If you're a food gardener (and even if you aren't), I'm sure you've noticed that the plants you didn't plant are almost always the first to leap to life and start multiplying at the first hint of spring. You know the ones I'm talking about: chickweed, henbit, dandelions. Also cleavers (aka sticky weed) and wood sorrel (the cloverlike plants with the heart-shaped leaves).
During especially wet springs (remember when we used to have those?), a few sunny days is all that's needed for these annual and almost always assertive springtime guests to weave themselves into a stubborn green mat that can't be dislodged without a lot of serious yanking and whacking. However, with this spring's drought, the weeds in my yard have been mild-mannered, slow to grow and, consequently, easy to gather and eat in a mixed-greens salad or a fruit smoothie or a savory flan. Yes, I'm eating weeds. Or rather, I should say, I'm giving weeds in my yard a chance at the table. I don't want to eat just any old green thing that pops up out of the dirt. I'm in search of wild plants that are palatable, as well as edible.
The fact that my spring vegetable garden is still a not-quite-ready-to-harvest work in progress (following one of the Austin area's coldest winters ever) has made this month's foray into weed-eating all the more timely and interesting. Back in the days before H-E-Bs and Randalls, subsistence farmers made do with what they had and what they could forage during periods of uncooperative weather. But I bet they didn't eat henbit. Or if they did, I bet they ate all the chickweed, dandelions and wild sorrel first.
Hunting and gathering wild foods is nothing new, of course. In some corners of the world, it has remained a necessity. In our corner, though, the urge to live simply off the wild fruits of the land seems to ebb and flow depending on the priorities of each generation. At the moment, with interest in food safety, food quality, food democracy and food prices at a seemingly all-time high, it is perhaps no great surprise that passions (ancestral perhaps?) for wild foods and foraging are re-emerging. After all, wild foods are the freshest, most seasonal, least processed, most local, most natural foods imaginable. They're packed with vitamins and minerals, and you don't have to worry about how to recycle the package they came in. And they're free - unless of course you're having dinner at a fine-dining establishment where a passionate and creative chef is taking chickweed to places it's never been before. And if you should decide to fly to Copenhagen, Denmark, to dine at Noma, a small restaurant that recently won the world's best restaurant award from The Restaurant magazine, you can expect to drop more than a few extra dollars for an exotic meal of wild Nordic things. The menu there includes only foods native to the region; and the chef, René Redzepi, 32, often forages for the wild foods himself.
And finally, one last little tidbit that makes me smile: Foodies and food bloggers are rediscovering the 1960s and '70s work of wild food icon Euell Gibbons ("Stalking the Wild Asparagus"). They're quoting him in their wild food blogs and YouTube videos, and they're snapping up copies of his books. I like to imagine the spirit of the late Texan sitting on a stump in the Piney Woods, saying "See? I told you many parts of the pine tree are edible."
OK, enough about trends and such. This month of eating weeds has been enlightening and a lot of fun. When wild plant experts and master chroniclers Scooter Cheatham and Lynn Marshall introduced me to parietaria, a tiny-leafed, low-growing ground cover that tastes just like cucumber, I was thrilled. What an adorable little plant, and it's growing all by itself in a totally neglected, and unwatered, part of my yard. I also learned (again thanks to Cheatham and Marshall) that my yard contains two other edible leafy greens - wild lettuce and sow thistle - in addition to the tried-and-true dandelions. And thanks to herbalist Ellen Zimmerman, I actually drank a whole glass of icy green liquid made in part with sticky weed. Sticky weed is not likely to become my favorite wild edible, but I'm glad to know it's good for something besides sticking to my garden boots. And finally (thanks to master gardener and forager Amy Crowell), I learned that one of my favorite spring blooming native plants - spiderwort, or tradescantia - sports a flower that's just as tasty as it is beautiful.
So although at first I wondered if my month of eating weeds might turn out to be a one-time deal for the sake of column fodder, I'm now pretty sure I'll be revisiting the topic. Maybe when I start scouting around for something wild and edible in the fall and winter garden. But not henbit. Anything but henbit.
If you're new to foraging, play it safe
Poisonous look-alike plants can fool you - and kill you - if you're a beginner. Before trying your hand at foraging for wild foods, consider taking a class. Or at the very least, show your plant finds to an experienced forager before you taste them. Two varieties of hemlock are common on roadsides and in wild areas of Central Texas. Both of the plants resemble wild carrots (aka Queen Anne's lace) and wild parsnips. And yes, by hemlock, I mean the notoriously deadly plant that killed Socrates. So unless you're foraging with a wild plant expert, stay away from wild plants that look like carrots, parsnips or parsley until you have absolutely no doubt about which is which. Crow poison is another look-alike plant that can fool inexperienced foragers. Crow poison resembles wild onion, but a few bites can make you very sick. Wild onions almost always smell oniony if you break a stem or scratch a bulb. Crow poison doesn't smell oniony; it smells green and musky. If in doubt, leave the plant alone.
