After such an insanely frigid winter, doesn't your soul just cry out for fresh, tender greenery? In early spring, I am always drawn outdoors.
It's a deeply instinctive compulsion, I think. The land always looks so beat up after the snow melts—muddy earth festooned with dead leaves, dry trees and bushes, leafless branches—but here and there are small green shoots, and it's on those that I fixate. And then I feel hungry.
Luckily, even in early spring, Mother Nature supplies us with a delicious variety of wild edibles. When I was a kid, just as soon as the ground thawed, my own mom would send me out to gather the tiniest dandelion leaves. Cutting a small bowlful of the intensely bitter greens took me forever—maybe one of the points of the activity, come to think of it. Mother had a family recipe for dandelion salad served with a warm bacon and hard-boiled egg dressing that scrumptiously contrasted with the incredibly bitter dandelion leaves.
Mom always said that it was good for us to eat dandelion salad as a spring tonic, and it turns out she was spot on. Leading nutrition science is finding that wild greens are powerhouses of phytonutrients that, while not essential for life, are essential for our health. Phytonutrients protect plants from bacteria and viruses, and they protect us from cancer, vision loss, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Wild greens can contain 40 times more antioxidants than spinach! If you regularly dine on wild greens, you'll be enjoying a gourmet treat, getting some fresh air, and treating your body very well indeed.
Even if you've never foraged wild food, there are enough easy-to-identify, delectable wild spring greens to keep you and your salad bowl happy. But before you forage, please be sure to read the caveats at the end of this article.
The Dandelion. Just about everyone knows what a dandelion flower looks like, but to harvest the earliest leaves, you'll need to be able to identify them alone. In fact, this plant is named for its jagged leaf—dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth. Look for them very soon after snow has melted. When they're less than two inches long, cut them close to the ground with scissors or knife. As mentioned above, this really is a great job for kids—after all, they're closer to the ground and often looking for something to do. When you taste a leaf, you'll see why my mother literally larded dandelions with that rich Pennsylvania Dutch-style recipe. Many great herbs are strong and repellent eaten straight, and that's the way to look at dandelions—mix them with other greens or counteract the bitterness with a rich dressing or sauce.
Chickweed. Fortunately, many wild greens are sweet and juicy. Chickweed is a very mild, lightly crunchy green with tiny, pretty, leaves, and, in late spring, edible white flowers. This very common plant has a low, sprawling habit, often growing in thick mats in sun and partial shade almost anywhere, even during winter thaws. Our ancestors used chickweed as an all-purpose health food. It's especially great for the digestive tract, plus it has tons of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Cut chickweed with scissors, and you can add it by the handful to your mixed salads. Sources say that chickweed is good as a cooked green, but it's never gotten further than the salad bowl in my kitchen.
Garlic mustard. For a savory-spicy bite, garlic mustard is a green with seasoning built right in. In fact, this European garden escapee was originally a culinary herb called sauce-alone. Once garlic mustard took root in the United States, it ditched its homeland insect enemies and became an invasive pest here. So, you'll be doing trees a favor by noshing on this delectable. In early spring (even under snow), garlic mustard leaves lie on the surface of ground, radiating from what is called a basal rosette. Pinch, bruise, sniff, and nibble a leaf to check out the yummy, hot, garlicky flavor. I really like this green on sandwiches where its flavors accent the rest of the fillings, but it's also great in mixed salads or in a mixed pesto with other green herbs like basil or parsley. Later in the season, garlic mustard gets taller and the flavor of the leaves is hotter.
Violets. Did you know that the common violet is edible? Both flowers and leaves? It seems wrong to use the word “common” to describe something so pretty and delicious, but violets do abound in wooded and open grassy areas. The entire violet plant is lightly scented and especially high in vitamin C. Besides the hallmark violet, there are also lovely yellow and white varieties. The leaves somewhat resemble those of garlic mustard, but a side-by-side comparison will show the differences. Both tender leaves and flowers are great strewn over salads. The blossoms can be blended with butter for a spread or sauce, candied to use as a dessert decoration, or even frozen into ice cubes for a special cocktail or punch.
Nettles. Italians love them, but stinging nettles are a special effects plant—touching the leaf or stem will smart like a bee sting. The plant is covered with minute hairs that are both sharp and hollow and capable of injecting a tiny dose of punishing venom containing some of the same chemicals as insect venom. Undoubtedly, nettles sport such an extreme defense because they are one of nature's most delicious and nutritious wild greens. Fortunately, cooking renders the venom harmless, and nettle is considered a gourmet treat and an across-the-board physical fortifier with numberless medicinal applications as well.
To harvest nettles, look for them in the same spot every year, usually in open woods or other weedy areas. Wearing gloves, or even baggies in a pinch, cut the top eight inches or so when the plant is still young—under 18 inches. If you leave enough plant, it will continue to grow, and you can harvest tender nettle shoots again. Nettle leaves can be brewed into tea or cooked as greens; the stems, however, are so fibrous that they can been used to make fabric. After reading that fine chopping will also defeat the poison, I made a nettle butter recipe by famed restaurateur Jean Georges Vongerichten, a particular fan of the nettle. It had a surprisingly rich, cheese-like quality—and didn't sting a bit!
1 Do a little homework. Check out a field guide or reference book. There's a fabulous resource by local author Dina Falconi called Foraging and Feasting. It's available at local stores and through the website of the same name. The Joy of Foraging by mushroom expert Gary Lincoff is also a great starter and available as an e-book.
2 Collect wild food from clean areas not subject to road runoff or chemical sprays. Rail trails are often good. Some public parks prohibit foraging; check before you pick.
3 Don't forage endangered plants (none of the above are), and, if possible, leave half a plant so it can keep growing and reproducing (except for garlic mustard — cut it to the ground).
4 If you feel squeamish about eating an exotic wild fruit, veg, or fungi for the first time, try just a bite and see how it sits. Suspicion about new food has served our species very well for eons, so we might as well respect it. Delight will overcome!
Maria Reidelbach is an author, applied artist, and proprietress of Homegrown Mini-Golf, set in an edible, annotated garden of wild and domesticated plants and animals in Accord, NY.