Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wild Buffet: Part 1: Common weeds you can eat!

We’ve heard the term forage or famine foods before, but for those readers not familiar with the term, both typically denote plants that can be eaten but typically are not at the top of the list for obvious reasons. In this two part series I’ll be covering a few weeds that are easily found in most landscapes that can be eaten and how best to do so. In the first installment of this series the eight weeds are common plants found across a good sized area of the eastern coast. Each weed has at least one recipe and a little information on how to find, cultilvate and of couse in what quantities theya re safe to eat.
Chickweed – Stellaria media
Star Chickweed - S. pubera
James Chickweed – S.  jamesiana

The chickweed group of plants are a common cool-season weed seen in moist soils often competing successfully with lettuce, cabbage and other cool season crops you may be already growing.  The good news is that chickweed happens to make for a good green manure and cool season cover crop if kept in reasonable boundaries. Another advantage is that the entirety of the plant is edible, bearing a mild flavor and chickweed plants have no poisonous look-alikes.  Generally one can eat the new growth of chickweed as a salad green with no ill effects, of boil for 2-5 minutes as a tender cooked green. It is suggested that chickweed be prepared with a bit of butter, light seasoning and garlic and or onions.

Sheep Sorrel - Rumex acetosella
Curled Dock/Sour Dock/Yellow Dock - Rumex crispus

The dock family bears several distinct food plants two of which are commonly considered weeds when in fact they both bear useful traits.
Sheep sorrel bears a sour flavor which makes it ideal to add flavor to salads in the absence of a good dressing. Also the leaves of sheep sorrel can be used to produce a beverage by boiling 1 cup of loosely packed leaves per quart of water for 2-3 minutes. After boiling cover and allow the leaves to steep for 15 minutes then strain and add a sweetener to taste. Also it is possible to boil the leaves of sheep sorrel in 2-3 changes of water to make a pleasantly sour pot herb that can be used as a side-dish, added with other cooked greens or used with fish, vegetables or any grain dish. Sour dock on the other hand should be cooked for roughly 10 minutes using less water then one would normally use for a green like cabbage or spinach.  Any new greens cooked this way have a flavor resembling Swiss chard especially if onion and salt or merely garlic is added. Older leaves of Sour dock need more cooking to become palatable, and should be cooked longer and thus may need more water changes overall to reduce sour flavor. Sour dock tends to pair well with greasy foods such as butter, bacon, fatback, fried eggs ect. As a final note, the seeds of sour dock can be hulled, winnowed, and ground to make workable flour, but the effort put into this is prohibitive. Lastly, be cautious of the amount of dock ingested in any sitting or in a given day as large amounts of leaves may cause an upset stomach.

Henbit – Lamium amplexicaule

Henbit is a common weed in gardens, at this time it’s a small weed that often is hard to spot and is often mistaken for chickweed. The visual difference becomes apparent with maturity, as henbit has square stems, lobed leaves and purple-lavender flowers that when open clearly identify it is in the mint family. Interestingly enough, henbit has hollow stems which seem to facilitate its sprawling habit. What makes henbit useful is that the new growth of henbit is absolutely edible, and this plant has no poisonous look-alikes. Generally the new growth is cooked as a potherb with other mixed greens and light seasoning. However a good recipe for Henbit is to chop 4 cups of henbit, cover with water, then boil for 10 minutes. In a separate pot or pan melt 3 tablespoons of butter, add 1 teaspoon curry powder, 2 whole cloves, and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Stir and cook the spice mixture for about a minute until warm and well mixed then stir in 2 teaspoons flour and cook another minute. Finally add one cup of the ‘broth’ from the pot with the henbit, and stir until smooth.  Finally mix the contents of the spice mixture with the henbit, and add ¾ of a cup sour cream then simmer gently for 15 minutes. Let me tell you this recipe for all its complexity is gourmet worthy!

Japanese Knotweed – Polygonum cuspidatum

Japanese knotweed or Mexican bamboo is now known as Fallopia japonica to most horticultural experts. This aggressive and invasive seed is a non-native species that is commonly found near riverbanks. The roots of Japanese knotweed can extend for upwards of nine meters while the stalks can easily reach up to four meters if left undisturbed. However the flowers of Japanese knotweed are a preferred course of pollen for honey bees and, despite the plants invasive habits it can effectively stop erosion on river banks. As for culinary uses, as it turns out this knotweed’s young shoots can be cooked and eaten exactly like asparagus. In fact most recipes for Japanese knotweed involve serving it like asparagus too! You can make a fine casserole out of the cooked shoots, bread crumbs, grated cheese, cream, ands seasonings. This ‘wilderness’ casserole should be baked at 390 degrees until the top is browned evenly. You can also peel older stalks and use like rhubarb, in any dish that calls for rhubarb.  Lastly the shoots can be used to make sauce if 4 cups peeled and cut shoots are combined with a cup of sugar with nutmeg added. The resulting mix should be summered until soft and served either hot or chilled and served cold as needed.

Pigweed – Amaranthus retroflexus
Green Pigweed – A. hybridus

Pigweed is a common sight in the United States and may even have reach beyond North America. It is noted by the USDA that pigweed is one of the first weeds to display noticeable resistance to common herbicides especially roundup.  Pigweed and green pigweed are useful as a potherb requiring about 10-20 minutes worth of simmering becoming tender after which one can season to taste.  Fresh young leaves and growth may be used as a primary component of salad greens. The leaves can be dried for future use in soups and, the seeds may be harvested and ground into light flour.

As a final note, always make sure of your identification of the plants listed below if you are planning to try any of the noted recipes. While we at LITFM tried to pick plants with no poisonous look-alikes nature itself does not read the books we do nor does it put the same things in everyone's yards.  As always be careful, and if you are in doubt seek professional help, as the last thing anyone wants is the risk of accidental ingestion of something particularly nasty.  In next week's article we will be covering some unusual plants that could be called weeds that have useful aspects as forage plants.

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