Also worth mentioning: If you're sampling wild edibles for the first time, start with small amounts to make sure you're not allergic. In addition, a number of wild spring greens, including sorrel, contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is also present in cultivated spinach and Swiss chard. Oxalic acid, if consumed often in large portions, can interfere with the body's calcium absorption and cause kidney stones in some people.
One man's invasive bastard cabbage is another man's dinner (Or, if you can't beat it, eat it)
• One of Central Texas' most despised weeds - bastard cabbage - might not be the most palatable member of the cabbage family, but in a pinch, it can be harvested and eaten. The plant seems to prefer popping up in roadsides rather than urban yards or gardens, but should the dreaded scourge reach your yard, try this: Pick a big handful of the youngest, most tender leaves. Wash them well and drain. To a hot skillet, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil. Then add wild cabbage leaves, along with a generous pinch of salt, freshly grated black pepper, a small sprinkle of cayenne pepper and a clove of garlic, crushed and chopped. Stir and cook greens for just a few seconds, then turn off heat and cover pan. When greens are wilted (only takes a minute or less), serve immediately topped with crisp bacon crumbles and a splash of white wine vinegar. Note: Don't harvest the wild cabbage that grows along roadsides unless you know for sure that it hasn't been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
• Wild cabbage, or Rapistrum rugosum, is one of many wild plants used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. In fact, it is still a popular wild food in a number of Italian communities, according to a 2007 study by a team of ethnobiologists at the University of Palermo.
• Earlier this year, New York Times writer James Gorman featured a number of environmentally conscious foodies who are turning their attention and their appetites to wild plants and animals that are considered invasive. Gorman calls these eco-minded eaters invasivores. Bothered by feral hogs? Eat them. Starlings chasing away your purple martins? Eat them, too. Not all invasives are edible, of course. So be sure you know what you're harvesting before you plan a wild eco-feast.
Want to eat wild plants? Do your homework first
Useful Wild Plants Project
Scooter Cheatham has been teaching wildly popular wild plant classes in the Austin area since 1974. His next Spring Weedfeed starts Friday; cost is $425 for six weeks. Weekend classes include slide lectures, field trips, campouts and wild food banquet. Space is limited. Call 928-4441 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details, and visit www.usefulwildplants.org . A Speedy Weedfeed class will be offered April 24 for $75 per person. This is a one-day class. Enrollment is limited. Call 928-4441 for details.
For more than 20 years, certified herbalist and avid gardener Ellen Zimmerman has been sharing her passion and knowledge in classes that explore the culinary, medicinal and skin- care uses of native and cultivated herbs. Classes are scheduled throughout spring and include plant walks and herbal tea tastings at her 5-acre botanical sanctuary in the Hill Country just south of Austin. Cost is $80 per class. www.ezherbs.net . 512-301-5838.
Wild Edible Texas
Master gardener and avid forager Amy Crowell schedules occasional workshops and foraging classes and writes about foraging and eating wild edibles on her blog, wildedibletexas.wordpress.com. She has a contract with UT Press to turn her wild edible blog posts into a book.
Local chef stalking wild food and foragers
Chef Paul Hargrove is looking to expand his menu at Trace Restaurant in W Austin with wild edibles from around Austin. In a brief email exchange, he told me he's hoping to connect with experienced local foragers as well as local farmers. "On my first visit to Springdale Farm, I noted that I would be interested in picking up some of their `byproducts,' like okra flowers or the basil blossoms, and they were really surprised that I would be interested in that, but those are some of the things I like to work with."
Master gardener and forager Amy Crowell has brought Hargrove a few wild plants, but her foraging time is limited right now by other commitments. Hargrove, who cooked in Louisiana, Florida and New York before landing at Trace last year, says he'd like to hear from more local foragers. "I know Texas has thousands of amazing wild edibles out there just waiting to be rediscovered and brought into a dining atmosphere. I look forward to working with Amy and others like her in the future. If there are any out there doing the same thing, I would encourage them to come by with product so we could see what is around. This process will take time to really get a rhythm going, but it is one that I passionately stand behind.
"Finding those region specific plants and animals is what makes eating locally so exciting for me," he said.
So far, the only local wild edible Hargrove has experimented with is henbit. I told him I was having a hard time liking henbit and asked if he has found a way to make it palatable. Crowell "only brought me a very small amount," he said, "but I made a quick oil with it and lightly fried some of the leaves, and they weren't bad." To make the oil, he pulverized the henbit with a mortar and pestle and then mixed it with a little Texas olive oil. "It brings a light peppery quality to the oil," he said. "It's subtle; not much to really sell it on. I think it would be good with fish, though."
