Foraging for Wild Greens in Spring

Foraging for wild greens, including culinary botany, shopping the back-yard supermarket and wild greens recipes.
By Bruce Woods
March/April 1988
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Day lilies are common refugees from long-forgotten flower gardens, and provide several fine foods.
PHOTO: RUNK SCHOENBURGER/GRANT HEILMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
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Wild greens waken winter-slowed blood with flavors of change for spring, includes culinary botany, foraging in the back-yard and wild greens recipes. (See the wild greens photos in the image gallery.)

Foraging for Wild Greens in Spring

At first it was a mystery. A small-town boy, cannonballing a Schwinn through the mud streets of his neighborhood, puzzled over the oldsters who, bent and dark-clothed, seemed to follow the melting snow across their greening lawns. I had a five-year-old's understanding of ethnic diversity, and a polite child's unwillingness to disturb the unfolding of this old-country ritual with my questions. At home, though, asking was encouraged.

"Dandelion greens," my mother explained. "They're supposed to be a spring tonic, to thin the blood. They're tasty, too."

"People eat them?" I was familiar enough with wild onions and berries to have skipped summer lunches in their favor, but this was different. We were talking weeds here.

"Sure. We'll try some tomorrow if you'd like."

And I've been gathering spring greens ever since.

Culinary Botany 

Hunting out, identifying, collecting, preparing and enjoying wild edible plants can be an immensely satisfying hobby. First (of course), it brings flavors and textures to your table that you might otherwise never enjoy. (And don't believe the so-called experts who claim that these foods are little more than survival fodder to be choked down in the face of starvation. I've served steamed lamb's-quarters to more than one fanatic gardener and had them decide that even home-raised, organically grown spinach pales by comparison.) Furthermore, in an age when many of us feel cut off from our roots and suffer a vague unease about our ability to belong in the world around us, learning to harvest carefully from the surrounding ecosystem can be a kind of investment in knowledge. It sinks anchors of its own. The pace of the seasons and the surge, flowering and decay of the floral natives neighboring us become absorbed along with the nutrients that riot in wild greens, adding a new color and depth to our perception of the world, whether we're actually in the field or simply scanning a roadside ditch while we drive to work.

On a more practical level, the hunter, back-packer or angler will begin to feel an increased comfort and capability as he or she sees that the forests, meadows and waterways are fully capable of providing food and shelter.

So consider the following information as a primer, a way to "get your feet wet" (as you surely will). Use sensible caution, don't ever eat a wild plant that you haven't positively identified with the help of a local expert or a couple of good field guides, and you may just find yourself hooked on a lifelong hobby, an activity that only incidentally puts food on your table.

Shopping the Back Yard Supermarket 

The plants described here can be substituted in almost any recipe calling for the more common garden greens and vegetables. Use dandelion leaves, lamb's-quarters or wild mustard in place of spinach; prepare day lily shoots like domestic greens, or substitute them for green beans or edible-podded peas.

Probably the simplest, and perhaps most rewarding, method of preparing any of the wildlings presented here is to steam them. Clean the leaves thoroughly (I like to soak them in enough water to cover, in order to bring any six-legged stowaways to the surface). Then place them in a steaming basket in a pan containing about an inch of water, cover, and heat until they reach the texture you prefer. Be sure to prepare enough; wild greens, like their domestic counterparts, cook down when steamed. Serve the vegetables with butter or, if you'd prefer, with hot pepper sauce. You'll feel the energy that drove these pioneers through the new spring's soil seeping into your winter-weary muscles.

A Few Almost Foolproof Wild Greens Finds

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) 

Common on lawns, disturbed ground, fields, pastures and so forth across most of North America, the dandelion is probably the most familiar of wild edible plants. Indeed, dandelion greens are often sold in urban produce markets. As with any wild greens, be sure to gather only those distant from heavily traveled roads, to avoid contamination from auto exhausts, and be sure, also, that the area being gathered from hasn't been treated with toxic herbicides or pesticides.

The greens are best when very young, and will be extremely bitter once the plant has flowered. The whitish blanched crowns of newly emerged dandelions-found at and just below the soil level-have the mildest flavor and are suitable for use in salads as well as in steamed or boiled recipes. The unopened flower buds, when still clutched in the leafy rosettes and before they reach up on their hollow stalks, can also be boiled and served as a vegetable. Dandelion leaves, like most wild greens, are an excellent source of vitamin A.

