RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to hear now about a movement to bring wild food back into our diets. NPR's Nancy Shute went out foraging and found out how to eat wild food safely.
NANCY SHUTE: Walk out the front door here at NPR and the only place I see to get food is a hotdog cart.
(Soundbite of horn honking)
But Sam Thayer�sees this landscape differently.
Mr. SAM THAYER (Naturalist, Author): I'm looking for plants.
SHUTE: Sam Thayer is an edible wild plant expert. He's convinced that he can come up with a great fresh salad on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Mr. THAYER: Here's something.
SHUTE: He starts finding edible plants right away.
Mr. THAYER: Henbit and dead nettle. They're both in the mint family. They're both edible, but they're not - well, let's see.
(Soundbite of chewing)
Mr. THAYER: Would I want that in my salad? No.
SHUTE: Just because Sam loves foraging doesn't mean he'll eat just any old plant. Some aren't tasty enough. Others aren't safe. A few are just too urban. Like this prickly lettuce growing at the base of an office building.
Mr. THAYER: Prickly lettuce is the ancestor of cultivated lettuce. This one is covered with some sort of dust from the building, so we wouldn't be collecting this.
SHUTE: That dust could contain toxic lead from paint. And I'm also wondering about things like dog pee.
Mr. THAYER: If you're picking from a spot that looks like it's a dog pee kind of spot, then rinse it off or don't pick there. But the big worry is spraying of herbicides.
SHUTE: What should people do to make sure they're not getting plants with herbicides on them?
Mr. THAYER: When people are spraying, it's usually evident from the vegetation. So if there's any oddities to the way the plants are growing, that should be a serious red flag.
I'd like to look at that plant.
SHUTE: Thayer likes to forage in wooded areas and empty lots. He says he can usually find 14 or 15 different edible plants within arm's reach.
Mr. THAYER: Most people only eat a few different vegetables over the course of a year. But anywhere you live, there's probably 75 different wild vegetables you can add to your diet.
SHUTE: But we didn't find enough for a meal - until we hit the wild salad jackpot.
Mr. THAYER: Look at that.
SHUTE: It was growing in an abandoned brick flower box next to an old building and it was full of plants like shepherd's purse.
Mr. THAYER: I just love the flavor of those stems, raw or cooked. If you can find a big patch of this and get enough for a whole meal, it's absolutely gourmet.
SHUTE: Theres henbit, too, and chickweed, and prickly lettuce and wood sorrel. But what really makes Thayer swoon is the sow thistle.
(Soundbite of chewing)
Mr. THAYER: That is good. Oh, Nancy, you've got to try this.
SHUTE: Oh man, that is good.
Mr. THAYER: You cannot buy anything that good.
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Mr. THAYER: It's like celery without the stringiness, but the flavor's like the sweetest lettuce you've ever had in your mouth.
SHUTE: So right here, next to a parking lot in downtown D.C., we've got a big gourmet salad. But I'm wondering if these greens really are that good for you.
John Kallas says yes. He's a wild food expert and a Ph.D. nutritionist. He says are one big reason why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy.
Dr. JOHN KALLAS (Director, Wild Food Adventures): Greeks on the island of Crete ate huge quantities of greens, and they were the healthiest people of all the different people all over the world. You know, no heart disease, less dementia with old age, almost no cancers - period.
(Soundbite of pot opening)
Dr. KALLAS: So we've got four cups of nettles...
SHUTE: Kallas is making a wild greens frittata at his office in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. KALLAS: Three cups of field mustard greens, two cups of curly dock, and one cup of garlic mustard.
(Soundbite of chopping)
SHUTE: By using so many different greens, Kallas is ensuring that he's getting lots of nutrients. The mustard garlic that's going into this frittata is a common weed.
Dr. KALLAS: According to my research, garlic mustard is the most nutritious leafy green ever analyzed up to this point.
SHUTE: It's really high in vitamin A, beta carotene, zinc, manganese and fiber. But then, so are the other greens going into the pan.
(Soundbite of greens cooking)
Dr. KALLAS: So we take the whole mass of 10 cups of greens, threw it right on top. Lots and lots of greens. They're covering the whole pan.
SHUTE: Eat this frittata for breakfast and you're good for the day. But there's one must know thing about eating wild: don't eat a plant if you're not absolutely certain what it is. Kallas says mistakes can be dangerous, or even deadly.
Dr. KALLAS: Poison hemlock and wild carrot look alike. Unfortunately, when people don't know what they're doing and they find something that they think is wild carrot, it actually is poison hemlock. And so they eat it and then, you know, they die.
SHUTE: So before you start forging, it's essential to study up with field guides or a class.
Dr. KALLAS: You need to be confident that you know the plant. Can't be just well, I think I've got it. You know, you really need to be confident.
SHUTE: But learning wild greens can pay off.
Dr. KALLAS: Boy, if you can just walk around your neighborhood and get sustenance without having to go to the store, you don't need any money, that's an amazing thing. That's fun.
SHUTE: Nancy Shute, NPR News.