OK, chef. I'm going to give that a try. Maybe I can acquire a taste for this little weed after all.
- Renee Studebaker
The following are a few simple preparations I used to get a taste of some of the wild foods growing in my backyard this month. These plants might or might not be growing in your backyard, depending on what part of town you're in and how much your native soil has been altered. I hesitate to call these dishes recipes. In most cases, they were whipped up in the moment - with whatever complementary ingredients I happened to have on hand - taking into account advice from the wild food advisers I consulted. My goal was to prepare simple dishes that tasted good and that would spotlight the best flavors and textures of the wild ingredients. Now that I know I have a wealth of wild edibles just outside my back door, I know I'll be able to step outside most times of the year and find something worth experimenting with anytime I'm in the mood to get wild in the kitchen. So, who knows how these dishes will evolve?
Served all together, the following dishes would make a fun and tasty spring brunch. Just add a plate of seasonal fruit.
Wild Backyard Greens Salad
Gardener and wild food forager Amy Crowell arrived at my house on a recent Saturday morning with a bag full of just-picked greens and leaves from her backyard. Her mix included chickweed, wood sorrel and wild mallow leaves. She also had a small bucket full of long strappy spiderwort leaves (which I didn't know were edible) and a pile of redbud blossoms. After foraging for a bit in my yard, we were able to add wild onions, violet leaves and a different variety of wood sorrel to the mix. The strongest flavors came from dandelions (slightly bitter), wood sorrel (lemony, crisp) and wild onions (very oniony). Chickweed added a neutral-flavored crunch, and the violets contributed a deep green color and a very mild, understated flavor. The mallow leaves surprised me. Their texture and flavor reminded me of raw okra, without all the goo. The spiderwort leaves weren't my favorites - a little too juicy and grassy. (I have since learned, however, that I do like the spiderwort's flowers. Next time I make some version of this salad, I'll use flowers instead of the leaves.) To dress the salad, I made vinaigrette from a purée of raw wood sorrel and wild onion leaves, apple cider vinegar, a splash of tawny port, a teaspoon of honey, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a dash of salt and several tablespoons of olive oil.
- Renee Studebaker and Amy Crowell
Eggs with Chickweed, Wild Onions and Sorrel
I tried to get all fancy and make a savory wild onion flan (pictured above) topped with sautéed mushrooms and sorrel sauce and garnished with spiderwort flowers. I got very close to coming up with something that was really, really good. But before I share that recipe, I need to do a little more finessing. Meanwhile, you can sample the different flavors and texture combinations of these ingredients by playing around with any classic scrambled-egg recipe. Try pouring your favorite egg mixture into a warm pan of chopped wild onion that has been sautéed lightly in butter or oil. Cook and stir over medium heat until the eggs are almost set but still soft. Stir in a handful of coarsely chopped raw wood sorrel leaves, cook for a few seconds more and then serve immediately topped with a garnish of raw whole chickweed leaves and sorrel leaves. For extra flavor, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.
- Renee Studebaker
Spring Tonic of Cleavers and Chickweed
The day Ellen Zimmerman visited my kitchen, she arrived with a bag of dock leaves (a wild edible similar to sorrel that I don't have in my yard) to make a rejuvenating cleavers-and-chickweed smoothie. (I supplied the cleavers and the chickweed - no shortage of these in my yard.) She usually makes her tonic with frozen Hill Country peaches. But to keep it more seasonal, we tried making it with fresh strawberries instead. The result was pretty good, but not quite sweet enough, and a little too grassy. So we added honey and it got better. More and sweeter fruit would have made it even tastier. Now I understand why Zimmerman likes it best with peaches. If you're ready to drink some of your backyard weeds, give this drink a try. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. And the bonus? You get a big vitamin and mineral boost from these greens - plus up to 8 grams of vegetable protein.
1 cup tender young chickweed leaves, washed and drained
1 cup cleavers, torn or sliced into pieces, stems and all; younger plants that haven't bloomed yet are best
A handful of dock leaves, washed and drained
1 to 11/2 cups of your favorite frozen smoothie fruits
Honey to taste, if needed for additional sweetening
1/4 cup of filtered water, to help with processing of greens
In a blender, process yard greens and water until smooth. Press through a strainer into a separate bowl. Rinse green bits from blender, add strained green juice, frozen fruit and honey, if using. Process until smooth and serve immediately.
- Adapted from a recipe by Ellen Zimmerman, certified herbalist
Note: If you have tried-and-true wild food food recipes you'd like to share, please email me or call. I'd be happy to post them to my blog version of this column.