Cow Parsnip

Right now I’m just trying to get our wild greens delivery going, so I’m going to wait until later to tell you much more about cow parsnip, one of my favorite wild vegetables.

Cow parsnip gets huge–bigger than everything but ragweed you’re likely to see in South Central Wisconsin.  Its early greens taste like a cross between celery and fennel, but far better than either–and, like both those plants, it works best as a cooked vegetable, especially in soups.  Samuel Thayer reports that this plant is so widely used in traditional European cuisine that its name is the generic term for soup vegetables in many cultures (“borscht” is its Russian name, for example).

The flavor is intense, but it softens significantly if you add it to a soup or stew a few minutes before you pour in the stock, cooking it down slightly.  Try it in combination with spring root veggies like parsnip and slow-cooked onions, and you’ll enjoy a complex sweetness you won’t find anywhere else.

Stinging Nettle

It’s silly that I don’t have a picture here yet of stinging nettle, given its ubiquity, and the quantity we’ve harvested recently (the harvesting has interfered with photography for sure).  It’s a wonderful food plant, easy to gather in large quantities, and has been employed medicinally by European types for ages.  Incredibly nutrient-dense, it’s particularly useful for seasonal allergies; I’ve had multiple friends who’d gone through many medications for severe sensitivities, and the only thing that’s alleviated their suffering has been daily drinking of nettle tea.  It’s also incredibly high in iron, which makes it a great food plant for women.  If you can take the sting, it also helps with arthritis and muscle pain when you rub it on the sore area.  Nettles are a truly miraculous plant with great strength–they’re the only plant I’ve seen to build a wall against a garlic mustard invasion (maybe because of their shared root system, in combination with some other intrinsic qualities).  That’s a capability I want to investigate further through experimental observation.

In any case, I’m supposed to be primarily making a post on how to cook this plant.  When they’re only a few inches high, you can eat stinging nettles raw, if you’re bold.  I don’t do it much.  I tend to pan-fry them in olive oil or bacon fat, sprinkling it with a little water and a little salt. They’re even better with ramps or garlic greens.  Young nettles make a great soup; blend them in stock with cream.  I’ll update this post soon with a recipe for nettle malfatti, an Italian dumpling that knocks my socks off.

The main things to know are that nettles are better than spinach, and that frying, blending, blanching and drying for tea all dismantle the stingers.  Any recipe is likely to start with a 30-second dunk in boiling water.

More soon!

Sochan (cutleaf coneflower)

sochan1Rudbeckia lacinata is a prolific plant in prairie areas, especially near lakes and marshes, all around the Madison area.  Sochan has been an important food plant for the Cherokee in particular, and, once you get to know it, it’s easy to see why.  Young sochan shoots are delicious raw, and even better prepared simply, gently cooked in olive oil or bacon fat with a tiny amount of garlic and a little salt.  The flavor reminds me of green beans, but better, with a hint of the slight pepperiness (it’s not the right word–I’m searching for a good description) characteristic of its other edible cousins in the Aster family.

Each plant provides plenty of tender leaves, and cutleaf coneflower tends to grow in large clusters.  Later in its life cycle the leaves change shape and get pretty large, and cutting off the flower heads in the summer will bring on a fresh, secondary crop of leaves.  The larger and later leaves have a more pronounced “aster” flavor, and require more chopping and longer cooking, but they’re still delicious, and at this stage provide a lot more bulk.

In the spring, look for last year’s distinctive dried stalks and their seedheads.  If you get to know the plant later in its season one year, it becomes easy to recognize it at the beginning of the next season.  Sochan is great in soups and quiches, with eggs, or as a side dish on its own.  It’s a mild but flavorful wild green, well worth introducing to your diet.

For more on sochan, check out the Forager Chef’s site, and–as he’ll recommend–Samuel Thayer’s extensive account in his unsurpassed Incredible Wild Edibles.

