A few years ago, during our daughter Addie’s senior year at the University of Chicago (yes, the Green Barbarian Lifestyle does produce fantastically brilliant and beautiful children, both of whom graduated from the University of Chicago, and thank you for noticing!), she managed to acquire one of the very scarce community garden plots available near the University. By the time she took possession, most of the other plots had already been planted, and hers was knee deep in weeds, many of which she harvested and brought home, much to the amazement of her roommates, who had never heard of, much less eaten, lambs-quarters, (Chenopodium album) which is one of our family’s favorite greens.
Ever since my husband and I first started harvesting and eating lambs-quarters (pictured above) about 30 years ago, we have not bothered planting spinach, because not only are lambs-quarters cheap, easy, and abundant in the garden, like many wild relatives of cultivated vegetables, they are also more nutritious than their domesticated kin. And, since they contain far less oxalic acid, I find lambs-quarters much tastier than spinach.
But I digress. Addie and her roommates were mutually astonished. Up until that moment, she hadn’t realized that most Americans do not eat weeds, and perhaps, because of our family’s attitude towards the edible volunteers that come up in our garden, she hadn’t really thought of lambs-quarters as a weed: It was simply our favorite spring green, which we steamed and ate with mayonnaise; sautéed in olive oil with garlic and onions; cooked in an omelet; or added to soups. (Every spring, when I do the first major weeding — which is mostly done with an eye towards stocking the freezer — I pull the lambs-quarters out by the roots, snip the root ends off with a scissors, and put the stalks in a colander. Once indoors, I pluck the most tender, healthiest leaves off the stems, and freeze the leaves in freezer bags so that all winter long I can add lambs-quarters to my soups.)
Two of my very favorite wild greens come up a bit later than lambs-quarters: stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), a perennial plant that I brought with me when we moved, and purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which grows like a weed everywhere that there is rich soil.
Anyone who has ever come into close personal contact with a nettle plant may, at this point, be wondering politely why anyone would purposefully plant nettles in their garden, or perhaps wondering somewhat less politely whether I have lost my mind. The truth of the matter is that nettles (pictured directly above) lose their sting when they are either cooked or dried, and are so incredibly tasty and nutritious, either as tea or in soup, that our nettle patch never manages to produce enough to keep up with us. Every year I don gloves and cut stalks in the spring, put the nettles loosely in paper bags, and put the bagged nettles in our warm study to dry. Once the leaves are completely dry, I crumble them into jars and label them. I harvest several times during the spring and summer, and make sure to cut off the seed heads and dry them along with the greens, partly because the seeds are quite nutritious, and partly because, though I love nettles, I like to keep them from migrating to other spots in the yard where they might ambush my bare legs.
Purslane (pictured directly above) is a ground-hugger that is so succulent and delicious that when I see it I want to hug the ground that produced it. Purslane is also perhaps the best vegetable source of the much-coveted omega 3 fatty acids that are also found in fatty fish such as salmon. Researchers at the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC, analyzed the nutritional composition of purslane, and compared it to spinach: Purslane is a nutritional powerhouse, and won the nutrition contest hands down, with more omega 3s, more vitamin E and more vitamin C. The purslane and salmon salad that I make can give you a huge nutritional jolt:
Salmon and Purslane Salad Recipe
1 can salmon
1 cup mature purslane leaves, stripped off the stems (immature leaves contain more oxalic acid, and are thus less nutritious)
1 very small onion, sliced thin
Chopped fresh herbs to taste (I like thyme and oregano, but Walt prefers dill)
Vinaigrette salad dressing
Drain the salmon and put it in a mixing bowl. Add the onion slices, the purslane leaves and the fresh herbs. Mix in vinaigrette salad dressing to taste. Serve.
Top photo by Flickr/frankenstoen; middle photo by Fotolia/termis1983; bottom photo by Ellen Sandbeck