Sunday, June 30, 2013

Eat Your Weeds!

Backyard Foraging: Part 1

   You know those weeds in your yard that you spend so much time trying to get rid of? The ones you get sore knees from pulling up? Many of those very weeds growing in your yard, through cracks in the side walk and in parks, are not only edible, but really good for you! In fact wild edibles are almost always more nutrient dense the their cultivated counterparts. The idea of eating weeds is not a new one. It has just recently, in the last century or so, become less common. Which is why the concept may seem strange to some in our modern society. But humans have been eating things that spring from the earth of their own accord since the beginning of, well.... humans.

   Why should we be seeking out these weeds and eating them? Aside from the nutrient density, they are free, sustainable, and lets face it, fun to harvest! Also, at the risk of sounding crazy, if society ever collapses, knowing which weeds are edible could prove extremely useful.

   So, get ready we are going to take a little walk down foraging lane (metaphorically speaking). Lets take a look at two wild edibles that are in season and most likely growing somewhere within a blocks radius of where you are right now. All you have to do is know how to identify these edible weeds and you can find a salad pretty much anywhere.

Cautionary note: Do not, under any circumstances, EVER pick and eat a wild plant that you cannot positively identify! 

  Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.): Purslane is a succulent that grows in most temperate climates around the world. It needs lots of sunshine and moist soil to sprout, but once established, is drought tolerant and can survive in partly shady conditions. In ideal conditions, it branches out along the ground. I've seen plants up to 3 feet wide or so, the leaves up to an inch long. Below is a picture of Purslane now before flowering or going to seed.

   You'll notice the leaves are very rounded and a little glossy, as with most succulents. The stems are a pale reddish color with some green tinges. Later in the season it will have yellow flowers up to 1/4 inch in diameter. After flowering, the seed pods, even smaller than the flowers, look like a birds nests with tiny black seeds inside. The whole plant can be eaten but for picky eaters the most tender parts are the tips, cut or break off about the first two inches, stem and all.

   Purslane is very mild with a slight lemony flavor. The leaves are great in salads for some extra crunch, also it's a very tender green which makes it kid friendly and great in smoothies. My kids will pick and eat the leaves just as they are. Lets not forget it's a nutritional powerhouse as well! It is one of, if not the, highest in Omega 3 fatty acids of any green. Also high in vitamin E and packed with many other phytonutrients. The Mediterraneans are notorious for including this wild green in their diet. Experts on the subject theorize that this little veggie is part of the key to their longevity. 

   Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta); You'll find Wood Sorrel starting in the spring. It prefers moist soil and shady areas. Although it will grow in full sun if it has enough water. You can possibly find other types of Sorrel at your grocery store or farmers market. The cultivated types do not usually look similar but taste very much alike in my opinion. At fist sight many people may mistake this plant for clover but with a closer look, will see there are at least a few distinct differences. The color of the leaves ranges from plum to green. While clover has three distinct tear drop shaped leaves, Wood Sorrel has three slightly smaller heart shaped leaves. 

   About now in the season you will find yellow flowers 3/8 inches in diameter with 5 petals. In the daytime the leaves and flowers will be open but as dusk sets in both fold up. The seed pods stand perpendicular to the ground and look like tiny folded up umbrellas. 

   Nutritionally, Wood Sorrel is high in iron, calcium and vitamin C. As far as taste goes it is very sour, almost like biting into a lemon. The oxalate present adds to the tartness but there are lots of other acids that add to it. This is why, for culinary purposes I use it more like an herb that a leafy green. Chop up a bit and add it to any dish that you would add lemon too. I like to sprinkle it in with sauteed spinach or kale or use it as a bed to lay baked salmon on. It's also great in salads to add a tartness. Keep in mind the flavor will become more mild when cooked. 

  So what are you waiting for, go eat your weeds!

Happy foraging