh herbs are appropriate for this type of vegetable-relish.

After frying the halloumi in olive oil, I decided to fry an egg apiece in the remaining hot olive oil. To add a little pizazz I dropped two generous pinches of chopped dill leaves in two places in the hot skillet, then immediately broke two fresh eggs on top of them. Flip the eggs after a minute and cook to preferred doneness.  Those who are only familiar with the fusty-musty dried dillweed may be surprised how much they like fresh dill in this context.

I’m curious about the nutritional content of this lambsquarters-broccoli but there isn’t any available data. So I can only say that the leaves are powerfully nutritious and the buds probably are too. And wherever you may go in your life, short of prison, lambsquarters will be there. At times when I worry about the future, it’s comforting to think that if I’m ancient and beyond digging and planting, lambsquarters will grow just fine and will be on the menu as long as I can totter to the kitchen.

 

Wild Lettuce

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Wild lettuce is everywhere. I see it all over the downtown area of our city, growing in cracks in pavement and against buildings.  Wherever you are right now, there is probably a plant of it growing nearby. Its endurance is extraordinary and there is no getting rid of it, which suits me fine. A green that will grow in unwatered parts of my desert yard is an unusual thing, and I’m not likely to turn down a gift like that.

It’s quite variable in leaf shape and a few species are common in the U.S. In my area I mostly see Lactuca serriola, which is covered with small spines. I borrowed the photo above because the spines show more clearly than in my own photo. Accounts online and in foraging books differ, some reporting that the young leaves are delicious, others considering them a very poor food, and all commenting on the bitterness of the adult plant. In my area they don’t seem to get very bitter, not half as bitter as dandelions or chicory, and I love to eat the growing tips regardless of the age of the plant. This may relate to soil or temperature factors. I have noticed the same thing with sow thistle that grows in my yard, which lacks its characteristic bitterness, while dandelions in the same area seem even more bitter than those found elsewhere. Nature always has the last word and does not have to provide us with explanations. You have to get to know your home area.

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I pick the tips as shown on the right, but if I find a plant growing in shade I will pick larger leaves because they remain more tender than when grown in sun. They exude sticky white sap, which washes away easily. I toss the tips in boiling water for about 90 seconds and drain and squeeze, which renders the spines soft and harmless. Proceed as desired. With greens that have any tinge of bitterness, I like to sauté with garlic, olive oil, and pepper flakes, preferably the deep earthy Turkish Urfa pepper flakes or smoky chipotle flakes. A ten minute sauté creates a lovely vegetable.

The rest of the plant is a favorite treat for my goat, who is totally unbothered by the spines. It’s one of the few plants that she never seems to get finicky about.

There are some very weird things to be found online. Wild lettuce has  acquired a strange internet reputation as “lettuce opium” and there are places that sell the seeds and tincture and swear it will cure insomnia and/or get you high. I have no idea where this idea came from. I was startled to learn about it when I searched for a good photo, and overall I would disregard the whole idea. So do the people who have actually tried it; customer feedback includes comments like “very mild,” “placebo buzz only,” “nothing going on here,” and “useless.” One commenter who thought it was great admitted to being “crazy drunk” when he tried it, which no doubt makes a difference. Some think it is a useful mild sleep aid if smoked or brewed as a very strong tea. I don’t advise smoking anything at all so I wouldn’t know. For those interested in soporifics I can only say that when I eat it at dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime, and when I eat anything else for dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime.

Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

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Amaranth is the second of my Holy Trinity of super-nutritious edible weeds. It is a creature of hot weather, and in my garden it’s appearing everywhere right now. Like lambs-quarters it will get huge if allowed to, and unless you have limitless room, your job is not to allow it to.
Consult any good wild-foods guide to identify it, and then assess how much of it you have. If your response is “OMG, it’s everywhere!” then don’t worry about propagating it. Your soil has plenty of seeds. If there are only one or two plants, proceed as for lambs-quarters the first season, and you will have amaranth in perpetuity. I have two varieties, one with smooth stems and one that forms small but unpleasant spines at the leaf joints, and I try to keep the spiny kind from ever going to seed.
Pick them when they’re about a foot high and have a nice large umbrella of leaves on top. I have no interest in eating stems, and I pull off the topmost part with all the largest leaves and add the rest of the plant to the mulch, taking care that it’s completely uprooted.
The greens are fairly mild but have a slight touch of the earthy flavor that’s so pronounced in beet greens. When grown in prime soil the flavor verges on meatiness in a delicious way, and my favorite way of cooking the greens adds other meaty umami flavors.
Wash a mixing bowl full of loosely packed leaves well and wilt them in a small amount of water, stirring frequently over fairly high heat until the leaves all look “cooked.” Drain them, saving all the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid to the pot and boil hard to concentrate it to a very small amount, maybe a couple of tablespoons (don’t turn your back on the pot or it will scorch.) Pour into a little bowl and save.
Chop 6 big green onions. Make a basic separation between white and green parts, but don’t get obsessive about it. Separately chop 6 big cloves of garlic. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in your largest skillet and cook the white parts over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When they begin to look a little translucent and “cooked,” add the green parts, cook another couple of minutes, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook a few minutes more. Meanwhile, put the lump of blanched greens on a cutting board and chop fairly finely in both directions.
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When the garlic looks cooked but has not colored at all, add a handful of pitted chopped oil-cured olives to the sautéed mixture and cook another minute.
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Add the cooked chopped greens, the tiny amount of cooking liquid, a teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika or, if you like heat, the same amount of ground chipotle chile. Add a small handful each of chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. If not cooking for vegetarians or vegans, add a smashed anchovy fillet or a dash of fish sauce. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes, periodically turning it to get it all completely cooked (a spatula works well.) Taste it, salt to taste, and cook a few more minutes to let the salt blend in. Serve drizzled with good olive oil as a side dish, or fill an omelette with it and add some feta cheese, or bake in phyllo to make a hortapita or little spanakopitas, or do whatever else you fancy with it. Back when I ate bread, I used to love to smear this stuff on slices of grilled baguette and put some grated Parmesan and pine nuts on top. I can remember once baking it in thin bread dough with a raw egg on top, so that when baked in a hot oven the egg came out cooked. You can add cooked chickpeas and bits of cooked meat for a real peasant dinner. It freezes well in vacuum-sealed bags to keep you healthy all winter. When served next to beef or pork, I top each serving with a bit of butter to add to the general animalic savor. I like to have it in the refrigerator for a super-healthy lunch, and it seems to taste best at room temperature.
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Incidentally, the main reason for a poor result is not cooking it long enough. If it tastes grassy, keep going until it tastes good. Undersalting is another problem. Add salt cautiously because of the salty olives, but add enough.
If you don’t have a wild good guide that you like, get John Kallas’s “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate” and you will be glad you did.

The Cook’s Treat: Lambs-quarters

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I am the cook in our household, and one of the reasons that I love my kitchen work is that I can have cook’s treats, little experimental dishes that I cook up while working on something else and eat standing up in the kitchen. They are something like impromptu tapas for one.

Recently I was preparing large quantities of tender lambs-quarters tips for the freezer, and began to speculate about how a handful of the tops could be turned into a cook’s treat. I have been very happy with some recent experiments that involved pan-frying hops shoots or scorzonera shoots over medium-high heat with just olive oil and salt, but hadn’t tried it with a leafy green vegetable.

I was delighted with the results. I chose about a dozen small tender tips, maybe three inches long on average, and washed them but didn’t make any special effort to dry them beyond setting them on a towel to drain.  While washing them, I set my little 7 inch skillet over medium high heat to heat up. When the pan was hot, and my greens were washed and drained, I put in a glug of good olive oil. I never measure olive oil, but I would guess that the glug that looks right in my small skillet is about 2 tablespoons. You do need enough oil in the pan for the greens to be able to fry in spots. Wearing an apron and standing back a bit from the stove, I threw the greens into the skillet. They spat and hissed ferociously. After a minute, I sprinkled on a generous pinch of salt and turned them roughly. After another minute I turned the heat down to medium and continued to turn them over every minute or two until the stems were tender enough to eat and many ( but not all) of the leaves were browned and crisp. I turned them out onto a small plate, sprinkled on a bit of Fleur de Sel, and ate them hot in between other kitchen tasks. Yum. The flavor is fuller and maybe slightly more bitter than mild lambs-quarters can usually reach, and the crisped leaves crunch delicately between your teeth, like very thin ice.
They have to have enough space in the pan to crisp up and not steam each other into softness. I think that my large skillet would probably hold enough for three people, but not more. To serve more people, possibly one batch could stay hot in the oven while the next was frying, but I haven’t tried it yet. I do know that from thought to finished cook’s treat took about seven minutes, and that the cook, thus treated, returned to her kitchen tasks very happily.

