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The weeds you need to succeed

Ready to start stalking wild plants? There are a few things to consider before you begin.

Make sure the plant is what you think it is. Ask an expert if need be.

Some areas have rules against picking or eating plants. When in doubt, ask.

Do not eat weeds from any area that may have been treated with pesticides or has been exposed to a lot of grime (i.e., by the side of a highway). Wherever they grew, wash them well.

Finally, Trocaire College’s Nicole Klem advises that you add new foods to your diet in small amounts, increase them gradually, and drink enough water to help your system adjust.

Now, let’s go into the weeds. Here are a few that dominate around here.

• Dandelion (Taraxacum). The big leaves are sometimes bitter. If so, blanch them, rinse them, and repeat if necessary.

• Plantain (Plantago major). says this green grew around Europe before the time of Columbus. And after Columbus came to America, Native Americans called it “white man’s footprint” because it seemed to follow the new arrivals around. There are two kinds (see accompanying story). Use the leaves like other wild greens.

• Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria). More attractively called ground elder, this weed in the carrot family is virtually invincible. Roman legions planted it around Europe so it would feed them forever, and farmers in the Middle Ages grew it as a crop. Use the young leaves as an herb. They taste like a cross between parsley and cilantro. The bigger leaves can be treated like other wild greens.

• Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). This little vine is a succulent, meaning the leaves are crunchy like the leaves of a cactus. The dry weather has delayed its arrival this year, but look for it soon in your garden, along sidewalks, in fields – anywhere. Put them on sandwiches as a lettuce substitute. Toss them into a salad. Remy Orlowski, owner of the Sample Seed Shop (see accompanying story), likes to bread and saute them.

• Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This plant has a fine old British nickname, Jack-by-the-hedge, because it has a habit of growing on the edge of hedges. Garlic mustard has tiny white flowers with four points, which will help you identify it as a cruciferous (cross-shaped) vegetable. Crush its leaves and you will smell garlic. Use garlic mustard as an herb or flavoring. Make pesto by grinding it up with walnuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

• Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album). Use this ubiquitous plant like spinach or chard – some gourmands consider it tastier. (Cookbook author Deborah Madison, for one, singles lamb’s quarters out for special praise.) Lamb’s quarters gets its name from its leaves, which have a dusty look.

• Violet (Viola): Both the leaves and the flowers of this pretty ground cover can be eaten raw. Use them to garnish salads and wow your friends. Flowers can also be candied as a showy decoration for desserts. You could even freeze them into ice cubes to make fancy drinks. Leaves are good all season long as a substitute for lettuce.

• Clover (Trifolium): Toss leaves into your salad.

Other local weeds you can eat include Japanese knotweed; creeping Charlie (aka ground ivy); nettles; chickweed and thistle (though learning to cook thistle could take some time). Wild amaranth, aka pigweed, was beloved by the ancient Aztecs. Use the leaves like spinach. Burdock stems taste like artichoke. They are through for the season this year, but look for them next spring. Also look for curly dock, which has hearty, tasty leaves.

Klem said the most nutritionally dense wild edibles are garlic mustard, dandelion, thistle, wintercress, sorrel and lamb’s quarter, which are rich in fiber, iron, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B2, calcium and zinc. Purslane is the plant with the highest amount of omega-3s, a healthy fat found in salmon.

Wild edibles invite experimentation – the price, after all, is right! Klem offers these basic ideas.

• Simmer them in liquid.

• Saute them in oil. You might want to add vinegar or, as in the accompanying story, mix in bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese.

• Blend them into a smoothie.

• Toss them into a salad. Klem suggests two-thirds cultivated greens mixed with one-third wild.

• Roast them with beans and garlic.

• Add them to soup, stew or curry.

• Mix them into an omelet or frittata.

• Use them to add taste and texture to a sandwich or pizza.

• Bake them into lasagna or stuffed shells.

How do you use wild greens? Post a picture of your dish to Twitter (tag it @BNRefresh) or email it to us.