During this time of uncertainty, many of us have found solace and calm by spending as much time as possible outdoors, enjoying nature and starting vegetable gardens. I planted early this year, and I get pleasure from watching my sturdy seedlings capture every scrap of warm sunshine. Meanwhile, limited shopping means fresh produce isn’t always handy, so I’ve started foraging for spring greens (foraging has been a hobby of mine since high school). Some of you may have enjoyed Russ Cohen’s edible wild plants outings, or heard some of the great Seed Library lectures on edible landscaping. If not, this is a great time to start foraging!
For many people, foraging instantly brings dandelions to mind. if you don’t use lawn chemicals, don’t just dig your dandelions, eat them! Add the leaves and buds to salads, or steam the leaves like spinach. The purple violets that volunteer in our lawns and gardens are also edible—both the leaves, which are rich in vitamins A and C, and the flowers, which are fun in salads. Bakers have used candied violets to decorate cakes for many years.
Late April and early May are prime time for two other plentiful edibles that are rampantly abundant: garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed. Both can be found along roads all over town, but please look for a location that hasn’t been sprayed with herbicides or visited by dogs. Garlic mustard tastes like broccoli rabe, (rappi), and like other greens in the mustard family. The leaves can be lightly sautéed along with tender diced stems; a splash of olive oil and a little salt is all you need. The young leaves also make a delicious pesto. Garlic mustard is a biennial plant; the first year it forms a clump of leaves at ground level; the second year it sends up a stalk with alternate leaves and a mass of small four-petaled white flowers at the top. The stalks are delicious; you snap off the base like you do with asparagus, and prepare the tender portion of the stem. Pull up the whole plant, and bag the flowers and roots for disposal to help avoid spreading the plant.
Japanese knotweed is one of the most troublesome invasive plants in our region, but it is also delicious, either masquerading as rhubarb in strawberry knotweed pie or compote, or peeled, sliced and lightly sautéed with olive oil and a hint of garlic salt. It has a delicious fresh, lemony flavor, and is very high in antioxidants. Knotweed is best harvested when shoots are 6-12 inches tall, when it looks like red asparagus. As it grows taller, the outer skin toughens—eventually, some people mistake it for bamboo. Just remember to dispose of any knotweed scraps in the trash—DO NOT compost this plant—it can grow from tiny pieces and cause major problems wherever the compost is used.
Happy foraging! Two great sources of information and recipes are: Backyard Foraging, by Ellen Zachos and Wild Plants I have Known…and Eaten, by Russ Cohen. YouTube is filled with helpful videos. A few I like include: How to harvest and Cook Garlic Mustard Shoots; Depression cooking: How to make dandelion salad; A wonderful intro to using knotweed from Leda Meredith; And to harvest violets, watch this first—Wild Violets: Beautiful, Edible Wildflowers. --Amy Janovsky