Weed It And Reap: A Meal With Nature's Outcasts

Dandelion Greens With Bacon And Sherry Vinegar i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Dandelion Greens With Bacon And Sherry Vinegar
T. Susan Chang for NPR

I am an April gardener, which is to say that in April, I really, really like gardening. I like digging into the dense, cold, soggy, barely thawed earth and turning up a fat pink worm. I like the way lettuce seedlings look when they're half an inch high. I like rain, within reason.

Look Before You Lunch

Although most people are apprehensive about picking mushrooms, wild greens aren't as offputting. Still, it's wise to exercise similar caution.

An overdose of pokeweed can be fatal, and some families of plants have both edible and toxic members (poison hemlock, for example, looks a lot like its cousin the common carrot). Not to mention that many a pleasant afternoon of foraging has been made considerably less pleasant by poison ivy and nettle stings.

So bring along a field guide to wild edibles or a knowledgeable friend when you go out picking. Two good references are Bradford Angier's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (Stackpole Books 2008) and "Wildman" Steve Brill's Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so Wild) Places (Harper 1994).

July is another story. On June 30 of every year, all the weeds in my garden synchronize their watches. Then they count backward from three and race to see who can propagate the fastest, grow the tallest, and drop seeds just when that other bane of gardeners, the mosquito, arrives in swarms. Around Bastille Day — zut alors! — I typically announce my independence from the garden and let it revert to jungle, every once in a while venturing under the weed canopy to pick some stressed-out chard. This we call "foraging."

In real life, foraging is the craft of finding wild edibles — oh, let's go ahead and call them weeds. Starting in the spring, there's a veritable parade of weeds to eat. If you ask true foragers, they'll reel off a list, hedging their enthusiasm with caveats: There's the pest Japanese knotweed (only good when young) and the toxic-'til-boiled pokeweed (only good when mature) and that infamous encroacher, garlic mustard (best picked before flowering).

They grow with pestilential persistence, so much so that some towns, like Baltimore, hold festivals where they practice eradication by eating.

Yes, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and you're probably walking on it every day.

Now, I don't have to tell you, I hope, that you shouldn't eat dandelions from your lawn if you treat your lawn with pesticides. Likewise, if you see sheep sorrel wanly venturing forth in an otherwise barren wasteland, it's probably acting as nature's chosen vehicle for purging out contaminants in the soil. Don't eat it unless you want to be nature's purging vehicle, too.

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the regular cookbook reviewer for The Boston Globe, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

However, if you have a garden where you grow things to eat, and you can steer clear of the sometimes-toxic knotweed and pokeweed, the familiar plant pests you find there will be quite safe — after all, they've been fattened up on your good compost and diligent watering all season. Pale lambsquarters push up between every seedling. Curly dock hides its thick taproot under the asparagus. Every time you clear a space, arrowhead rosettes of sheep sorrel show up faster than the devil on a Saturday night.

What separates an edible weed from the store-bought greens we know and love? Often, it's taste — a taste that's just edgy enough for custom and the market to nudge it off the shelf. When you read books on wild edibles, you notice a certain amount of finesse in the descriptions. "Lemony" or "acidic" means high in oxalic acid, the compound that puts the sour in sorrel. (In fact, sorrel basically just means "sour," which is why there are a lot of weeds commonly called sorrel, many of them not even related.) Dandelion, chicory and milk thistle are "liver tonics," which the informed reader can interpret as "bitter." A remarkable number of plants are said to "resemble spinach," and the rest "taste like asparagus." You may have heard people say that alligator "tastes like chicken." So do rattlesnake and iguana. Asparagus, apparently, is the chicken of weeds.

Although free stuff described with euphemisms usually makes me nervous, I've eaten my share of weeds and liked them. The default way to eat a weed is in a salad, raw, surrounded and camouflaged by more familiar green faces. Purslane's fleshy succulent leaves make a crunchy foil for tomatoes and cucumbers. Wood sorrel, with its cute little trio of hearts, is like lemon zest in leaf form. Lambsquarters are inoffensive when raw, and dandelion leaves taste great with bacon (though that hardly counts, since what doesn't?).

But the plant that finally converted me to weed eating was the nettle. Friends rhapsodized about nettles, so I made up my mind I'd give them a try. We have a forest of stinging nettles behind our house, where they have waged war on my husband's shins summer after summer. Each year, I thought I'd try cooking them, only to get distracted by less intimidating and, well, nettlesome pursuits.

It took me half an hour to collect enough tender nettle tops to make a ravioli filling. Until the last five minutes, I foraged sting-free, gingerly picking my way over the rocky slope. I had frankly begun to suspect the nettle of being a hoax, when, zing — a tiny, burning arrow buried itself in my calf. I fled inside, a cloud of foul utterances coloring the air behind me.

The pain subsided soon enough, and was quickly replaced by much friendlier feelings. Once blanched, chopped and blended with some ricotta and Parmesan, the nettles were somehow both firm and tender. Bite after bite uncovered a deep, savory character that wasn't a bit sour, bitter or barbed.

So if you've had it with tomato blight, potato beetles and cabbage worms, don't sweat it. Thanks to weeds, you can feast on homegrown food without even going to the trouble of growing and caring for it. When it comes to weeds, everybody's got a green thumb. All you need is an open mind — and the appetite to go with it.

Lambsquarters And Goat Cheese Omelet

I'm sure you have your own way of making an omelet, so feel free to depart from mine. This very simple filling is good tossed with pasta, too, and I bet it would be just fine on a toasted bagel. Some people like a D-shaped omelet. Some like a trifold omelet. I happen to like a rolled-up one, but all of them are delicious.