Wild Mustards (Brassica species) 

These uncultivated relatives of cabbage, kale and broccoli are widespread and are most often found in disturbed earth or "waste ground" (unused pasture, vacant lots and the like). There are a number of varieties, all of which share the distinctive clusters off our-petaled yellow flowers. (Winter cress, Barbarea vulgaris, resembles the mustards and is a prized wild green in the eastern half of the U.S.) As with most wild greens, gather these when young, before the plants flower. Mustards will, even then, be a bit sharp for some people's tastes when used in salads, but when steamed or included in any spinach/cabbage/kale recipe will appeal to fans of domestic greens, and may even convert a vegetable hater. The unopened flower buds can be prepared like broccoli, which they resemble in miniature. Once the blooms open, though, the taste of both flowers and leaves will be too bitter for most people. (A related plant, called "creecy," or "creasy," greens, is commonly sold in farmers' markets in the South. If you have a chance, give it a try.)

Lamb's-Quarters (Chenopodium album) 

Commonly called pigweed, this is yet another widespread wildling, found in fields, pastures and gardens across much of North America. And, in my opinion, the young leaves and plant tips of this Chenopodium make for the best steamed greens to be found anywhere. Lamb's-quarters will typically appear later than the other plants described here, but they're well worth the wait. Do be sure of your identification, because other members of the genus, Mexican tea (C. ambrosioides) and Jerusalem oak (C. botrys), should not be eaten. Fortunately, these two aromatic chenopods have a distinctive "painty" aroma when the leaves are crushed. (Still, double-check any identification of a wild food with a local expert or reliable field guide before first trying the dish.) If Iamb's-quarters invade your garden, be thankful, because these volunteers may well be superior in flavor to anything you planned to raise.

Day Lily (Hemerocallis fulva) 

Widely distributed, both in gardens and as a wild "escapee," day lilies are the odd-plant-out in our group; the new shoots (when one to three inches tall) are generally treated more like asparagus than a green. This is one "wild" food that is easily raised as a decorative landscape plant, and it's a versatile food source, too. The young shoots can be steamed, boiled or substituted for asparagus or green beans in any familiar recipe; the un-opened flower buds can also be prepared like beans (they're delicious, and delicate enough to require less cooking than green beans); the opened flowers can be batter-coated and used as fritters; and the white, early-spring tubers can be sliced as a crunchy addition to spring salads.

Cook Up Something Wild: Wild Greens Recipes

As with most freshly picked foods, wild edibles require little in the way of preparation; many enthusiasts feel that anything more than a gentle steaming adulterates the distinctive wild flavors. As you become more familiar with these nutritious vegetables, though, you may be moved to experiment. The following recipes should serve to start your own creative (and salivary) juices flowing.

Dandelion Frittata Recipe

1 cup fresh dandelion greens, rinsed and chopped
3 eggs
1/2 pound Monterey Jack cheese, grated
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, finely diced
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
 

Steam the greens and place in a large bowl. In a separate container, mix eggs, both cheeses, garlic, nutmeg and basil. Blend in dandelions, stir well, and add a dash of salt and pepper, if desired. Heat olive oil in a heavy iron skillet (8 inch to 10 inch diameter). When oil sizzles, pour in egg batter. As frittata begins to set, gently lift edges with a spatula to allow uncooked center to run onto pan. When frittata is cooked. through but not dry, fold in half and turn onto a plate. Top with more grated Parmesan cheese, and cut into wedges to serve 4.

Wild Mustard Colcannon Casserole Recipe

4 medium potatoes, cubed
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup milk
3 cups washed and chopped mustard greens
6 green onions, sliced
Salt and pepper
Parsley
Melted butter
 

Boil potatoes until tender, drain, and mash with 2 tablespoons butter and the milk. Simmer greens and onions in a small amount of water for 5 minutes, then drain thoroughly. Combine vegetables in a baking dish, season with salt, pepper, and parsley, if desired, and bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Top each serving with a dribble of melted butter. Serves 4.

Wilted Lamb's-Quarters Recipe

1/2 cup salad oil
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pepper
4 cups washed, drained lamb's-quarters
 

Saute onion in salad oil, over medium heat, in a skillet. Add vinegar, salt, pepper (to taste) and greens, then stir-fry until lamb's-quarters are limp. Serves 4.

Day Lily Shoots in Wine Recipe

2 pounds firm day lily shoots, rinsed
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup melted butter
112 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
 

Drop shoots into boiling water, cover, and reduce heat to simmer for 6-8 minutes. Stir wine into melted butter. Drain day lilies, place in a shallow baking dish, pour on butter sauce, add salt and pepper, and sprinkle cheese on top. Bake uncovered in a 425 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 10-15 minutes. Serves 6.


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