Sunday, May 8, 2011

Foraging - Spring Greens

In the days before refrigeration and the huge food network was created, most people lived on preserved meat, dried peas and beans, potatoes, and breads through the winter months.  Those that were really poor lived off of corn bread with some sort of gravy or broth.  By the time early spring arrived they were suffering from various vitamin deficiencies.  So they learned how to get out and forage early in the year when new plants were just appearing.  They would also drink "spring tonics" brewed out of various herbs and young plants to get a shot of vitamins and other slightly medicinal compounds into their bodies.

One of the first plants to show up in spring is the dandelion.  Home owners battle dandelions all summer long while trying to maintain their pristine lawns.  It is a never ending battle because those puff-balls of seeds we used to make wishes on as kids spread seeds far and wide.  Bad for the manicured lawn enthusiast but great for us; the plant grows almost everywhere. Dandelions are cultivated and sold in markets in Europe and even in some of the trendier city markets in the US.

Dandelion leaves are low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese.  This plant is so high in nutrients that it really should be categorized as a "super food".

Go to this site to see the full nutritional breakdown on this food.

Dandelion, Taraxacum agg, leaves, rosette
Most parts of the plant are edible at various stages of their life cycle.  The leaves are the most commonly eaten part of the plant so we'll start there.  The jagged leaves have a slightly bitter taste when they are very young, sort of like endive.  As the plant ages they get even more so and once the flowers blossom they are too bitter to eat raw. Gathering dandelion is easy enough; just take a small knife and a container and go for a walk anywhere that weeds grow; just make sure you are in an area where pesticides and herbicides are not used. The little clusters of jagged leaves are easy to identify.  Cut the new, tender leaves off at the base and once you have as much as you want take them home and give them a good rinse in cold water.  Dandelion leaves can be mixed into your store-bought salad fixings just as they are and they will add a huge boost to the nutrition level of your salad.  In my home area dandelion greens are most often eaten with a hot bacon dressing.  The recipe is below.

4 slices of bacon, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
2 tsp brown sugar
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1 bunch dandelion greens, washed and dried, stems removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Fry bacon bits in a skillet until they are crisp and have rendered all their fat. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings and return the skillet to the burner. Add onion and stir in the sugar and cider vinegar. Pour the hot dressing over the greens, tossing the greens so as to coat them with dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste.

As the plant matures the leaves get more and more bitter.  You can still eat them but you'll probably want to boil them (change the water once) and then cook them.  Boiling removes most of the bitter taste. The boiled (or fresh) leaves can then be cooked and substituted for kale, spinach, and endive in your recipes.

The next most commonly eaten part of the plant are the buds and blossoms.  The blossoms are often dipped in batter (tempura batter is the most common) and fried.  The flowers are also used to make dandelion wine.  If you like to have an occasional glass of wine, making your own is the most cost-effective means to that end.  Do an online search for Dandelion Wine if you want to try it.

The roots and crowns of the dandelion can also be eaten but they are much harder to harvest than the top growth.  Our foraging is designed to be simple and quick (your time is worth money) but if you want to do more with the plant there is plenty of information available online and in books.

The next plant I want to talk about is the fern.  In very early spring, when the fern plants are just starting to grow, they form what is called a "fiddlehead". They look like this in the wild:

Almost all ferns produce a fiddlehead but it is best to only eat the Ostrich Fern's fiddleheads.  Other ferns can give you some gastro-intestinal problems.  In the spring, the ostrich fern’s distinctive fiddleheads are mostly green, but have papery brown scales.  Most other fern fiddlehead sheaths are fuzzy or woolly. Look for the previous year’s leaves, broken to the ground, dead and brown, but still well attached to the root stock. Also, the previous year’s “plumes” (the spore-bearing fronds that are still erect) will help you to identify the plant. 

Gather fiddleheads in early spring, as soon as they appear within an inch or two of the ground. They tend to grow in damp, shady areas.  Carefully brush out and remove the brown scales. Then wash the heads, and cook them in lightly salted boiling water for at least 10 minutes, or steam for 20 minutes. Serve right away with melted butter. They taste something like asparagus, not one of my favorite foods, and can be cooked in recipes the same way.  Fiddleheads don't keep; you need to eat them the same day you pick them.  This plant is also high in nutrition with a surprising amount of protein.

Fiddlehead Fern Nutrition Label

Wild Onions.  When I was a kid we used to break off the tops of the plant and smell them.  It was a strong cross between onion and garlic smell.  We used to chew them and then breathe in each other's face.  Wow, did they have a strong smell or what? 

Wild onions also grow almost everywhere.  You'll see bunches of the little plants clustered in yards and other open areas (parks, ball fields, along walking paths). 

Clusters of Wild Onions

These plants can be used just like you would use spring onions or scallions.  They are very strong flavored so a little goes a long way.  Add them raw to salads or use them to cook.  There are many Wild Onion fund raising festivals and mostly they cook them up in omelets.  All parts of the plant can be eaten, just like a cultivated onion.

Wild Onions can be used as a very stinky but effective emergency bug repellent.  Just crush up a handful and rub the juices on any exposed skin and it will keep the mosquitoes, gnats, and other humans away.

These plants can help you stretch your food dollars by replacing store-bought greens and they are so high in nutrition that they can rectify a vitamin-poor diet caused by not being able to afford the veggies you should be eating.  These plants will get you going in the spring after the last of your stored garden produce is gone.

1 comment:

  1. Love young dandalion leaves. I never ate fern or fiddlehead. I would like to add chickweed to your list. It's easy to find and has a mellow taste. This can be added raw to other salad greens or sauteed like you would spinach.
    Good posts