Garlic Mustard

IMG_2222

“In this time” still means the burgeoning spring–and, in the midst of nationwide and worldwide worry and struggle with the effects of coronavirus on every scale, from individual health to economic crisis, getting outside and connecting with nature can benefit any of us who are able to do it.  Wild plants are bursting from the ground as they do every year, offering us powerful food-medicine to support strong and resilient bodies.  One of the first to appear is the nefarious, invasive, delicious and incredibly nutritious garlic mustard–and this is the best time of year to eat as much of it as we can.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) loves disturbed areas of all kinds, from forest understory overbrowsed by unchecked deer populations to empty lots.  It’s a member of the brassica family, along with broccoli, cabbage, and a huge number of our other most common domesticated food plants.  Garlic mustard, especially early in the season, has a great flavor when eaten raw–as its name suggests, there’s a nice balance of garlic/onion flavor and a little mustard-ey punch.  As conditions get hotter and the plant grows, it becomes spicier and more bitter–and as it persists into the autumn, it takes on a kind of “dirty” flavor that I find unpleasant.  By that point, though, I no longer crave garlic mustard anyway; there are plenty of other wild greens available.

I definitely prefer garlic mustard raw, as an addition to salads, or chopped and sprinkled atop salads, stir-fries, pasta, meat or soups.  Larger leaves make a nice wrap, analogous to stuffed grape leaves.  When cooked, the plant loses its pleasing spice quickly (like mustard greens in general), leaving mostly its bitter flavor.  If I cook it, it’s generally with other wild greens, like wintercress and young nettles.  I know a lot of people who love garlic mustard pesto; I haven’t personally fallen for it, though I like it better when I add nettles or dandelion.

Garlic mustard one of the most nutritious plants we can eat, exceeding all domestic greens (according to foraging expert John Kallas, PhD, in his wonderful and well-researched book Edible Wild Plants) in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc, and high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, manganese and iron.  It’s also rich in phytochemicals that the plant produces to repel insect pests, and we benefit greatly from these when we vary our diet with the seasons (some of these phytochemicals can be detrimental when consumed in large amounts for long periods of time, yet incredibly helpful in more limited doses).

As if these weren’t sufficient reasons for us to forage garlic mustard, doing so also helps our local ecosystems by discouraging the spread of a serious invasive.  In Europe, the plant’s native home, its populations are kept in check by natural predators.  Here, it thrives by overtaking disturbed areas, and is particularly damaging to forest understories.  Garlic mustard roots exude chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants and kill fungi on which plant roots depend (it’s been overtaking and reducing yields in our favorite morel patch over the last couple of years).  This is the perfect time to pick as much of it as we can, ideally uprooting it so it doesn’t resprout, which is easy when the ground’s wet from snowmelt and spring rains (the root, incidentally, can also be finely chopped or grated to make a horseradish-like condiment, though I find it a real pain to clean and trim, so I don’t do this often; I’ve processed garlic mustard root this way and steeped it in vinegar as one ingredient in an interesting spring hot sauce).

Garlic mustard plants in their second year start sending up flower stalks by mid-to-late April; if you catch it when it’s in flower, and it’s too hard to pull, snap off flower heads and eat them!  They’re delicious and spicy.  One detail and two cautions: the photo above is a fairly bad picture of the initial young leaves, which resemble ground ivy (Creeping Charlie) or young violet leaves.  As of this writing, I don’t have a good photo of the later, larger leaves, but they’re much more like elongated triangles.  There’s plenty of information out there on identifying garlic mustard.  The garlicky smell, when crushed, is a giveaway, though.

The first caution is to make sure you don’t help garlic mustard spread.  If you’re harvesting or pulling it in its flowering stage, be sure to clean off your shoes and brush your pants before leaving the area, so you don’t carry seeds into other places.  Also, it helps to leave uprooted plants–if you’re not eating all of them–in a spot (like a rock, log or sidewalk) where they’ll dry out and be unlikely to re-root.

The second caution: make sure no-one’s spraying your garlic mustard patch with herbicide before you eat or even touch it.  I’ve been in state park forests and natural areas a number of times and noticed the telltale blue stain of Roundup on garlic mustard leaves.  As always, when harvesting any plant for food, make sure you know enough about the area to be sure the ground isn’t full of poison from previous seasons.

When you’re out walking, whether it’s on a casual stroll or on a foraging expedition, take some time to help your local ecosystems and add a wonderful plant to your diet by pulling garlic mustard.  If enough of us do it for enough years in a row, we can render herbicides pointless and contribute to the health of plants, fungi, and human beings.

Wintercress

img_0410-1

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.