Last week’s column was focused on the usefulness of the most well-known unwanted plant in American yards—the humble dandelion. Hopefully after learning more about the furry yellow flowers, more folks are interested in exploring the possibilities that there are plants growing all around us that are useful, tasty, and ‘weeds’ in perception alone. Just because they aren’t sold in stores or at farmers’ markets doesn’t mean they aren’t nutritious, delicious and edible.
A walk in your neighborhood can double as a food-gathering jaunt, because we are actually surrounded by edible, nutrient-dense plants that grow near sidewalks, in our yards, and in our own vegetable and flower gardens.
Mallow is also a plant you see underfoot everywhere you look. It is related to a species of plant that they actually used to make marshmallows from back in the olden days, and this plant is just as useful. Mild in flavor, it can be used liberally in dishes such as salads, omelettes and casseroles, and is also a nifty soup thickener. It even has little fruits that can substitute for capers; its leaves can be dried for tea, and the thick, mucusy substance it produces when boiled can be used as a substitute for egg whites. Cool, huh?
You’ve pulled Lamb’s Quarter from your yard and flowerbeds about 1000 times, likely without knowing that you were tossing a tasty food into your compost bin. This little powerhouse with leaves shaped like a goose foot can be eaten cooked or raw, with a mild flavor that lends itself to salads, omelettes, soups and pasta dishes. Eating too much of this is equivalent to overindulging in spinach, so even though it’s free and abundant, don’t over do it. A look-alike plant, Saltbrush, is also edible, but you’ll notice the difference as it’s a little salty. It can be used in any dish, and also makes a groovy pesto or guacamole addition.
You’ve probably walked past Wild Lettuce at least 20 times in the last month without even knowing that a delicious salad lay underfoot. Wild Lettuce looks similar to dandelion leaves, with the leaves growing spikier edges as the plant matures. Edible throughout its lifespan, some folks prefer to harvest wild lettuce when the leaves have softer, rounded edges. It can be eaten as a stand-alone salad ingredient, or mixed in with sweeter greens to make things interesting.
You now know that you can eat the dandelion leaves, roots and flowers. Right now, I have a large jar of dandelion wine fermenting on my kitchen counter—golden, sweet and perfumed with what I imagine sunshine smells like. I can’t wait to decant it! While I gathered the flowers to make it, I also picked the tender green leaves of the plant and sauteed them with some olive oil and garlic for my dinner, saving me a trip to the grocery store for side dish ingredients.
Before you head out for a bout of urban foraging, take these few hints with you: don’t take plants from areas heavily trafficked by dogs. If you are concerned with traveling microbes from the soil, you can do a quick soak of your found food in a light bath of water and vinegar before eating or preparing. Also, sometimes wild plants look similar, so be sure you’re checking the plants against a field guide or a reputable internet source. Taking a foraging class is a fun way to spend an afternoon and a solid way to gain confidence about which plants will fill your belly with safe, nutritious, and wild food. The above plants are just a small sampling of the tasty edibles that surround us, and all it takes is a little know-how before you’ll truly be eating local.