Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Eating wild foods from your own back yard - in real life.

Wild foods, or 'weeds' as some call them, you gotta love them. They're free, and they're generally way more nutritious than most garden vegetables. You can wander the countryside to forage for them, you can cozy up to your local organic farmer and offer to weed his garden to get them, or you can just stop mowing your lawn and see what comes up. I do all three, have done for a while now. Here's some of what I've learned.

Once in a while someone sends me a link to a how-to-cook wild food site and I'm sorry, but most of them just make me cringe. Wild food doesn't have to be gourmet (why would it?). Wild food (usually) doesn't have to be cooked in several changes of water to be palatable or safe, either. Wild food is just food. Sometimes it's strong tasting (fiddle heads), sometimes subtle (chickweed). Sometimes wild fruit is tangier than our palates are used to - that's why we invented jam - but we do get used to it. If we can't, then we leave it be. No one HAS to eat wild plums.

Every one of these little gems creates its own unique flavour explosion in the mouth.

When most of us start out on this wild path, we're understandably gung ho. We spend our winters with our noses in books (or browsing the web) and get some pretty romantic notions about roots and berries and mushrooms. Now while I never got into the mushrooms (I am convinced I will pick the wrong ones and poison someone and cannot be convinced otherwise) I sure did fall for the roots and berries part.

Then came reality. Picking berries is often a blood sport (not that it deters me), and roots are not all they're cracked up to be, food wise.

Dandelion roots, for example. The average garden may seem to hold a plenitude, but once you start digging them up and find how small the roots often are, or how easily they snap off in the ground and out of reach, you'll see it just won't be possible to get very many meals out of your supply. If I get a couple of cups' worth of dandelion root, that's maybe enough to add to one pot of soup (with other things, of course). Or, I can cover it with vodka, wait 6 weeks and get half a winter's worth of dandelion root tincture, the best 'digestif' in the world.

There are some wild foods I just don't bother with any more because they are too. much. freaking. work. Have you ever tried to dig up a burdock root? I have. It's a lot of sweat and toil. If you want to eat burdock root on a regular basis, you can actually buy it at a store, they call it 'gobo'. I tincture burdock root for medicine because I get more bang for my buck that way. I don't eat burdock stems any more, either. They're bitter, they're a fiddle to prepare, if you miss that 2 day window of opportunity where they're right for the picking, they're inedible. I might get drummed out of the guild for saying this, but as much as I value burdock for many, many reasons, as an every day food isn't one of them.

If we're discussing roots, I suppose we have to talk about sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, (of which the edible bits are actually tubers but that's close enough). Sunchokes are a sore point with me due to their, ahem, exuberant growth habit. I adore them roasted, I love them fermented, but I do not appreciate that they roam through the yard as they do - mine killed a perfectly nice patch of mint. Mint! Who knew anything could kill mint?? Plant them and you have as much as you can use for life. Oh let's be honest, plant them and you get far, far more than you can use over the course of your and your family' natural lifetimes, in fact, for one can only eat so many sunchokes. They, too, can be bought in a store, a less dangerous if less satisfying way to get your chokes. They were growing wild in a corner of our yard when we bought this place, and I moved them to a "better" spot at the height of my gung-ho stage. That was an error on my part, and after several years I finally have them (somewhat) eradicated again. But I didn't have the heart to boot them all out .. I have this theory that if I allow at least some to have their own patch, they'll stop trying to come up everywhere else. We'll see about that.  I have the true wild ones; store bought chokes are a different variety. The flavour and keeping qualities of the wild are superior - but danger abounds if you plant either, so beware.

Now for a quick look at the leafies. That's food I can really use every day without much sweat and toil.

Again, though, let's bust a couple of myths I've seen on the glossy, wild-food-porn sites.

Dandelion greens - I mean the wild ones, not the store bought, blanched, greenhouse grown domesticated pretenders - are an acquired taste. In the spring before the plants bloom they have a sweetness to them, then a bite of bitterness; they satisfy both body and soul. Once they're big and tough they're all bite, very little sweet. Personally, I consider them irresistible as a "field nibble" no matter the time of year. There's a certain "wow, this feels like it's sooo good for me" rush in eating dandelion leaves, raw, outside, that I just don't get from dandelions in a meal. But sometimes I'm in the mood to have them cooked, so I include them with other greens and lots of onions to counter some of the bitterness. Because nothing says "oops" like a dish overpowered with bitter dandelion. I would never (ever) dream of (as some writers suggest) parboiling them, throwing away that mineral rich water then re-cooking them. That's how to create a dish that's denuded of nearly all nutrients. What's the point of that?

