There are more than 60 species of oak trees in North America, and every one of them produces edible acorns — but, when was the last time you had a slice of hand-milled acorn flour bread? If you are like me, maybe never.
Our forests, vacant lots and backyards are teeming with delicious opportunities to put wild foods on the dinner table. You just have to know what to look for and — such as with acorn flour — how to prepare the wild plants you find for safe consumption.
Purslane is a vigorous, succulent “weed” once routinely cursed by gardeners. Now, not surprisingly if you’ve ever tasted it, purslane can be found on the menu of many fine dining restaurants throughout the country. It’s somewhat crunchy with a slight lemony taste, and can be substituted for spinach in many recipes. It packs a nutrient punch as well, delivering vitamin E and essential omega-3 fatty acid (would you believe as much linolenic acid as river trout?). Try adding some purslane to pestos or as a thickener in soups. Learn more in Power-Packed Puslane and Edible Weeds.
Miner’s lettuce has been a star in the foraged fine food world, with Chez Panisse featuring it on its menu. But this “lettuce” gained wide appeal with the forty-niners, who found themselves salad-starved after moving West during the gold rush. Miner’s lettuce is rich in vitamin C and grows in forests, along streams and at the base of cliffs. It will be perfect along with other wild edibles, sow thistle, watercress and waterleaf, in this Wild Wilted Salad recipe.
Would lawn-mowing yard-tenders be so quick to chop down dandelions if they knew their weight-loss value? Researchers are finding that regular use of dandelion roots and greens does stimulate the liver to produce more bile, aiding in digestion and especially of fat. Every part of the dandelion besides seeds and stalk are useful. Dig up roots anytime and boil them like parsnips (or, believe it or not, roast chopped roots until dark brown in the oven to be ground and used as a coffee substitute). Shred flowers for color and nutrition in salads. Freeze flowers in ice cubes for a novel addition to summer cocktails. And, since we’re drinking, try your hand at making this dandelion wine.
Poke weed is a not-so-distant memory from grandma’s table, but is rarely featured in the modern spread. It’s high time to change that since, while poke weed is difficult to cultivate in the garden, it’s one of the first “weeds” to pop up in spring. Find it in pastures and backyards beside fence posts or dirt piles. The baby shoots’ stems can be sautéed like asparagus in olive oil or butter with some garlic and a dash of lemon juice. But catch it before it matures, since seeds and berries are poisonous! Of course, the most traditional way to use poke weed is in a poke sallet.
As a final note, know your sources. Pesticides and herbicides can render your wild food finds unpalatable. For example, you’ll want to harvest dandelions from lawns you know are not sprayed with chemicals. Similarly, harvest wild foods as far away from roadsides as possible and steer clear of watercress from polluted streams. Mostly, don’t be discouraged. Check out Samuel Thayer’s book Nature’s Garden: Edible Wild Plants, and use foraging as one more reason to get a nature walk in, to breath deeply and to re-wild your daily routine.
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