Consider the humble dandelions: Toddlers pick them and proudly give them as gifts. Five-year-olds have contests to see who can find the biggest one. Dandelions’ bright yellow flowers are among the first signs of spring. At the garden store, there is a whole aisle of products to kill them, yet here they come, without fail, right on schedule, every spring.
As a species, we humans seem to have a love/hate relationship with them, but The Front Yard Forager, a book by Melany Vorass Herrera, argues for leaving the hate behind and dining on dandelion leaves, flowers and roots.
Herrera is an Olympia native who lived in Seattle for a time but has been back here for six years now. She and her husband keep goats, chickens, birdfeeders, and flower and vegetable gardens. They volunteer for numerous local programs for elders, people who are homeless, and people with disabilities. They are also passionate environmentalists with deep knowledge of local flora and fauna.
The common dandelion, Herrera writes, is not a native plant. It was imported to North America by explorers and early immigrants “for use as food and medicine. The entire plant is edible, a powerhouse of dense nutrition comparable to superfoods such as spinach and kale,” on menus in Europe since Roman times.
Although Herrera laments dandelions’ status as “suburbia’s worst enemy,” she notes that “Here in the United States, you can still find cellars with bottles of homemade dandelion wine, for which there are many recipes. Belgians continue to make an ale they call Pessenlit (French for ‘wet the bed.’) It’s still fairly common knowledge that dried, ground dandelion root makes a respectable coffee substitute. Many folks love the unique flavor of dandelion flower jam. And as a leafy green it has never fallen out of favor in many parts of Europe.”
Dandelion root is a registered drug in Canada, sold as a diuretic, which explains the “wet the bed” ale moniker.
What else? Shotweed
Shotweed is another weed that gardeners love to hate, because it outsmarts us: we spread its seeds when we pull it up. (Other names: bittercress and Cardamine hirsute.)
The slightest disturbance makes seeds explode from the plant and shoot several feet in every direction. A friend had one hit her eye, and there’s no convincing her this weed is not evil, though she would agree that it is well-named.
Of course it makes more sense to pull it before it goes to seed – and that’s when it’s tastiest. Herrera describes it as “very similar to watercress or nasturtiums,” and worthy of a salad on its own. Her book includes an intriguing recipe for a shotweed salad with pan-seared scallops. It calls for four cups of shotweed, which would require a lot of these tiny plants. So if your garden has a major infestation of it, consider yourself shotweed-wealthy.
She also includes many other recipes: dandelion fritters, purslane Greek salad, Japanese knotweed chutney with roast pork loin, creeping wood sorrel German potato salad, and clover stinging nettle cream soups.
I confess to having a longstanding aversion to eating weeds, which I haven’t tried very hard to overcome. I once cooked stinging nettles, but couldn’t bring myself to eat a weed that, when raw, hurt when it touched my skin. I’d also have a hard time eating the super-invasive, super-destructive Japanese knotweed, which is hard to think kindly of.
But maybe I could overcome my aversion if I started with friendly, benign weeds. Herrera’s book inspires me to try. I’m especially curious about that creeping wood sorrel potato salad.
Anyone else interested in expanding their home cooking repertoire is invited to sign up for Herrera’s April 30, three-hour in-person workshop in Olympia on identifying, harvesting and cooking with common urban weeds. The cost is $30, and her book will be available there for $10 – a discount from its regular $18.95 price.
It will be an interesting mental shift to go from pulling weeds to harvesting them.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com
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