I was gratified last week to see that Kossacks are interested in wild foods. My interest in foraging started quite early. My mom used to drive us down a country road lined with blueberry bushes and hand out buckets. At the end of the afternoon, most of the buckets were empty, but we were purple-stained and happy. (Left: Hudson River by wide eyed lib)
Now that I'm older, the pleasures are more cerebral. It's a satisfying feeling when I'm on a walk and recognize a new edible. Tasting something for the first time and thinking about how to make use of its individual characteristics recharges me. I live in a urban environment, so foraging is my primary connection to the changing seasons. I love seeing tight little buds one week that show green cracks the next.
Covered: dandelion, chicory, wintercress & daylily
So review last week's caveats, grab your gear and let's leap over the orange hurdle into the greens of early Spring.
One of the best known wild foods is dandelion. Dandelion is a perennial herb with long, hairless, deeply toothed leaves that grow in a basal rosette (which simply means that the leaves radiate outward from a single point, forming a circle at ground level). It now grows in an unbroken stretch across the entire U.S. and Canada, although it is native to Europe.
In late Spring, the rosette will send up a hollow stalk and a single bud which will open up into the yellow compound flower recognized by just about everyone. The petals fall off, and the plant develops a sphere of tiny, fluffy parachutes with attached seeds that children love to blow off. (Right: Dandelion by wide eyed lib)
Like many wild greens, dandelion leaves are best when they are quite small or after a frost. Once the plant sends up flower stalks, the leaves become increasingly bitter, though they are still edible and the bitterness can be mitigated somewhat by cooking with sweeter vegetables such as carrot and/or boiling the greens once, dumping the water, then boiling in new water before draining again. (This is commonly referred to as boiling in two changes of water.)
The flowers and long taproot can also be eaten. The flowers are best stripped of the green sepals at their base and stirfried or used as a colorful garnish for soups or salads. The beige taproot benefits from long simmering or can also be roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute (for method see chicory below).
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Like dandelion, chicory begins each year as a basal rosette. The two plants are often confused in early Spring, but chicory's leaves are less deeply lobed, sometimes tinged with red, and have small serrations along the edges. Chicory grows all over the U.S. and in all of Canada's southern provinces. (Below: Chicory by wide eyed lib. Toward the upper left of the photo, there's also a dandelion plant, and you can get some idea of the difference between the two kinds of leaves if you look closely.)
By late Spring, however, chicory has grown one or more hairy, branching flower stalks growing up to 4 feet high that are studded with alternate growing leaves and topped with buds. In contrast, dandelion typically has a single, non-branching flower stalk that has no leaves and rarely grows more than 8 to 12 inches high. Chicory flowers appear in early Summer and are a beautiful periwinkle blue.
Chicory can be used in most of the same ways as dandelion. The young leaves have a pleasant earthy bitterness when young or after a frost (much like frisee, to which it is closely related) but require boiling in 2 changes of water at other times. Scrubbed, chopped into bite-sized pieces and roasted at 350 degrees for an hour, the beige taproot becomes dry and brittle and can be ground and used to brew a coffee substitute (using the same amount per cup as you would to make real coffee). Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans serves (and sells) a blend of chicory and coffee, but why pay when you can make your own?
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Wintercress (aka yellow rocket) is another wild green that is at its best in early Spring. This member of the mustard family starts off as a deep green basal rosette where each leaf consists of a large round leaflet at the farthest end, and smaller, paired leaflets toward the center. (Right: Wintercress by wide eyed lib)
The most easily recognizable feature, however, is the intense sheen of the leaves, which almost look shellacked. The leaves are a bit waxy and somewhat stiff to the touch, and the stems are flattened rather than round. In late summer, wintercress develops flower stalks up to 2.5 feet tall with alternate leaves that are more pointed. The flower buds, which are edible, look and taste like broccoli, but are somewhat more bitter. The flowers themselves are small, lemon yellow and clump together to form airy spikes.
