Posts Tagged ‘wild greens’

Ditch Dinner, with notes on blue mustard

My home area near the Rio Grande has an elaborate venous system of acequias, the irrigation ditches that move water out to farms and fields. Further south, they make local agriculture possible. Even now that my area is urbanized, the ditches are lifeblood. They maintain our water table, and the dirt maintenance roads along them are walking paths where we enjoy fresh air, exercise our canine companions, and encounter our neighbors. For me, there’s an added dimension. They are kept dry in the winter, and the east or south-facing side side of the banks are where the earliest greens appear. By scrambling to the bottom of the dry ditch and walking along the bottom, I can harvest greens growing halfway up the steeply sloping bank, where dogs can’t urinate.

The first plant to appear, often in February, is tumble mustard, also known as London rocket. It is a very hot member of the mustard family, and I don’t much care for it in any form, but the amazing John Slattery can tell you more about its culinary uses: https://www.desertortoisebotanicals.com/blogs/news/urban-foraging-for-london-rocket. Despite my disinterest in it for table use, I gather bushels of it for my chickens, who adore it. Within a couple of weeks I’m gathering eggs with the deep gold carotenoid-packed yolks that I associate with the growing season. So the ditch banks benefit my chickens directly and me indirectly in the earliest weeks of the season.

This week the dock plants on the ditch banks have leaves 6-8”long and are ready to harvest. I made a greens cake based on green onions and dock greens, using five eggs and five egg yolks for an 8” square pan. The flavorings were thyme and black oil-cured olives. The cheese was a grass-fed cheddar. It was utterly delicious but needed a side salad to brighten up the plate and provide even more greens. Enter blue mustard.

By this time the banks have large patches of blue mustard, Chorispora tenella. It’s shown above in flower, which is when you are most likely to recognize it for the first time. I haven’t seen it in foraging books and I have no clue why, because it’s delicious. The young leaves and stems are tender when gathered less than 6-8” high, and have a delightful tiny nip of the characteristic mustard flavor without getting carried away. They are fine cooked but lose their character. Salad is the way to go. Look for dense patches where the plants are shading each other’s stems, and cut off the top 3” with scissors. If the plant is forming buds it is past its tender best and should be left to seed itself for next year. Wash and dry your blue mustard, combine with a few other mild tender shoots ( I used bladder campion shoots,) dress with a good red wine vinaigrette, and dinner is served.

I have moved some blue mustard into my yard too, which germinates later than the acequia population and extends the season a little. It’s pretty in the blooming stage but gets weedy and unattractive when forming seed pods. This is one for the weed patch, not the front yard.

 

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

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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.
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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.

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.

Nettle Season

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If green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest in spring, nettles are always the second. When I moved to New Mexico I couldn’t find any and couldn’t get seeds to germinate, so I was reduced to calling an herb nursery and begging them to dig up some nettles on their property and sell them to me. Every spring I’m glad that I did. Gather the tender tops with as little stem as possible, wearing leather garden gloves. Don’t handle them without gloves, no matter what you read on the Internet. I always manage to pick up a sting on my wrist just above the glove, but it hasn’t killed me yet. Wash in a big bowl of water, stirring them with a wooden spoon. Drain and dump them into lightly salted boiling water. Boil for two minutes and drain. They are now rendered weaponless: the venom (formic acid) has been denatured by heat and the zillions of fine spines that do such a good job of injecting the venom into your skin are soft. Squeeze the drained greens dry, chop them up to eliminate any stringiness in the stems, and finish cooking them any way you like. They are awfully good just braised in cream with a bit of sautéed green garlic and finished with butter and a little salt. You can click on the “greens” category of this blog for some other ideas. They are a mild-flavored green and can be used any way that you use spinach, although the flavor is a little different; “wilder” is the best way I can describe it. They are ultra-nutritious and worthy of a place on your spring menu. They are even…gulp…worth buying plants of if you don’t have them naturally.

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Foraging Know-how

I often write about my foraged and semi-foraged edibles, and periodically I like to post something about how to forage safely. With mushrooms, it’s a life-or-death matter to know what you’re doing. With plants there is sometimes a matter of deadliness at stake, but more often you are risking an upset stomach or a ghastly meal. So get it right, which is a fairly easy matter.
Easy instructions for beginners: buy any book by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. They are both incredibly knowledgable foragers and good writers, and you will still be studying their books years from now and learning new things. I recommend starting with Kallas’s book, which is the comprehensive guide to wild greens that you will use for years or permanently. It is available in Kindle format, which is great because I can pull out my IPad at any time and study a bit without needing to lug around additional books with me. I have had this book since it was published and at least once or twice a month I go back to it to learn something new about using a familiar plant. Then add one of Thayer’s books, or both of them, to learn a new slant about the wild edibles you’ve already learned and learn some new ones. They aren’t available on Kindle, unfortunately, but they are wonderful.
There are a ton of other foraging books out there, and most of them have some special merit or charm, but if I ever had to narrow down my shelf, I would have these three. If you have some long winter evenings ahead of you, study and prepare so that you are ready to hit the ground in spring.
By the way, bear in mind that the original Cretan diet, the one that produced some of the longest-lived and healthiest people in the world, included wild greens as primary vegetables. They are extraordinary nutritional powerhouses and there is no better gift that you can give your body than to incorporate some of them into your diet. And, I hate to bring this up, but don’t just add them to your current diet; use them to replace something that isn’t doing your body good.
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Filling the Hunger Gap

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Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
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Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally in Albuquerque, and I had to buy plants in order to have them, but I have two nice patches now. They need some water and mulch in our desert area, but given those they spread rapidly, so be ready to control them by digging out excess roots when they spread too far. They sting fiercely at any age, so don’t plant them near paths and have good heavy leather gloves (they sting right through fabric) ready for harvesting. Pick any time after they reach about 5-6 inches high, harvesting the top 2 or 3 inches. You will have about a month to harvest before they get tough, gritty, and nasty. Keep your gloves on while you wash them and drop them into boiling water. Once blanched for 1-2 minutes, their spines are softened and their venom is broken down, and you can treat them like spinach or any other mild green. I love them in omelets or just blanched and chopped with some butter and cream. Be aware that the raw nettles can sting animals as well as people, and severe allergic reactions to the sting are possible, so please do site them responsibly.
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Bladder campion is another weed that doesn’t occur naturally in central New Mexico. I bought seeds from an herb supplier. Sprinkle them in a place that you can keep watered in late winter. In hot sunny areas they will appreciate a little shade. They will be scant and spindly the first year, and there won’t be anything to harvest. The second year you can pinch off the tips when they are 6-8 inches tall to add to salads, and by the third year you should get enough to cook. They are among the tenderest and mildest of wild greens, and I prefer them in salads, but a quick sauté in a little good butter is nice too.
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Tronchuda is not a weed, but a Portuguese kale with a cabbagey but mild flavor and enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to make you crow. I bought my seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery a couple of years ago, and am selecting the ones that live through the winter for my Hunger Gap crop. You plant them in the spring, harvest the huge leaves for greens in summer and fall ( my chickens appreciate them too), and then leave the stem and the tuft of leaves at the top over the winter. They won’t survive if you don’t leave some leaves on. Those that survive will begin to leaf out again in February and provide you with thick, substantial leaves for stir-fries and cooking by early March. They are biennial and begin to shoot to flower by late March, and you can harvest the buds as a broccoli-like vegetable. Do bear in mind that if you want to save seed, you have to leave plenty of clusters to go to flower. Bees love the flowers and they are a nice early source of nectar. Collect the seed, dry them, and start the cycle over again.