Addendum: I did try making it for more people, and the hold-in-the-oven idea doesn’t work, I regret to say. The greens rapidly go soft, and taste fine in a toasty way but the delicate crunch is lost. So this is a treat for one or two people. But then, it’s very romantic to have a special treat that simply can’t be shared with a larger group.

Integrating Your Weeds I: lambs-quarters

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I’ve written a lot at various times about the Holy Trinity of edible weeds: lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane. In this post I don’t plan to say anything much about harvesting and cooking lambs-quarters, Chenopodium album,  since I’ve said that already and the short version is “harvest them young, collect as little stem as possible, and use them like any other mild-flavored leafy green.” Personally I dislike the texture and mouthfeel of the raw leaves intensely, and only like them cooked, but others see it differently. This is their great season; after midsummer they are very eager to make seeds and are no longer very usable as a leafy green.

The focus today is on how to have them in your garden without losing everything else. They are highly competitive. First, don’t just let a nice big plant go to seed in your garden, unless you have a lot more space than I do, because they get six feet tall and nearly the same across and tend to flop around, and nothing else in that bed will survive. Instead, look over your self-sown lambs-quarters (which you almost surely have,) choose one right at an edge or corner of a garden bed, cut it down to an inch from the ground, and keep hacking at it until late summer, allowing it to make exactly one branch which lies out horizontally over the ground of the bed. This branch is allowed to go to seed, and everything else is clipped off. It helps if the planned plants in that bed are large and robust. All other lambs-quarters in that bed are pulled out by the roots after harvesting. Your mother plant will dry out in early fall, very unattractively I might add, and when you are sure that it’s dropped its seed, you can dig the husk of the mother plant out. This will take a lot of effort and a good shovel.

Next spring, you will see a fine mist of seedlings on that bed. Keep them watered for tenderness, harvest them at 6-8 inches tall, and be sure to pull out the roots. If you are growing other things in that bed, be sure to give everything else a head start. In the bed shown above, I hoed up the ground when the seedlings showed and planted collards and onions. Don’t worry about hoeing the seedlings. There are millions more to come.  Then I let the second wave of lambs-quarters seedlings grow up among my plantings. Today I’ll harvest the lambs-quarters, and mulch around the remaining veggies and let them take over.

No doubt this decreases the total yield of collards and onions, but if you use a rich mulch like stable bedding they will make up for the slower start, and overall you are getting remarkable yields for the space. The returns are especially remarkable if you consider nutrient density, since lambs-quarters are among the most nutritious greens that you can eat.

You should only have to do this once, or maybe once every several years. You will then have millions of potential lambs-quarters in your soil and can grow a crop of them at any point in late spring or early summer that you have a bit of empty space. Just water the ground and stand back.

The marvelous foraging guide by Dr. John Kallas called “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate” will enable you to identify and cook your bounty.

 

Pleasures of the Garden: Solo Specials

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If you have the habit of solitude, there is no better hobby than gardening, and cooking for one can be a real pleasure too. Today I noticed that the radishes which I plant in my carrot rows ( one radish seed every four inches or so, to break the soil up and offer some shade and shelter for the tiny infant carrots) were ready to pick. Only four were ready, and I’m on my own today, so I began planning my solitary lunch, based on very flavorful (somewhat bitter) greens. I had the four radishes and their tops. I also picked the tops of several infant carrots ( they needed thinning and didn’t yet have any roots to speak of,) two large leaves of spinach, a couple of leaves of arugula, and a few large sprigs of lambs-quarters from the weed patch, to offer a mild cushion for the stronger greens. I also grabbed tender tips of alfalfa and a stalk of green garlic. A still-warm egg from the henhouse completed my outdoor prep.
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Indoors, I washed the radishes and greens, sliced the radishes in half lengthwise, chopped the stalk of green garlic finely, and then chopped all the other greens together more coarsely. In a small skillet, I heated a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil and started sautéing the green garlic. When it started to look a little cooked, the rest of the greens went in. Then I added some salt and cooked over medium-low heat for a little over 15 minutes, until the greens were softened and mellowed but still had plenty of character.