Even more than the other greens mentioned, wintercress is at its best when the leaves are young, and even then, they taste like cabbage on steroids. I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of wintercress, but it's widely available and very nutritious, and if I were hungry I would certainly eat it. This gets to the heart of the difference between edible and palatable. Just because something is edible doesn't mean you'll like it. People who are less sensitive to bitter flavors than I am have suggested that it can be cooked like spinach, but my palate only appreciates wintercress when it is used sparingly alongside other, less bitter greens. (Left: Wintercress Closeup by wide eyed lib)
Wintercress likes moist, disturbed soil and grows in the southern Canadian provinces and most of the U.S., excluding Utah, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. I've read that it has no poisonous lookalikes.
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The daylily is one of nature's greatest gifts to the forager. In every season it offers a new and delicious edible.
Daylilies are not a true lily but are an annual related to onions. They are one of the first plants to poke through the leaf cover in Spring, and their shoots are light green with swordlike leaves featuring parallel veins. They are highly invasive and can often be found in large groups, which makes for easy, guilt-free collecting. (Right: Field of Daylily Shoots by wide eyed lib)
The unfortunate thing about daylilies is that they have several poisonous lookalikes. They share characteristics with poisonous true lilies, irises and daffodils. The easiest identification method prior to flowering is to dig one up. Daylilies have sterile flowers, and they spread via their extensive rhizomes and tubers. This makes the underground part of the plant distinctive. If you find a single, long rhizome with no tubers, you have the wrong plant. Lest you should feel badly about digging one up, the tubers are not only edible but absolutely delicious. Cut from the rhizome and rinsed, the tubers resemble tiny Idaho potatoes. And they taste like tiny Idaho potatoes as well. They can be sliced into rounds and sauteed or cooked whole in soups. They are at their best when the shoots are smallest.
Until they are about 6 inches tall, daylily shoots are delicious, crunchy and taste like mild leeks. They can be eaten just about any way you can imagine--sliced raw in salads, stirfried with other veggies, or simmered in soups. (Left: Daylily shoot with tubers by wide eyed lib)
But the daylily's virtues don't stop there. Just a few weeks after the shoots are too tough to enjoy, they develop branching flower stalks with finger-like, terminal buds that can be harvested and cooked like green beans (e.g., steamed or sauteed in butter). Then a couple of weeks after that, they burst into showy, deep orange flowers between 3 and 4 inches across. Collected while still in full bloom or even after they've withered, the flowers (stripped of the green at the base) can be chopped and sprinkled on salads or floated atop soups. They're sweet with a bit of a kick.
Daylilies can be found in Eastern Canada and most of the U.S., excluding California and parts of the Southwest. There are many different cultivars (mostly due to selective breeding), and I've heard conflicting reports on their edibility, with some sources saying all of them are edible and other sources saying that only a few are. The safest thing to do is to wait until they flower and make sure the patch you've found is the standard, deep orange daylily with 3 petals and 3 nearly identical sepals. If it looks like this, you've got the standard daylily and can come back to harvest at different times of the year with impunity. As a final caution, reportedly about 1 in 50 people experience digestive issues from the raw shoots, so eat a small amount the first couple of times to make sure you're not one of them.
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Well, I was planning to cover some other plants this week, but, in what seems to be a common theme for me, this diary has gotten very long. I hope you've enjoyed it, and I hope you'll go outside and see if you can find and identify some of these plants. (But please review the first half of this first.) I'm not an expert, but I'll be happy to help if I can. Just post photos in the comments. And as always, please let me know if you have any questions or spot any mistakes.
For more information about foraging, the websites of "Wildman" Steve Brill and "Green" Deane Jordan are fantastic resources. Steve lives in NY and Green Deane is in Florida. I'm a huge fan of Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube, and Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, has been my foraging bible (read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website. It's more expensive, but he's a good guy and he earns considerably more money that way. He also sells other books and jeweler's loupes, the latter being a good value.) If anyone reading this lives in the NYC area and is interested in guided foraging tours, Steve offers such tours in NYC-area parks almost every weekend from the end of February to the beginning of December. Details and contact info are on his website.
The USDA plants database is also a great place to look up info.
Next week I hope you'll join me again. I hope to cover wild lettuce, chickweed, wall pepper, pine trees and the common spicebush.