The spicy, horseradish-y flavor of peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) sneaks up on you. When my foraging tour participants first taste it, their response is ho-hum. Then a moment later their eyes widen. “Oh, wow, that’s delicious, really mustardy…”
The seeds are the most flavorful part of the plant (I’m saying “seeds,” but really I’m referring to the whole little flat, round, edible seedpod). The leaves – narrow and linear near the top, up to 3 inches long and lobed near the bottom of the plant – are also edible, with an arugula-like pungency.
At the tips of the branching stems you’ll find the seed heads, often with a few of the minute, four-petaled white flowers on their tips. The seedpods are tiny flat discs with a notch on one side, and they are arranged along the stalks like the bristles of a bottle brush.
The optimal stage to harvest peppergrass seedpods for flavor is when they are still green. Once they turn tan they lack flavor. The seedpods are easy to strip off the stalks: just hold the growing tip (where the flowers are) with one hand and gently pull downwards towards the stem base with your other hand. With this method, you can strip off a good quantity of peppergrass in very little time.
Remember what I told you about how the flavor of peppergrass isn’t noticeable until you’ve chewed it for a while? For that reason, I don’t use it whole in recipes, but either grind it or use it in recipes that require some chewing.
You can dry peppergrass for winter use. To do this, leave the seeds on the stalks. Fasten small bundles of the stalks with rubberbands and hang them to dry someplace away from direct light or heat. In about a week, strip the seedpods off as described above. Store them in clean, dry jars for up to 3 months (alas, they lose most of their flavor if stored for longer than that).
Although Lepidium virginicum is a native plant, it is not intentionally planted in North American parks or gardens. Instead, it shows up as a “weed.” Sustainability is not an issue with this wild spice.
Peppergrass Chermoula Recipe
Chermoula is a North African marinade that is usually used with seafood. It is also wonderful on steamed vegetables and mixed into whole grain salads.
• 1 large clove garlic, peeled OR several underground field garlic bulbs
• 1 tbsp fresh green peppergrass seedpod discs
• 1 small hot pepper
• 1/2 cup fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves
• 1/4 – 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/2 tsp salt
1. Place the garlic, peppergrass, chile pepper, and cilantro in a food processor and pulse to finely chop.
2. Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl with a spatula and pulse again (repeat a few times to end up with a more or less evenly minced mixture).
3. Alternatively, finely chop the garlic, chile and cilantro. Pound them together with the peppergrass with a mortar and pestle.
4. Add the salt and 1/4 cup of the olive oil and blend. You want to have a slightly liquid paste.
5. Add more olive oil if needed. Chermoula will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months
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