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Meanwhile, I spread the sliced radishes with good grass-fed butter and sprinkled them lavishly with my best fleur de sel. When the greens were ready, I turned them out onto a little warm plate, added some more olive oil to the skillet and quickly fried the egg in it, and added the radish slices that I hadn’t already eaten to the plate.
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Yum. There is absolutely nothing like a fried egg to mellow the flavor of strong bitter greens. And now, filled with bubbling good health, I can go on to an afternoon of further garden chores.
I eat a ketogenic (ultra-low-carb) diet for health and weight reasons, but if bread is still in your kitchen, a couple of slices off a good baguette would add heartiness to this perfect little impromptu meal.
Ah, the witchcraft we perform in our gardens and kitchens when nobody’s looking.

A Glory of Greens, and notes on Turkish greens soup

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There is nothing more vibrant than a garden full of greens in the spring, all growing like mad, offering you a million healthy possibilities. During the two unfortunate years that I couldn’t garden, I did at least rogue out all the weeds that weren’t edible, and now nearly everything that sprouts in my beds is delicious, whether I planted them intentionally or not. And everybody, every one of us, would do well to eat more greens. Our health would improve and we would feel so damn good. Remember, the REAL Mediterranean diet, the one that was originally studied on Crete and that produced a long-lived and healthy population, was based on a huge variety of cultivated and wild greens.

Today I noticed nettles, spinach, and lambs-quarters that needed to be harvested pronto. I also had lively green garlic ready to harvest. I picked a three-gallon pail to the brim, but loosely filled as I threw the bounty in, not packed down. I washed them ( it goes without saying that when nettles are in the mixture, you use gloves whenever handling them and stir in the washing water with a big wooden spoon, not your hand,) and decided to make a Turkish greens soup for dinner.
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This is a soup that I have been making variations of since a lovely trip to Turkey nearly thirty years ago. It is based roughly on a soup that my guide described his wife making, but it’s interpreted by me and changes every time I make it, so I don’t vouch for its authenticity. This time it was a thick velouté; other times it’s a rough potage, and sometimes it resembles gumbo z’heirbes. So here’s how this one happened:
Prepare and wash three gallons, loosely packed, of assorted greens. No bland store-bought baby spinach! If you don’t have a garden, consider chard, adult spinach, and Tuscan kale, one bunch each.
Pull a quart of good rich chicken stock out of the freezer (it is in there, isn’t it?)or procure a quart of good chicken stock from somewhere.
Set the chicken stock to melting over medium heat in a gallon pot.
Chop three large stalks of green garlic, stems, leaves, and all, and sauté them in a quarter cup or so of excellent olive oil in a sauté pan. OR use a small onion and two cloves of garlic, chopped, for the sauté step. Make sure they are cooked through, and soft but not colored, before proceeding.
When the garlic mixture is ready and the stock is boiling, begin adding the greens to the stock, stirring, and remembering not to touch those nettles. Boil for about a minute after the last of the greens is added. Now add the garlic mixture to the soup pot and simmer for five minutes.
Now purée with a stick blender. Add salt to taste (I think it needs to be on the salty side)and add a teaspoon of Urfa pepper flakes, Aleppo pepper flakes, or mild red pepper flakes. I like a bit of oregano and thyme. Taste and correct the seasoning carefully.
Mix some full-fat Greek yogurt with salt to taste and have it ready.
Put six egg yolks in a bowl, whisk them up, and slowly add a cup of the hot soup, whisking furiously all the time. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the soup over lowest heat, and whisk another minute or two until it’s lightly thickened and smooth.
Serve into bowls, pile a half cup of salted yogurt in each bowl, drizzle lavishly with your best olive oil, and sprinkle heavily with more Urfa or red pepper flakes. Eat, and flourish.
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