Where dandelion greens excel - as do leaves of other bitters, like yellow dock or even, if you're brave, young burdock - is steeped in apple cider vinegar for 6 weeks, strained and the results used as a dressing. For salad, on rice, where ever vinegar works, these wild & crazy greens add pizazz without over powering. As a bonus, the bone building minerals leech into the vinegar; your salad dressing now adds value, not just flavour, to your meal.

Do NOT ferment dandelion greens! I tried that; it was one of my more spectacular failures. A story for another day.

Stinging nettles are my favourite wild green, as regular readers are well aware. But in spite of having my own patch as well as access to them in the wild and our friendly neighbourhood organic farmer's garden, I never have enough to serve them as I've seen pictured, as a side dish. No glistening, butter drenched piles of stinging nettles on our plates. Like spinach, nettles shrink, a LOT, when cooked. In fact, all the wild greens shrink when cooked, and there is never enough of any single one to make glistening, butter drenched piles of anything on our plates.

In real life we end up combining whatever greens we can find that day. What's available now won't be available next week, some days there's hardly anything, some days you're up to your neck in lamb's quarters. You can mix them with 'regular' veggies of course, why not? That's also a great way to get kids and reluctant mates used to wild food. Tell them after they've had seconds.

Yesterday's pickings, for example, a typical late spring mix from weed patch and garden; a dozen or so tender tops of stinging nettle, a few young comfrey leaves, a smidge of cleavers, a trimming or two of parsley, some garlic chives, and several tender, so young they still had a blush of pink to them, wild grape leaves. (mmmmm).

The best way to clean the grit out of your greens, by the way, is to put them in a bowl of water on the counter for a while. This allows the bugs to escape as well. (They don't tell you that on the food porn sites, do they!)

Once all those greens were chopped, they started to shrink. What began as a mid-sized salad bowl's worth was now maybe 2 cups. It might not look like much, but bearing in mind that wild greens can have 4 or 5 times the nutrient value of that "superfood" kale, there's a lot of good stuff in there.

So here's what I did: I lined a pie plate with cooked brown rice. I added a layer of black beans. I shredded, then sauteed the wild greens with a diced onion, some garlic, a few mushrooms and tossed in a few kernels of frozen corn for colour and put that on top of the beans. Then I grated some sharp cheese, tossed that with some cayenne, mixed in some breadcrumbs, and made that the top layer. I baked it in the oven until the fragrance wafting from the oven made our mouths water and the cheese/breadcrumb topping turned golden brown.

The result was not elegant - this is not food porn, this is real life - but man it was good.

LOL! I can't believe I'm posting this .. but it was so good! Served with a salad, some fermented veggies and tahini. I had leftovers for breakfast with an egg on top,


  1. Sounds yummy. Too bad you can't ship that...

  2. Yummy yummy! Agree to that, Ed! Yesterday, I was grazing as well. Dandy leaves, then an end piece of fennel, on to a few baby leaves of borage, a small sprig of rosemary and, of course for dessert, a few young leaves of chocolate mint. Yep, mostly planted by yours truly but I get to do that anyday, anytime. Just love hunting and pecking like Hannah, my hen! Ha ha

  3. I tried to comment from my iPad. I don't think it worked; am I right!?

    Anyhow, I just noticed wild plums on a walk near my childhood home last year! I was so tickled! I didn't realize there were wild plums. Are they native to N. America, I wonder?

    As far as dandelions go, I've heard to eat them in the early spring. But they can be eaten at any time? Just the taste is more bitter?


    1. Yes, the wild plums you were seeing are probably native, although there are also escapees from old gardens.

      Yes, on the dandelion leaves too. But that bitterness of the older leaves means they can be a bit harsh on our bodies if eaten in quantity. More is not always better, right?

    2. Ha! No! More is not always better! Thanks!