Getting to Know: Foraged Greens
Edible abundance is all around us, but you have to know what to look for and when and where to look. Here are some of our favorite foods that grow wild in urban, suburban, and rural environments.
The young, coiled shoots of several species of fern are a prized early-spring foraged food. They can be found in either your local woods or your local supermarket in the spring. No matter the source, they are delicate and highly perishable. Fiddleheads have a “grassy, nutty” flavor similar to those of asparagus and green beans. Wash them carefully before blanching them in boiling water, shocking them in an ice bath, and briefly sautéing them in butter.
This pungent member of the onion genus (commonly known as ramps, wild leeks, or ramson) is a favorite ingredient in Appalachia, but foragers—and chefs—in temperate climates in all parts of the United States have taken notice of it as well. Both the leaves and the bulb can be eaten raw or cooked; ramps taste like a cross between a scallion and a yellow onion, with a strong, garlicky bite. We like to sauté them for soups, add them to egg dishes or stir-fries, or pickle them.
The pesky yellow flowers of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can mar an otherwise pristine lawn, but this plant’s flowers, stems, and serrated leaves are delicious (just take care not to harvest them from chemically treated lawns). The leaves, which are slightly bitter, can be cooked like other sturdy leafy greens, such as kale, or can be added to a salad as you would endive. Dandelion greens are traditionally tossed with hot bacon dressing, which softens their peppery, bitter edge.
Sea beans are members of the genus Salicornia and grow in marshes and other saline environments. Also commonly known as glasswort, pickle weed, or saltwort, this plant’s crunchy stems and salty flavor quickly bring to mind raw green beans or cucumbers, and like both vegetables, sea beans work well in pickled applications. The leaves and shoots of this succulent plant can be eaten raw and are also sturdy enough to stand up to stir-frying or steaming.
Though the nettle genus is made up of about 500 species, the variety most commonly used for culinary purposes is the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). It’s not hype: A network of hollow hairs on the leaves and stems really does sting. Fortunately, soaking or cooking nettles in water solves that problem. With a flavor similar to cucumber or spinach (or “an almost watermelon-like sweetness,” according to one taster), nettles are often pureed into a pesto or cooked and served as a side dish. The leaves, which have a tannic quality, can be dried and brewed for tea.
Sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum) lend themselves to many applications, most notably when they’re dried and ground into commercial filé powder, the ingredient commonly used in Creole and Cajun cooking to thicken dishes such as gumbo and étouffée. The raw leaves taste a bit like root beer, with a slightly sweet, candied flavor. Foragers can add young leaves and buds to salads or boil the tree’s roots with some maple syrup to make sassafras tea.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) grows all over the world but is native to Asia and is therefore a common ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines; it is commonly known as pigweed in Australia and verdolaga in Mexico. Its leaves and stems are juicy and sweet with a slightly sour tang. Like those of sassafras, purslane’s leaves have a slightly mucilaginous quality, so it is used to thicken soups and stews. You can find this persistent plant growing in sidewalk cracks in most parts of the United States.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is commonly called sourgrass for a reason: It’s high in oxalic acid, which gives it a sour, tart, lemony flavor. The small, heart-shaped leaves appear in groups of three, so it’s often mistaken for clover, a close relative. Wood sorrel’s tang makes it a tasty complement to fish. However, because of its high concentration of oxalic acid, it can be toxic if eaten in large quantities, so go easy.
The leaves of wild sorrel (Rumex acetosella) look a bit like arugula—slightly elongated and pointed like a sword or spear and deep green in color. The smaller the leaf, the milder the flavor. The tender leaves lend their citrusy quality to sorrel soup, but they’re also often used in omelets, salads, and herb sauces. Like wood sorrel, sheep sorrel is high in oxalic acid and should be eaten in moderation.
This fast-growing plant, which is commonly known as lamb’s quarters or goosefoot, belongs to the genus Chenopodium, which also includes plants widely used as food crops such as quinoa and spinach. It’s easy to distinguish lamb’s quarters from related plants, though, by the triangular leaves. Its bitter flavor can be easily mitigated by blanching; the cooked leaves are much milder.
The leaves of Amaranthus species range in color from green to red to gold to purple, making them popular ornamental garden plants. While it’s commonly known as amaranth, this plant’s other names include Chinese spinach and Joseph’s coat. Used in Asian, African, and Caribbean cuisines as a leafy vegetable, red-leaved amaranth is slightly bitter; its leaves and stems can be steamed or sautéed.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) grows in every corner of the world due to its tolerance of both heat and cold. The plant’s flowers resemble stars, and the leaves and stems tangle into a ground cover. Add the leaves, which are soft and somewhat delicate, to salads for an earthy, grassy accent or cook the leaves and stems until just wilted—you don’t want to overcook the crisp, juicy stems.