Posts Tagged ‘wild greens’

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

Appearing now in your salad bowl: Chickweed


Funny how things cycle. When I first learned to forage as a child, I was distressed because I couldn’t find any chickweed near my Louisiana home. Later, when I had a farm in upstate New York, I had plenty of chickweed and came to curse its abundance. Now, in the desert southwest, nature doesn’t offer any chickweed and I had to buy seeds in order to have it again.
Stellaria media, the common chickweed, is a mild and tasty wild salad green, with more nutritional value than many domesticated salad greens. I had to look hard for seed, because it tends to be assumed that everybody has it and wishes they didn’t. I finally found it at Wild Garden Seeds. It appreciates some shelter from our blazing sun, which I provided by planting it in the same row as lettuce and spinach (right in the same tiny trench) so that it could nestle under the larger leaves and stick its head up for picking. The picture above shows this. In my opinion, only the tip of each sprig is worth eating, so I cut one or two inches off each little branch and leave the rest. Eaten alone with no dressing it has a somewhat grassy flavor, but mixed with other greens it’s delicious and adds a certain airiness and lift to the texture of a mixed salad. I use it up for anywhere up to half the bulk of a salad, depending on how much of it I have available at the moment. I have often read that it can be used as a cooked green, but I don’t care for it that way- too bland- and use it only in salads. I plan to let some go to seed, and will also make another planting in the fall, because it loves cool weather.

Still more greens, and notes on solar cooking


Since I got a solar oven, I no longer find it difficult to cook chickpeas, and so I’m looking for new ways to use them. I especially like combinations of greens and beans, partly because these primal and earthy dishes are found all over the world wherever people need healthy cheap food, and partly because they taste good. I’m cooking my way through a huge patch of lambs-quarters and amaranth (common pigweed) in my back yard, and getting healthy food from weedy places always satisfies my sense of economy. If you’re not a weed-eater, just use Swiss chard. I like a little smoked meat with greens, but if you don’t eat meat, just leave off the final garnish of bacon. This makes two large main-course servings with leftovers.

One pound young leaves and tender tips of lambs-quarters and amaranth, OR one large bunch of swiss chard, stems removed, chopped coarsely.
One pint cooked chickpeas, with just enough of the cooking liquid to cover them (see Solar Beans, below.)
3-4 tablespoons good flavorful olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Spanish Pimenton de la Vera, or smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
salt and pepper to taste
a little of your best olive oil for drizzling
1 thick slice bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (optional)
Wash the greens very well, make sure to remove any remaining large stems, and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain, press out extra water, and turn out on a cutting board and chop coarsely in both directions. Meanwhile, heat a heavy pot (I like an unglazed clay 3 quart pot) over medium heat, warm the olive oil, and saute the onions in the oil until translucent and cooked through but not browned more than a little. Add the chopped garlic and saute until garlic is cooked. Add the smoked paprika, thyme leaves, and chile flakes, saute a minute but no more, and promptly add the chickpeas and their liquid. When this mixture comes to a boil, add the blanched and chopped greens, salt to taste, turn the heat to low, and let it all mellow together for 10-15 minutes. Check the seasoning, add pepper to taste, and serve with a good drizzle of very good olive oil on each serving and the crumbled bacon on top if you’re using it. With a hunk of good baguette and a glass of full-bodied straightforward red wine, it couldn’t be better or healthier. Without its bacon topping it’s vegan and can be served to people of that persuasion, with the bacon fillip for the carnivores at the table. People who are vegetarian but not vegan will enjoy a pat of butter melted on top to give a little richness. Hedonists will like both a little butter and a little bacon.

Solar cooking is a natural here in New Mexico, where we have more sunlight than we know what to do with.
So, how do you cook solar beans? Fist you catch your solar oven. There are lots of easy plans on the internet for making them, but I chose to buy mine from the Solar Oven Society. Their solar ovens are capacious, lightweight, and every one you buy helps the society provide solar ovens to the third world, which avoids some deforestation and greenhouse gases from cooking fires. Their ovens are cleverly designed with two potential bases to provide a summer sun-catching angle and a winter sun-catching angle. Optional reflectors are available to achieve higher temperatures. You may want the optional reflectors for other purposes, but for cooking beans you won’t need them. Two graniteware pots are included with the oven, and you can put a pint of dry chickpeas in each one, cover with cold water by at least 2″, and set the oven up facing south in the morning with the two full pots inside. Then employ my special cooking technique: walk away, laughing a carefree laugh, and go to work or just get on with your life. On a reasonably sunny day, the oven without reflectors attached will reach a peak temperature of about 250 degrees and will stay in that range for much of the day. When you get home eight or nine hours later, you will find two steaming pots of perfectly cooked chickpeas, and you can salt them to taste, let them cool, and use immediately or freeze in pint containers with enough of their pot-liquor to cover. I love the oddly meaty-tasting cooking liquid and often use it as the broth for the finished dish, as I do above.
The directions that come with the oven imply that you need to turn it a few times to keep it facing the sun, but at least in summer I just point mine due south and forget about it. Other types of beans are also naturals for this solar slow-cooking, but they take less time, so I do them on weekends when I can check the oven in 4 hours or so to see how they’re coming along. For readers at lower altitudes than our 5500 feet, cooking times would tend to be much shorter. If the day clouds over, you may need to finish inside, or just put the pots in the refrigerator overnight and try again the next day. Don’t forget and leave the beans in the cool solar oven overnight, since some very nasty bacteria including botulinum could grow in room-temperature aqueous solutions. Cool them and pop them in the fridge or freezer when they’re cooked. Eat in the knowledge that you’re taking in all sorts of nutritive and cholesterol-lowering compounds that cost you no energy and very little trouble to cook. Beats canned, doesn’t it?

