Many people see spring as the ultimate time for wild food, with tender greens like chickweed and violets and cooked greens like fresh young nettles. But there are plenty of wild edibles this time of the year, too. You just need to know what to look for! My friend and colleague Frank Cook used to say, “Eat something wild every day” and eating wild food nourishes our spirit in a way that can’t be explained by nourishing our “wild self.”
My most recent exploration into wild foods is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). An abundant plant over most of the eastern half of the U.S., it grows in fields and meadows in prolific abundance. Best known as the preferred plant of the monarch butterflies, it is also a tasty edible – as long as you know you have the right species. This is a tall plant with wide hairy leaves growing abundantly in fields. Some of the species that are native may have toxic glycosides, but they will also taste bitter, whereas common milkweed tastes like a yummy vegetable.
I had always been taught that this plant needs to be cooked in two changes of water, but Samuel Thayer set me straight. His excellent books on wild foods, “Nature’s Garden,” (2010) and “The Forager’s Harvest” (2006) go so far beyond other wild foods books there’s not really any comparison. And from his books I learned that rather than blanching the hell out of them, you can cook either the unopened buds, the shoots or the young seedpods either by steaming, boiling or even throw it in a stir-fry.
So last night I ate the young flower buds two different ways, first by boiling for just about 5 minutes and eating with a bit of butter and salt. This gave a sweet vegetable taste that reminded me of peas, but I can’t find the exact word for describing the flavor except for “Yummy.”
I also tried clipping the flower buds off the cluster and frying it with onions and asparagus, but the flavor got lost in the mix. Still, a great texture. For most of you reading this, you can probably find a nearby meadow or pasture and harvest as many flowers as you want to eat! Just don’t get that milky latex that leaks out of the stem on your nice pants. And wash your pruners or knife afterwards, or they will be sticky for days.
Another great edible this time of year is Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) which is a common weed of gardens throughout the U.S. This plant is in the same family as spinach, but it doesn’t have the same amount of iron as spinach. It has, in fact, about THREE TIMES as much!! In “Wild Edible Plants of New England” author Joan Richardson says it “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A.”
As the season goes on, it gets eaten up, so when it gets to be about 2-3 feet tall, I cut it back and cook it up (it is also excellent but like spinach contains some oxalic acid which can contribute to kidney stones if eaten in excess). I cook it in soups or add it in after my kale has been cooking for 10 minutes because it cooks pretty quickly. Also great in stir-fries with other veggies.
Another great idea for getting wild greens into your diet is pesto. Most folks are stuck on the idea of pesto being about basil, but you can use whatever greens you like. One of my favorites is a spring-time nettles-chickweed pesto, which to me is the taste of spring (you could still enjoy it time of year up north perhaps, but it is too late here in NC). Lambsquarters makes a great pesto, mixed with some fresh olive oil, pecans and garlic. Don’t get hung up on the pine nuts either, by the way – though my favorite nut is pecans, you can save some bucks by using sunflower seeds or walnuts too.
So hopefully that gets you started on the wild foods train this summer. What are your favorite edible plants of summer? Leave a comment below and maybe I’ll cover it in the next blog!