Imagine that the world is your Wegmans.
Imagine there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Both are true. All you have to do, in many cases, is look in your own backyard, and take a second look at some of the plants people call weeds.
“There’s sustainability in understanding what backyard weeds supply nutritionally,” said Nicole Klem, the director of Trocaire College’s Nutrition and Dietetics program. “There is cost-effectiveness and nutritiousness in eating off your own backyard.”
Our elders knew the value of weeds.
Remy Orlowski runs the online Sample Seed Shop. She received her love for wild edibles from her Italian father. Driving past an empty lot, he would spot the big leaves of burdock, the closest parallel America has to Italy’s cardoons. He would stop the car.
“He’d tell us to go get it,” Orlowski said, laughing. “We were small children with big knives.”
Klem discovered the worth of weeds after studying the Mediterranean diet.
“I thought, what do they eat that we don’t?” she said. Fresh seafood, yes, and lots of tomatoes, and –
“Weeds,” she said. “They eat a ton of leafy greens.”
The world is waking up to the wonder of weeds. What we used to call seaweed has been rebranded “sea vegetable,” and the popularity of foraged plants is growing.
Orlowski and Klem, who became friends thanks to their involvement with the Slow Food movement, are more likely to refer to the pesky plants they pick not as weeds, but as wild edibles. They like to spread the word about the riches to be found around Western New York.
It was time for a field trip.
The Vetch kvetch
To find tasty weeds in the Buffalo area, you don’t have to head out to the country. These vegetables grow in what Klem calls urban spaces – your yard, parks, street corners, vacant lots.
“No one can call wild edibles elitist,” Klem said. “They grow everywhere. Weeds don’t know the ZIP code.”
Klem, who lives in North Buffalo, agreed to go on a field trip to Delaware Park and let Refresh tag along to see what she found. Orlowski, the seed seller, made the trip from her home in Tonawanda to add her own expertise.
They were both puzzled that they didn’t find garlic mustard, which was teeming in Tonawanda’s Niawanda Park. Purslane, a succulent usually sprouting up right about now in a sidewalk crack near you, was also absent. The season hasn’t been rainy enough. Weeds are all about nature, and a lot depends on the weather and season.
Orlowski was delighted to find wild strawberries, but they weren’t ripe yet. Sorrel had flowered, so it was past its prime. The same was the case with curly dock. The 4-foot-tall plants were capped with dusty-looking flowers.
However, all was not lost. Broadleaf dock, a plant with wide and uncurled leaves, was there. It had not flowered yet, so it was ripe for the picking.
Delicious greens abounded. Plantain was plentiful. This wild green – not to be confused with the starchy tropical banana-like plantain – comes in two varieties. Broad-leafed plantain is often found squished and flat by the edge of your driveway and in mowed areas. The narrow-leafed plantain, which grows in the wild, has green leaves that stand upright.
Both varieties are great cooked or in salads. The vigor of stalks growing in the wild makes them particularly appetizing. The same is true of dandelion leaves, which were very common.
“Those are awesome,” Klem said, admiring a fat tuft of sturdy dandelion leaves. She snapped one off. “You can hear the crunch in it.”
Luckily, it’s hard to mix up toxic weeds and those you can eat.
The purple-flowered Vetch, maybe not surprisingly considering that name, is one of the plants that shouldn’t be eaten.
Into the pot
One reason to forage for weeds is that it is fun. You are out in nature. Your thoughts roam freely. And, as Klem pointed out, there’s a basic satisfaction that comes from finding your own food.
“Families used to go out to harvest dinner together,” she said. Children, she reflected, can specifically benefit from continuing that tradition. “Kids are suffering from nature deficit disorder,” she said. “This is a solution. There’s a social side to wild edibles.”
With the weed hunt complete, Orlowski demonstrated a simple way of preparing wild greens.
A big bag of plantain and dandelion leaves went into the salad spinner for one rinse, then another. Then Orlowski warmed a few tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven, and tossed the greens in.
They can be bitter, she acknowledged, and might be too much for people tasting them for the first time.
“If the greens are too strong, you can blanch them and rinse them and blanch them again,” she said.
Skipping that step, she sauteed the greens, tossing them around in the olive oil. Then, Orlowski poured a generous quarter cup or so of minced garlic into the greens. Next came fresh bread crumbs.
“The bread crumbs stick a little bit to the pot, so they get browned,” she said as she stirred and scraped.
Finally, it was time for lunch.
Mighty good eating for the pennies it cost, as the old saying goes. The greens were bitter, yes. But pleasantly so, if a little hard-core, and sweetened somehow by the garlic and some cheese. Miraculously, those sauteed dandelion and plantain leaves, served with several slices of homemade whole-wheat bread, became a meal. Even without the garlic mustard.
Weeds – why not?
“Everyone likes free,” Klem said. “And everyone likes to improve your health. You don’t have to go far to find some weeds to eat.”