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A-Foraging We Will Go

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Last March, In Pursuit of purslane, I wrote about that prolific but edible garden weed and how it’s showing up in markets across the country as well as restaurants from Seattle to New York. But it appears that the pursuit is not just about that noxious, albeit tasty, weed but has grown to include many other wild plants as well.

In 1962, Euell Gibbons wrote and published Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which gave us permission to forage at will, embarking on adventures of “living off the land.” At the time, Gibbons was one of the few people in this country to devote a considerable part of his life to seeking out wild plants all over North America and turning them into delicious dishes. While some of us still remember the ’70s Post Grape-Nuts commercials and may have made him out to be some kooky health-food nut, some believe he was actually way ahead of the times. Now, nearly 60 years later, as consumers and gardeners strive to be more sustainable or just want to try new and unique things, Gibbons’ ideals have taken hold more strongly than ever.

I came across a copy of the book at a local thrift store some years ago and began to look at wild plants as something to search out and appreciate as culinary delights. Although I grew up with plenty of experience picking wild mustard and mushrooms with my gramma and my dad, I had never really expanded to other well-known “weeds” such as dandelions, poke weed and wild onions, which are all fairly easy to find and prepare. Since then, I have embarked upon my own foraging adventures and would like to share with you a sampling of my favorites.

Late winter and early spring are the best time to go looking for wild plants, especially here in the Valley, since these lovelies have sprung up fresh and healthy everywhere after the cool winter and spring rains. Later in the season, one might find certain crops such as dandelions available, but they will be less tender and more pungent, sometimes on the bitter side. Dandelions (taraxacum officianale) are the gateway plants to weed cuisine. You know, they’re the ones that pop up all over your nice green lawn and are almost impossible to eradicate. Why not eat them instead in a nice spring salad with a lemon vinaigrette? I’ll always have a supply since I can’t seem to get over the lovely yellow flowers blooming when nothing else will. Maybe someday I’ll get really creative and turn my crop into dandelion wine.

One of my as well as my chickens’ faves, chickweed (Stellaria media) has to be searched out early in the season as it does not tolerate warm weather. You won’t have to do much searching, however, since it tucks itself in with your potted plants and sprawls cheerfully in your nitrogen-rich garden beds. It is recognizable by its smallish leaves and tiny white, star-like flowers on somewhat leggy, succulent-like stems. With a very mild, sweet flavor, it is delicious in salads or cooked gently as you would spinach. It also makes a wonderful addition to spring rolls, wraps and sandwiches.

This time of year, bittercress (Cardamine genus) can be stumbled upon anywhere you don’t want plants to grow, such as patio cracks, flower beds or unassumingly in your potted plants. But it is such a cute little thing, with its picture-perfect serrated leaves and tiny white fairy-crown flowers, that I am happy to humor it. Besides, it’s nice to have around when my arugula becomes scarce. It is such a tasty, pungent addition to a pear, pancetta and brie panini or an otherwise plain chicken sandwich. The young, tender leaves are best, but the larger, older leaves can also be cooked like other greens. And by all means, add them to mixed green salads for that extra arugula-like zing.

Miner’s Lettuce
How many of us have jogged up the sidewalk right past a humble swath of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), and not realized that in some fancy five-star restaurant someone might be having a gourmet salad comprised of this prolific spring weed? One of those fancy restaurants would be Chez Panisse, the acclaimed chef Alice Waters’ tribute to seasonable, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients. Waters knew a good thing when she came across it in the Berkeley bay area, as did the miners back in the Gold Rush era. But for the miners, the succulent, leafy-green, sprouting a minute white flower, was a lifesaver, giving them the necessary vitamin C to stave off the dreaded scurvy. Its large leaves remain as tender and tasty as the young ones and while this powerhouse plant is best in fresh salads with orange sections, walnuts and a smattering of blue cheese, drizzled with my honey lemon vinaigrette, it is truly scrumptious wilted in bacon grease with crumbled bacon, chopped boiled eggs and garnished with thinly sliced red onion.

Honey Lemon Vinaigrette
For all your spring green/weed-salad needs, this dressing is a go-to. And lemons are in great supply right now, so get out your Mason jar and whisk and experiment to personal taste. 

Dissolve one tablespoon honey in the juice of one whole lemon in a pint jar. Whisk in one teaspoon Dijon or fancy mustard, ¼ teaspoon salt, ⅛ teaspoon black or white pepper and one large clove minced garlic. Fill the jar to the top with California Extra Virgin Olive Oil and shake till smooth and emulsified.

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