Posts Tagged ‘edible wild plants’

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.

 

Canna Lilies

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Every year I try a few new edibles, and I try to lean toward perennials. I have a lot of edible perennials in the spring but very few that produce in hot weather, so I’m especially interested in any heat-tolerant edible. This spring I read about canna lilies as a multi-purpose edible, with young leaves, rhizomes, and flowers all edible. I have seen them perennialized in my area, they tolerate heat beautifully, and I grew up in Louisiana and still have a taste for overblown tropical flowers, so putting in a canna patch was a natural. They grew well and were very pretty, and didn’t even need that much water since they were well mulched.

The hitch came in the kitchen. I tried young tightly rolled leaves sliced on salads, flower petals on top of salads, and finally the season’s new rhizomes boiled. In all three cases the problem was that there was no objectionable flavor but also no desirable flavor. Cannas taste as much like nothing at all as it’s possible to imagine. Since I don’t know of any pressing nutritional reason to eat them, and since yield is low and they use up a fair amount of space, I doubt that I will try them again. I imagined that my goat would enjoy the leafy adult stalks, but to my astonishment she won’t touch them.

So, overall, no reason to keep growing them except that they’re pretty and can make a dramatic addition to summer flowers. And this leads to a bit of ranting about the concept of permaculture. I have recently perused with interest a book claiming that  permaculture could help feed a rapidly expanding world population in an environmentally sound way, but the picture of the authors’ market display shows nothing but standard annual vegetables.  Another book which purports to be a permaculture cookbook has recipes based almost entirely on standard annual vegetables.  If you hope to eat something other than asparagus and spring greens, what exactly do you grow? My weed patch is a partial answer to this question in my own yard, and I’m experimenting with a few Japanese and Andean perennial edibles (so far without much success.) Fruit is an obvious possibility but many of us have weight or blood sugar issues and need to limit the amount of fruit we eat. So in my view the question remains unanswered, and I will be growing and eating annual vegetables for the foreseeable future.  I’m also interested in the concept of wild-crafting, and in my case this means that I attempt to grow edible perennial weeds in my own yard, where I can control soil and moisture and not worry about overharvesting in the wild.

In springtime, the asparagus springs up, nettles and a host of other wild greens sprout, and I can feel like a real permaculturist for the entire month of April. After that, it gets a lot more limited and I’m a more traditional gardener. Unfortunately, canna lilies are not going to do anything to change that.

Late in the Garden Year

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Here in central New Mexico our garden year is slowly drawing to a close and the first frosts have blasted the tenderest plants but the days are still warm and lovely.  I have been out in the woods gathering wildlings but they are shutting down for the year. So it’s a good time to start summing up the season.  I hope to write in more detail about all these things over the winter, but life being the uncertain business that it is, might as well get started now.

First, beauty. In October, the tender tropical pineapple sage covers itself with red flower spikes and is one of the loveliest sights the garden can offer at this season, so every spring I buy a plant and stick it in somewhere. It makes a good last hurrah for the bees. I make tea from it occasionally during the summer and I’m experimenting right now with tincturing the leaves to make a cordial. More on that later.

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This is chard’s second-best season.  In late spring and summer there are other  greens that I prefer, so I plant my chard in June and in October it is covered with lush green leaves and ready to harvest, when most other greens have given up.   Then I leave the plants in place over the winter and in the spring they send out a burst of leaves that are thick, meaty, tender, and utterly delicious. Remember to harvest the spring leaves before the central stalk starts to form, because as soon as the plant begins to shoot to seed, the leaves become dirty-tasting.  Pick all the fall leaves that you want, since this does not seem to affect the ability of the plant to live through the winter. Blanch some for winter greens if you don’t already have enough in the freezer.

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All my garden fruits except the quinces are finished for the year, but rose hips are easily found. I am  busy making extracts and cordials from them as a source of vitamin C, flavonoids, and pleasure over the winter.

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The perennialized section of elephant garlic is making clusters of thin tender leaves that are delicious  snipped up for garlicky chives.  I don’t care for the bulbs, and think that the greens are the best part of this leek relative,  so I cut all that the plants will produce as I need them.  The thin chive like greens shown here come from the tiny bulbils that are found around the outside of the bulbs. I plant them in handfuls to get a thick growth of greens as shown here.

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Those last green tomatoes make a wonderful sweet tangy chutney.

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I have a clump of perennialized chicory,  and it languishes in hot weather but produces a vigorous crop of deep greens in the fall.  The lower half of the leaf is mostly stalk, so I tend to cut off the upper halves for cooking. Chicory is a bitter green, much like dandelion.  It responds wonderfully to sautéing  with bacon or pancetta, garlic, and some red chili if you like it. It is also very good for adding savor to mixed greens that include blander species such as chard.

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Kale is at its best this time of year, and becomes more tender and sweet after a few frosts. The Tuscan kale will winterkill sooner than the others, so eat it first.  In climates with snow cover, curly kale will last throughout the winter, but in our very dry and windy winters with very little snow it seldom survives in any sort of edible condition.  Covering it with a frost blanket might well preserve it, but is more trouble than I really care to go to.  There are plenty of other things to eat.

