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Diet Doldrums? Take a Walk on the Wild Side: Wild Edibles Part I

Whether cooking for themselves or being cooked for, human beings tend to fall into habitual eating schemes, which, while convenient and familiar, may not be tremendously satisfying or even nutritious. If variety is the spice of life, monotony is the douser of dreams. Let us take a look at some exciting and adventurous ways to add pizzazz to your diet with wild edibles.

Anyone with a little patch of earth, or access to a forest or park, ought to be able to find a variety of gourmet treats free for the taking. This time of year is ideal for finding tender new shoots to boost your vegetable intake and expand the palate. The most common wild edibles come in the form of greens. Common “weeds” like garlic mustard, chickweed, and dandylion are all available in abundance for spring foraging. 

While there are folks who pride themselves on tromping through the forest and gnawing on all manner of vegetation like veritable beasts, we will take a more civilized approach here. To start, let’s consider a pesto. Now, your traditional pesto has basil, garlic, romano or parmesan cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts. You can switch things up a bit by using young garlic mustard. This pungent wild edible is highly nutritious, boasting vitamins A, C, E, and some of the B vitamins. It also provides various minerals, including potassium, magnesium, iron and omega 3 fatty acids.

Garlic mustard should be harvested before flowers form. As seen here the buds are just starting to form. (Image: Wendell Smith via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Native to Europe, garlic mustard is invasive in North America, and thus can and should be harvested with abandon. Take the whole plant before or just as the flower buds start to form. Use only the tender stems, leaves and young flower buds. 

As the name is highly indicative of the flavor, garlic is not necessary in this pesto, and the delicate flavor of pine nuts would largely be wasted with this overpowering herb. Instead, a generous amount of walnuts or almonds will lend a sweet, mellowing effect. If the flavor is still too strong, the addition of a milder herb, like chickweed or parsley, will take the edge off. 

Cheese can be readily swapped with nutritional yeast for a vegan version, but olive oil remains the bond that brings it all together. This flexible recipe is adaptable to the addition of lemon juice, olives, or other seasonings. Pulse in a food processor until smooth and use it in a traditional format, or enjoy it on seed crackers, with zucchini pasta, or fried polenta.

Wild edibles: one man’s weed is another man’s feast

Next, the tenacious dandylion. Lawn-lovers often look upon this plant as a pest, while in fact it is a very good thing to eat, and also has value as an early forage flower for our endangered pollinators – the honeybee. While herbicides cause serious harm to the bees, manually removing the plants is not a threat to these winged foragers, as, for one thing, you will be hard pressed to keep them back. Besides that, dandelions are just one of many early flowering plants. While nutritionally similar to garlic mustard, dandelion greens are especially good for maintaining vision, offering retinoid activity equivalents (RAE) and two special forms of vitamin A. Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the retina and help prevent macular degeneration.

A bee flies next to a dandelion flower on a spring day on April 21, 2014 in Popielarze near Warsaw. These underestimated wild edibles are traditional in Italian cuisine.
A bee flies next to a dandelion flower on a spring day on April 21, 2014 in Popielarze near Warsaw. These underestimated wild edibles are traditional in Italian cuisine. (Image: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Traditional in Italian cuisine, this exceptionally bitter herb is often parboiled (cooked briefly and then rinsed in cold water) before adding to recipes. Sautéed with onions or garlic and served with toasted pine nuts and pasta, or in the form of a spicy, creamy soup, dandelion is rich and flavorful, supremely satisfying. Additional uses for this herb include dandelion wine made of the flowers, and an herbal, coffee-like tea made by steeping its roasted chopped roots. 

Chickweed, on the other hand, is a mild flavored and delicate herb that can be found as a clumpy mass growing in the sun. As an annual plant, it finishes its lifecycle when it goes to flower in the heat, but can be found in both spring and fall. Nutritionally, chickweed is a good source of vitamins and antioxidants, and has a wide range of medicinal uses. This herb is tender and tasty enough to be eaten raw in salads, but also adds another dimension to dishes like pilaf. Chopped and wilted in cooked wild rice and quinoa with toasted sunflower seeds, sauteed onions, grated carrots and a dash of soy sauce, it makes a simple meal or a hearty side.

Another leafy green to look out for in early spring is watercress, which can often be found in running streams. Also high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, this peppery plant can provide important health benefits. Quick to bolt in the heat, it will turn from mildly peppery to very spicy when flowers start to form. While this popular herb is now cultivated worldwide, it was first considered a weed and can still be found in the wild. Be sure to only harvest the plant above the water, so the roots can continue to grow. As with all wild harvests, wash thoroughly before consuming. Picked early, watercress is mild enough to be eaten raw in sandwiches or salads, but is also used in Asian stir fry recipes.

If you are prone to over indulgence, take heed – harvesting wild edibles is a potentially addictive activity. Enjoying the outdoors while keeping a keen eye out for gourmet treasures is a pleasure that surpasses even a visit to Trader Joes. Be prepared to wow your friends and family with many new dishes, along with the exciting details of discovery.

  • Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.

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