19 April 2012

Foraging Ahead

I've been on a mission to find ramps, wild leeks.  The delicacy featured in all my food magazines must be somewhere on the property.  It would be a cruel joke for nature to deny me the elusive ramp when we live in prime ramp-growing conditions.  After almost falling in the creek and definitely falling in a patch of burrs, I'm miserably failing my mission.  However, my search for ramps has led me to thinking about other wild plants on which we could possibly dine.

I thought these were ramps.  They're not, but those are definitely burrs.

I am admittedly late to the wild edible plant party.  As I've been waiting to harvest our first spring crops, it occurred to me that perhaps there are culinary uses to all the plants I was relentlessly discarding as I cleared garden beds for planting.  I remember my sister-in-law talking about the nutritious qualities of dandelion greens and I vaguely remember reading about the superior nutritional quality of lamb's quarters and purslane in Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  It turns out that I am surrounded with wild, edible, nutritious plants we all commonly refer to as weeds.  There are dozens of wild edibles in our garden, by the creek, and in the various pastures on the property.  After reading about them and looking at loads of photos to safely identify them, I've started experimenting with several obvious plants: dandelion, lamb's quarters, and stinging nettles.

yep, dandelion is edible and not half bad

Dandelion has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for centuries.  There are established dandelion culinary traditions  in Europe as well as the U.S.  All parts of the plant are edible.  Upon reading nutritional information from several resources, I found that one serving contains over 30 % of daily vitamin C, over 100% of daily vitamin A, approximately 10% of daily calcium, and  9% iron.  They are full of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals.   

how unassuming

This is of course terribly ironic given that Americans spend time, money, and effort eliminating a nutritious plant from their yards while maintaining the high-maintenance inedible lawn.  We have a health crisis in our country and we are spraying toxic chemicals on nature's spring tonic. Think about how perfect it is: we spend months without fresh vegetables in colder climates and with the first hint of spring emerges a plant loaded with necessary nutrients.  Rather than eating it, we kill it and then go to the grocery store to buy inferior products shipped in from all over the country and world to get these nutrients when it is literally in our own backyard.  Go ahead and fill in the blank on your own as to what that means in terms of sustainability, economy, and ecology.  

For those of you still reading I'll end the social commentary section of the program and move to the delicious part.  After reading enough about eating dandelion on the internet to ensure I wasn't going to kill my family with dinner, I went to the unweeded garden bed and harvested a heaping bowl of dandelion greens.  The main caveat in eating dandelion or any wild edible for that matter is to make sure it's in a chemical-free area.  You don't want to eat them out of a chemically treated/fertilized yard or from an area near busy roads. Also, harvest the leaves before the flower blooms.  As with any green the leaves become bitter once it flowers.

rinsed and dried dandelion greens

I introduced dandelion greens to the family palate as I would any other dark green vegetable.  I sauteed it in olive oil with garlic and peperoncini and garnished it with sea salt.  It was very good--slightly more bitter than kale or escarole.  It would nicely balance something sweet like mild sausage, pork chops, balsamic onions, roasted carrots, or sweet potato.

I also liked that they wind around the fork like spaghetti if unchopped
I tried it in a smoothie next.  I saw a lot of information about how it aids in weight loss so I was prepared to eat it, drink it, and bathe in it.  You can add just about anything to a fruit and yogurt smoothie and it will be good.  This one was sweet, creamy, with just a touch of lawn.

Lamb's quarters are also a nutritional powerhouse

one of many patches of lamb's quarters currently occupying the garden

A three-ounce serving of raw lamb's quarters (which would be very easy to mix into a salad or stir-fry) has three grams of protein, 195% of the daily allowance of vitamin A, 111% of the daily vitamin C, 27% daily calcium, and 6% of daily iron.   They aren't bitter like dandelion--a milder green in the vein of spinach.  We had a combination of the greens in pesto over capellini and on pizza with mozzarella di bufala and parmesan.

really, what isn't good blended with olive oil and tossed with parmesan?

the dandelion and lamb's quarter mix is a nice balance of bitter and mild

There were a few other experiments such as black beans and rice (good use for the Easter ham bone) with the greens and a batch of dandelion flower fritters.

