Posts Tagged ‘Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate’

Dandelion Time

Just after the first nettles, the first dandelions are ready to eat. This happens about the same time that the earliest daffodils bloom.

I have mentioned in another post that dandelions don’t seem to occur naturally in my neighborhood, and I went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to have them and paid good money for seeds that people in other climates would pay to get rid of.  Surprisingly, they take a long time to establish. I find that they are extremely straggly and thin the first year, and only a little more substantial in the second year. But in the third year, they make beautiful thick rosettes of spring time leaves that are perfect for salads.  Interestingly, the dandelions growing in my garden beds are not bitter, although in general dandelion leaves are famous for bitterness.  This may have something to do with my alkaline and highly mineralized soil. I’m really not sure. But it is a nice bonus. If yours are bitter, check out Dr. Kallas’s excellent book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, which contains a number of sensible suggestions about making bitter greens more appealing.

All sorts of medicinal properties are attributed to dandelions,  and if you’re interested in that you can read up on it. Personally, as I have said several times before, I think that all leafy greens are medicinal in that they are really, truly good for you. Eat them all, lots of them.

The early spring leaves are both tender and substantial in texture. I like them in a salad either by themselves or with a little bit of outer leaves of romaine lettuce added.  But if you want to add them to a more traditional mixed salad, they add a nice amount of “lift“ to the mixture at this stage.  At times when I lived where dandelions or more bitter,  I was very fond of adding crumbled bacon and hard cooked or Friday eggs to dandelion salads. With the nonbitter leaves that grow here, I prefer to eat them just with a good vinaigrette, and maybe a few bones’ worth of roasted marrow alongside to complete the meal. I roast the bones with salt and seasoning, then dig the marrow out and plop it on a pile of dandelion leaves dressed with good vinaigrette. Grind some pepper over the top, and yum.  It’s a delicious way to stay ketogenic, but if you are not a low-carbohydrate eater, you can enjoy the marrow spread on elegant little pieces of sourdough toast.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of bone marrow, you might want to keep marrow spoons around, as shown above. They have long, narrow bowls that are specially designed for digging this delicious substance out of the bone. You can get heirloom sterling silver ones from England for $700 or more apiece, or you can do what I did and buy stainless steel marrow spoons on Amazon for less than $10 each. They work just fine.

A Wild Tangle

Back when I first became interested in the Cretan diet, somewhere I read a saying that I cannot remember accurately but that went something like this: “better my own greens and olives than foreign  sugar doled out to me by others.”  From a health standpoint, certainly, better any greens than any sugar, no matter where it came from.  So after the broccoli under frost blankets in my garden beds finally gave in, having produced most of the winter, I pulled out the broccoli plants for the goat and chickens  and left all the weedy little seedlings under the blankets to grow into salad greens.  In addition to real weeds like wild lettuce and arugula and sow thistle, which sow themselves all over the place at my house,  there are some greens like chickweed which are very weedy in other parts of the country, but which I actually had to start from purchased seed because they don’t grow around here.  Another treat that I am really enjoying in salads right now is celery micro greens, of which I have a large cluster simply because I forgot to cut down one of last year‘s celery plants before it went to seed. Now, tender 4 inch high celery has formed a dense patch over a foot in diameter, and it is very delicious in salad. With a wide enough assortment of wild and semiwild greens and herbs, a simple vinaigrette is all you need to have a great salad or side dish. Add some meat, eggs, or cheese and you have a meal.

I did make sure to have one established dandelion plant under frost blankets, but it is not doing any better than the ones in the open. Dandelions absolutely resist being civilized, and they do not adapt to us. They just keep doing their own gloriously wild thing.  Dandelions also resist selective breeding. I have bought expensive packets of seed that purported to produce larger, thicker-leaved, more delicious dandelions, and they are exactly like all the other dandelions around. This year, in some fit of madness, I spent €24 ordering two packets of highly specialized dandelion seed from France, despite the fact that I know perfectly well they will come out exactly like the common yard dandelion.

Early spring is the perfect time to learn to do a little foraging, if that is not already one of your hobbies. I would suggest starting out with the wonderful book from John Kallas, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate.  Most of the plants that Dr. Kallas describes will be found in your area, because they are common and  ubiquitous, and he will  teach you to identify like an expert and then get you doing delicious things with them.

Just recently, over maybe the last six months, I have noticed that any post I write that is tagged as having anything to do with wild lettuce gets an astounding amount of attention.  I wish that somebody could explain this to me. Because I have been foraging and eating this plant for a good 20 years, and  despite some strange Internet rumors I feel that I can definitively say as follows: it will not relieve pain. It will not cure insomnia. It will not get you high. I wish I understood where these ideas came from, because they certainly did not come from anybody with a knowledge of foraging wild plants.  Really, if your goal is to get high, please leave the wild lettuce for those of us who just like to eat greens.

A Grand Mess of Greens


I love the various vegetables that the seasons offer me, and for the most part prefer to eat what my environment is offering me fresh that day. I do freeze greens mixtures, though, so that I never run short and have them all winter. Recently I came across a forager’s description of his “56 species calzone” and it made me want to count up the number of species in the large batch of cooked seasoned greens for the freezer  that I’m working on today.

The main components: chard, dock, lambs-quarters, spinach, nettles

Seasonings and minor components: mulberry leaves, hops shoots, lettuce ( about to bolt,) dandelion,  scorzonera, salsify, sunflower, green onion, young leeks, elephant garlic, corn poppies, young grape leaves, marjoram, mint, fennel, mustard, cattail shoots, pea vines, broccoli leaves,  arugula, sow thistle, wild lettuce

Sauteed separately and added: chopped broccoli stems, grape leaves, green garlic

So, 30 species, a thoroughly respectable count for an average early summer morning,  and a potential treasure on winter days when I need to be flooded with the antioxidants of summer. In general I blanch the bulk greens in a fairly small amount of water which I later drink or make soup from, saute the chopped alliums and seasonings, then combine all and saute together for five-ten minutes or until the flavors have blended.

The true Cretan diet, the one that nourished some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world, was based on huge numbers of wild mountainside greens. It’s said that over 300 edible greens grow on Crete, and the average citizen can recognize over a hundred, making my 30 seem limited. But be assured that if you can learn to recognize ten of your local edible weeds and know when to harvest them and how to prepare them, your health and table will improve.  I’ve been tracking the preferences of a vegetable-despising friend, and he will eat greens, sometimes even second helpings, if they don’t look like greens on the plate. An example is the horta egg cake that I make often. He will even eat plain greens if they have a sweet component and a bit of texture, and an easy way to provide this is to douse them in the Quasi-Korean Sauce that I always have in the refrigerator and put a handful of roasted peanuts on top. If you eat bread, toasted sourdough bread crumbs provide delicious crunch on greens sautéed with garlic and chile flakes.
Be aware that greens have a remarkable capacity to absorb and mute flavors, and may need more seasoning than you think. Salt seems to disappear into them, and enough seasoning may be key to getting your loved ones to eat them and even like them. So keep tasting and adjusting until the flavor is right.
If you want to learn to identify some wild greens, gather them at the right stage, and cook them well, there is no better foraging author than John Kallas.

Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

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.
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.
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.
December 2009 014
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.

Integrating Your Weeds I: lambs-quarters


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.


Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm

There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.