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Celery and leeks need to be kept well supplied with water, and will still be fresh and good in the first week or two of November.  I usually buy leek plants in the spring, and none of the hardiest varieties are available as plants. There are very hardy varieties that will hold perfectly in the ground over winter, but to have them you have to remember to plant the seeds in midwinter, and I always forget.  Maybe this year I’ll remember.

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Now we come to the perennial weed patch.  Nobody who lives or gardens in the east will ever believe how much trouble I have taken to get burdock, milkweed, nettles, pokeweed, plantain, and scorzonera to grow in my area.  Burdock provides a good root in the fall from first year plants, makes large coarse leaves that my goat adores, and produces a flower stalk that is supposed to be the best part of the plant for edible purposes. I only got it to germinate this year, so I have not tried the stalks yet, but will be digging my first roots soon. Some people say the leaves and leaf stems are edible, but they are so stringy in texture and coarse in flavor that I’ve never been that desperate for something to eat.

The plantain is the Rugels variety which is rumored to be less stringy and have a better flavor than common plantain. I haven’t tasted it yet but will report back.

Milkweed can be eaten in many ways in many seasons.  As far as I know, our desert native milkweeds are largely inedible, but I have finally gotten the common milkweed to germinate and grow strongly. So next spring I hope to have edible shoots, buds, and pods. Read master forager Samuel Thayer’s books for excellent sections on the uses of milkweeds.

Pokeweed can be a giant nuisance but the spring greens have a great savor.  Or at least that’s what I remember, although I haven’t tasted them for 25 years and couldn’t swear to it.  If you decide to try them, remember that  only the young shoots about 6 inches high are edible and boiling in two changes of water is not optional. It is necessary to remove toxins. I hope to harvest my first shoots next spring.

Nettles and dock are two superb spring greens that seldom occur wild in my area, but grow very nicely in my weed patch.  They provide some of the earliest and most nutritious greens of the spring, and in late fall they produce some new greens that are well worth having at that season.  Every year I swear that I will remember to cut down the nettle patch in late summer so that the new greens can grow up unobstructed, and every year I forget and have to harvest the new greens with elbow length grilling gloves. But they are worth it.  Try to keep the nettles separate from the other plants, or you will have a tough time harvesting everything around them. The sting is pretty fierce.

I give my weed patch a periodic shallow mulch with mixed alfalfa and goat manure. They might grow well enough with no attention to fertility, but if you want your produce to be as nutritious as possible, the soil needs feeding.

If you wonder why it is worth having a weed patch, remember that these are some of nature’s wonder plants, among the most nutritious greens in the world. In addition, they taste really good.   Also, with perennials, once established the only work you have every year is harvesting and cooking them.  Once adapted to an area, they are unlikely ever to desert you. Permaculture also avoids soil disturbance. These plants are not classically attractive and need an inconspicuous spot, but they have a superbly healthy rough-and-ready vigor that is bracing even if it isn’t beautiful.

 

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.

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.

 

The Weed You Need: Edible Wild Plants in Your Garden


Lambs-quarters seedlings
Here in New Mexico we have a trio of useful weeds that make delicious greens during the summer heat. In fact, I suspect that most pieces of the continent that aren’t actually submerged have these three. Lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane are ultra-nutritious, mild and pleasant in flavor, and take nearly any sort of abuse. They come along in that order; right now lambs-quarters in my yard is nearly ready to harvest, amaranth seedlings are about an inch high, and purslane seedlings are a fine mist on the ground. The reason to learn to recognize them now is so you don’t weed them out. They are shown here in seedling stages, but never rely on one source to identify a wild plant unfamiliar to you, at least not if you intend to eat it. Get a good foraging book (anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas will have the info that you need) and double-check yourself. Then, harvest and eat. These three are easy to use. Lambs-quarters is my favorite, but I’d hate to be without any of the three. I generally blanch them for two minutes in boiling salted water in an open pot, drain and press out all moisture, and chop, then proceed in any of dozens of ways or freeze them in vacuum-sealed bags for winter. Lambs-quarters and amaranth can be eaten by themselves with great pleasure, but personally I find purslane a little slimy by itself and prefer it as no more than 25% of a greens mixture. It’s full of omega-3 fatty acids, though, so don’t neglect it. Click the “greens” category on my sidebar and scroll through some ideas to get you going. Be careful not to let them overwhelm your garden plants. Amaranth and Lambs-quarters can grow six feet high and three across in good garden soil, and they can crowd out nearly any other plant that you might be trying to grow. Leave one of each to go to seed, and pull the others before they take over. I can’t think of anything nicer that most people could do for their health than eat more leafy greens. If you have chickens, be sure to give them all the nutritious weeds that they can eat. My dogs love cooked greens too, although of course they are given only limited quantities.
I can cut the tender tips several times per plant, but these are wild annuals and they do what wild annuals do, which is make huge quantities of seed before winter. When the days shorten, they will go to seed. I’ve tried planting seed in late summer to extend the harvest, and the new plants went to seed before they were six inches tall.  They haven’t been bred for our purposes, and I say thank goodness something hasn’t. Their season is a long and generous one, so enjoy it. Spread some seedheads in any neglected areas that you aren’t using, and you’ll benefit next year.

Amaranth seedling

Purslane seedling