The Greens of Spring: Hortapitas

march-2009-005
We’re eating meatless until Easter, and with an active vegetable garden that’s no hardship. This is a great time of year for greens, and one of my favorite ways to eat a lot of greens is in a hortapita, or borek, a wild-greens pie found under various names throughout the Mediterranean. For a complete and scholarly exploration of the borek, see Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens, which is full of delicious recipes. My own method is rough and unscholarly (surprise!) , but produces tasty greens pies thoughout the season with a minimum of fuss.
First, catch your greens. You need somewhere between 1.5 and 2 pounds of them. My most recent borek was made with chard, nettles, bolted arugula, mustard greens, chicory, green onions, and herbs because that’s what I had a lot of at the moment. I try for a ratio of about half strong-flavored and half mild-flavored greens, but many people may prefer more mild greens. Chard and nettles are mild, while mustard, chicory, and bolted arugula are strong-tasting, so I was careful not to let strong exceed mild in bulk. If you’re buying your greens, a bunch each of chard, dandelion (which is actually chicory) and some zippy green like aruguloa or watercress should come out to the right amount. For flavoring, fennel fronds are a necessity in my book. A handful of the nonbulbing kind, or two handfuls of the relatively weak-flavored fronds of bulb fennel, plus a handful of parsley is always a good start. If you can’t get fennel fronds, use a small handful of dill. Then add other herbs to taste. A tablespoon each of thyme leaves and oregano leaves is my go-to addition, but savory, marjoram, shallot greens, sage (in very small quantities) and tarragon are all possibilities. Just make sure to taste the finished greens mixture carefully for any needed adjustments.
First, chop 2-4 cloves of garlic depending on your taste for garlic, and the white parts of 6-7 green onions (chop the green parts separately and reserve them for later.) Saute the garlic and onion bottoms over low/medium heat in olive oil (about a quarter cup) in a very large skillet or a large flat-bottomed saucepan. Meanwhile, lay all your well-washed greens on a cutting board, one bundle or large handful at a time, and slice them crosswise into thin strips. When the garlic is cooked but not colored at all, add the greens. It will make a huge pile, and this is why you need a big skillet. Continue to cook, turning every few minutes, until the greens are thoroughly wilted. Now add the herbs, finely chopped, and the chopped onion greens. Cook and stir for another few minutes. Now remove from the heat, and either proceed with your borek or refrigerate until later. You can keep the greens mixture for up to two days refrigerated.
When you’re ready to proceed, thaw a package of phyllo pastry and put some olive oil in a bowl at your workspace. Keep the phyllo covered with a barely-damp towel when you aren’t working with it. Taste your greens mixture, salt to taste, add a few more herbs if needed, and decide whether you want to add cheese. Crumbled feta is good, as is nearly any grated cheese if it has no added flavorings. Consult Ms. Wolfert if you are a stickler for authenticity. If not, think about what would taste good to you. Some grated Parmesan is a completely inauthentic addition, but quite delicious. The amount to be added depends on the flavor of the cheese. Add a little to the greens, mix in well, taste, add a little more, taste again. No set amount will work, since you’ll be using a different greens mixture every time you make this dish. If you prefer not to add cheese, a handful of toasted pine nuts is very tasty.
Lay out one sheet on a large baking sheet, brush it lightly with olive oil, lay another sheet on top, brush with oil, repeat. When you have six sheets in place, put the greens mixture in the center and spread it out until it’s about an inch thick. Turn the excess phyllo around the sides over the top. Now brush another sheet with oil, roughly fold it in half, and layer it over the top. Continue until your top “crust” is six layers thick, and tuck the overhang under the edges of the borek. Bake at 350 degrees until gold and crisp on top. Eat hot, warm, or at room temperature. A little bowl of Lemon Oregano Jam, which will be posted soon on my recipe page, is a lovely addition and freshens the flavor wonderfully.
The variations are endless: bread dough crust rather than pastry, different greens, different herbs, different cheeses, and additions of cooked grains like bulgur are all possibilities. I recommend against adding very strong-flavored greens like kale or turnip greens, but if you’re very fond of those greens, be my guest. Green leafy vegetables are among the very healthiest foods that you can eat, packed full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and anything that induces you to eat more of them is on the side of the angels.
For more about greens for hortapitas, click here!