beer-battered dandelion flower fritters

Also, it was necessary to do the obvious--a salad with wild edibles mixed in.  The dressing is a vinaigrette made with dandelion flower syrup.  It's a nice bright balance to the bitter edge of early spring greens.

baby arugula, dandelion, lamb's quarters, chard, spinach, violet, and homemade rye croutons

I was beginning to feel pretty confident about my new foraging skills and wanted to venture into more dangerous territory.  After reading about the benefits of eating stinging nettles, I decided it was time to identify and harvest the plant equivalent of the jellyfish.  Stinging nettles will burn and leave a rash if touched with bare skin.  They will also burn your mouth if eaten raw, but the young leaves and shoots can be eaten after a few minutes of blanching.  Although there are risks, the nutritional payoff of stinging nettles is great.  Most significantly, a cup of nettles has three times the daily allowance for vitamin A, is rich in iron, and provides 30-40% of the daily recommended amount of calcium. 

stinging nettles by the creek
After carefully identifying, snipping, and rinsing, I blanched and drained the leaves.  Before actually trying one I really wanted to make sure I had positively identified it.  I strongly debated rubbing a raw leaf on my skin to ensure it was the correct plant.  My inner wimp won and I opted to have my father-in-law identify it instead.  I'm happy to save myself the stinging sensation and I'm sure it provided him with entertainment as well.  The stinging nettles ended up in a ricotta-parmesan filling for some hurried ravioli with a scallion butter sauce.  I rarely make ravioli and forgot how good the homemade version are.

basic dough: 1.5 cups flour, 3 eggs, salt

filling: blanched and chopped stinging nettles, ricotta, parmesan

assembled ravioli sealed with fork tines

boiled and drizzled with scallion brown butter

The idea of wild edibles is exciting for several reasons.  First, many are abundant and obviously, free.  In an age where we pay more for organic, nutritious vegetables than exotic foods or a package of ground beef, it's refreshing to know that nutritious foods are truly available to everyone.  Also, imagine the resources saved by eating wild edibles: fuel, shipping, packaging, labor.  It's a nice lesson in economy and ecology.  Lastly, it's a return to a basic and simple food relationship of nature providing that which nourishes us.  Obviously, it's nice to be able to grow cultivated crops.  We live in a region that can a sustain a variety of foods although we will sadly never have our own olive oil or Nebbiolo vines, but perhaps I won't notice as much once I get my hands on some ramps.      


  1. giana, i love reading your blog! i feel like i'm reading the beginning of the next midwest version of Pioneer Woman. :)

    and "with just a touch of lawn" gave me a good chuckle.

    -nancy b

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy! I appreciate the compliment. This whole project gives us a lot of chuckles! It's a lot more like the Pioneer Three Stooges.

  2. You never cease to surprise me...
    Just a touch of lawn!

  3. I just bought a big bunch of dandelion greens, thanks to you! Thanks for the suggestions. I think I'm going to throw some in the Vitamix with oranges, limes, turmeric, fizzy water, and whatever else I have lying around.

    1. Cool! Let me know how juicing goes! Great idea :)

  4. This is a masterpiece. Pure genius. You have fantastic writing skills and make dull stuff interesting. I've written several books, but if I could write like you I would have had hundreds of books published by now.You are obviously also a skilled photographer. This is enjoyable reading. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you for such kind compliments, Kaare. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  5. If you can't beat the weeds, eat them...or something like that. They actually look good in your pictures, but really, I think anything you cook would look good!

    1. Thanks, Jan! I started to feel bad when I had to mulch over them! My cooking habit necessitates a running habit--glad we've met!

  6. Incredible blog! Thanks, RP. I will definitely try the dandelions...the nettles don't say "eat me" although you sre made a terrific feast from the bouquet. Love the reminder that the leaves are bitter after the plant flowers. Thanks to you...and to your Aunt Roberta for your blog info.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I don't think the nettles will be a staple in our diet either, but it was fun to try :)

  7. Great information. Living here in the farmland of Northern Indian I can still forage as well but had not thought to do so. Thanks G!

    1. Thanks for reading, Siss! I bet you have some good finds in IN. Hoping to get my hands on some morels this season :)

  8. You really are going back to those Italian Roots! Took a ravioli making class the other night. Must say mine did not look nearly as good as yours. Thanks for the "delicious" writing.