I’ve been telling people over the last couple of weeks–as the late-February insanity nibbles at my spirit in the same way it does for so many of us–how grateful I am that an obsession with wild food makes the best seasons longer. I used to avoid speaking of “spring” until the truly lovely days of early May were nearly upon us, knowing that we’d almost inevitably have a chilly, muddy April with a likely snow or two in it.
Today I’m looking at the crusty snow that won’t outlast the sun of the next week, and getting ready to tap some trees for sap and, ultimately syrup (mostly maple, and hopefully some black walnut as well). Tree syrup is one of the great natural gifts; for so much of our species’ history, sugar has been a rare and valuable source of calories, and a precious blessing for the palate. I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and I love to imagine a life in which all of it comes from trees, bees, and seasonal fruit–not because it would feel more “pure,” but because it would feel more special.
But, as the title of this post indicates, I digress. This isn’t about the sweets–it’s about the bitters, the pungency, the cleansing and nourishing gifts of early greens. As soon as the snow melts over the next few days, I know I’ll be able to walk in prairie strips all around town and harvest wintercress at its best.
Wintercress is a mustard family plant that holds up well under the snow and ice, and grows pretty prolifically during warmer winter weather. It’s at its best immediately after the snow melts, around this time of year, and it’s also great right when its flower stalks have shot up, but the flowers haven’t opened yet. Last year, that was in early May, when the shoots can be cooked “like broccoli” (the growth stage represented in the picture–earlier you find wintercress as a “basal rosette,” a circle of compound leaves, close to the ground, with no central stem).
I wouldn’t eat the leaves then, though. Right at the beginning of the season, wintercress has an utterly unique flavor I can’t compare with anything else: a bit of mustard sharpness, the threat of intense bitterness that doesn’t quite play out, and a deep green taste and odor more delicious than any cultivated leafy vegetable I can think of. Within a few weeks of warming temperatures, eating raw wintercress leaves will give you all those flavors–but they’ll give way to a bitterness so intense that you’ll likely run to eat just about anything that will wipe out the suffering to which you’ve subjected your tongue. There are cultures and individuals that tolerate this experience very well, and even enjoy it. For many of us, though, including myself, wintercress after the first good weeks is only tasty as a cooked green. I boil it for five to seven minutes, drain it, cover it with ice-cold water, squeeze out the liquid, and sautee it, usually with bacon, onion, and a little cider vinegar and maple syrup. It’s delicious. Even in its extremely bitter stage, it’s a serious nutrient rush, especially in that interim stage between winter and spring, in which so many of us get sick, or at least tired and weakened.
You can keep harvesting wintercress throughout the year, as long as you like it, or can render it palatable by cooking it right or mixing it with other wild greens (like dandelion, sochan, cow parsnip, nettle or goosefoot). It’s a pretty easy plant to learn, and–as soon as you start to recognize it–you’ll find it all over in prairie areas, at least here in the upper Midwest. Eat it for a season, and the smell of your boiling winter harvests will evermore return you to the previous spring, and get your body ready for the year in a way no juice bar smoothie can.