Lambsquarters And Goat Cheese Omelet
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 1 serving

1 cup lambsquarters, packed (about 3 cups loose)

1 ounce goat cheese, or to taste

2 large eggs

Salt, to taste

2 teaspoons olive oil

Pick the leaves of the lambsquarters, discarding any coarse stems. Steam them in the top half of a double boiler (or in a steamer basket in a small saucepan over a half-inch of water) for 3 or 4 minutes, until bright green and wilted. Transfer to a cutting board and let cool slightly.

Chop the greens and place in a small mixing bowl. Crumble in the goat cheese, add a little salt to taste and mix thoroughly with a fork. Set aside.

In a small mixing bowl, mix the eggs thoroughly with a fork or egg beater and salt to taste. (If you like a fluffy omelet, you can add 1 teaspoon of water.) Heat a small, heavy skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the eggs all at once. Stir gently but quickly in a circular motion with a high-heat silicone spatula or wooden spoon as the egg begins to set. As the curds form, pull the edges in slightly and let extra egg run under the sides. When the omelet is nearly cooked through, add the lambsquarters-goat cheese filling. Give it a moment more, and then, using your spatula or spoon, tip, roll or fold it out of the pan onto a plate

Dandelion Greens With Bacon And Sherry Vinegar

Dandelion greens are bitter — tongue-twistingly, hair-raisingly bitter, especially if you're using some plucked directly from your yard. Don't even try to eat them if you haven't got a taste for bitter greens in the first place. Their bitterness can be tamed within reason by blanching, though — once for cultivated greens, twice or more for wild ones. In this recipe, their sweetness is brought out by sour vinegar. Don't let this dish sit around. It's best hot, and the greens turn drab-colored if they cool.

Dandelion Greens With Bacon And Sherry Vinegar i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Dandelion Greens With Bacon And Sherry Vinegar
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 generous bunch dandelion greens, about 1 pound

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons mustard

4 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large shallot, finely minced

Salt and black pepper to taste

Fill a stockpot with salted water, as if you were making pasta. Sort through the greens, trimming and removing any coarse stems. When the water has come to a rolling boil, drop in the dandelion greens. Blanch in the boiling water briefly, about 2 minutes, and drain. Chop roughly. Mix the vinegar and mustard in a small bowl and set aside.

Place the bacon in a medium skillet. Over low heat, cook the bacon slowly until it's barely done and the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off the fat and discard. In the same pan — there's no need to wash it — add the olive oil. Add the minced shallot and cook over the lowest heat until softened. Add the greens back to the pan, followed by the vinegar-mustard mixture. Toss the mixture together until just warmed through, add the bacon back in, and season to taste with salt if necessary and generous grindings of black pepper. Serve immediately.

Stinging Nettle Ravioli

There are, of course, any number of recipes that will tell you how to make pasta dough. This one is based on the one in Simon Hopkinson's The Vegetarian Option (Stewart Tabori & Chang 2010). If you can get Italian 00 flour, a high-protein flour that's finely milled, use it — it makes a suppler dough. It's available at Italian specialty stores or online. You can substitute all-purpose flour, but you may have to add a teaspoon or more of water to make the dough cooperate. If you don’t want to make your own pasta, fresh lasagna sheets would be the ideal substitute, since they're just sheets of fresh pasta. Wonton wrappers could be used in a pinch, but the texture would be different. When gathering nettles, it's easiest if you use rubber gloves and scissors. If you use just the top 4 to 6 inches, you won't have to remove the leaves from the stems. Once you've blanched the nettles, they will no longer sting you.

Stinging Nettle Ravioli
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

For Pasta

1 3/4 cups Italian 00 (doppio zero) flour, or all-purpose flour

2 large eggs, plus 1 egg for egg wash

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon salt

For Filling

1/2 plastic shopping bag (or gallon jug) nettle tops

8 ounces ricotta, any liquid poured off

2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

To Finish

2 tablespoons butter

Parmesan to taste

Pasta Dough

Place the flour, eggs, yolks and salt in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Knead for several minutes, until you achieve a firm but pliable dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Filling

Heat a pot of water to boiling and blanch the nettles, continuing at a boil, for 4 or 5 minutes. They will be quite wilted, but still very green — almost brighter in color than before cooking. Drain, let cool briefly and wring out thoroughly with your hands. Chop the nettles roughly. Whisk the ricotta and Parmesan together. Add the nettles and season.

Divide chilled dough into 4 portions. Flour a work surface. While you work with 1 portion, keep the remainder covered. Using a pasta machine, roll out the first piece of dough on the widest setting. Flour the dough and roll through at the next setting. Continue until you've rolled it out at the narrowest setting, and set the pasta sheet aside on a drying rack or hanger. Continue with the remaining 3 pieces.

To assemble the ravioli, beat 1 egg with a little water to make an egg wash. If you have a ravioli mold, drape the fresh pasta over the metal base and gently depress the dough into the holes (some molds have a plastic form you can use to press the dough in evenly). Fill each depression with a generous teaspoon of filling and paint the seams with egg wash. Lay another length of fresh pasta atop the first and firmly roll a rolling pin over the mold to fuse the ravioli and cut the seams.

Alternatively, you can simply cut out the ravioli by hand. Lay a sheet of pasta on a work surface. If you have a 5-inch wide pasta sheet, you can fit 2 rows of ravioli onto it. Spoon mounds of filling onto the sheet every 2 1/2 to 3 inches — one upper row, one lower one. Paint seams of egg wash between the mounds. Lay your sheet of pasta over the filling, gently press the seams with your fingertips, and cut the ravioli apart with a sharp knife.

Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil. Drop the ravioli into the water and let it return to the boil. Cook briefly, 4 or 5 minutes, or just until the ravioli float to the top. Drain and serve with butter and Parmesan to taste.

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