Shopping around in your backyard will not only save you money, but will also provide a vitalizing dose of direct contact with the natural world. When I notice the parade of plants that pop up in my yard and along frequented routes, I often contemplate my next plate of nourishment from the wild.
I’m fortunate that my parents introduced me to harvesting wild foods. When I was a child my parents provided seasonal pilgrimages to the best blackberry patches that Shelby County summers offered. Each fall we canvassed the county roads searching for pavement pockmarked with black walnut hulls or the flattened globs of permissions.
Each April, I make a “Spring Salute Salad” inspired by the late Euell Gibbons, a wild foods expert of the ’60s and ’70s. I synthesize several of Gibbons’ recipes to make the salad, gathering young dandelion leaves from the yard and the still-tender shoots of chickweed that carpet the area near my fence in early spring.
While the chickweed usually supplies much of the heft and substantial vitamins in this annual salute to the season, the redbud and violet blossoms are the natural ingredients that make this salad dance. A dressing made with a bit of olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice and sometimes a bit of honey gives the salad a little zing.
A week after making this year’s Spring Salute Salad, the dandelions waved their yellow victory flags over most of the sunny patches in my yard. Although the greens were now mostly past harvesting for salads, the flowers offered new culinary adventures. While I’ve never made dandelion wine, I have cooked up many memorable meals with dandelion flowers. This time I decided on a quiche into which I tossed a cupful of dandelion flowers, the bitter green sepals removed. The quiche tasted slightly like one made with crab, but it might have been the bit of horseradish and capers that I put into the cheese and egg mixture.
This year I experimented with my dandelion jelly by infusing the flowers—again sepals removed—with heated orange juice instead of water. I was very pleased with the results, which is not only lovely to look at, but to taste, with a flavor somewhat reminiscent of smooth marmalade.
Today I dined on stir-fried lambsquarter leaves, which I collected in a colander near my compost pile. Although some folks like the leaves raw, I don’t care for the taste of the mealy “dust” on their raw leaves. However, after giving the leaves a quick washing and a bit of a shake, I tossed them into a wok with hot peanut oil.
The dull leaves sizzled and quickly transformed into a beautiful seaweed-green mess of greens as I tossed them around in the hot oil. This only took a minute. Then I added a bit of chopped wild onion and a dash of sesame oil.
Turning this onto a plate with a dab of sweet hot chili sauce, a serving of brown rice, some cooked shitake mushrooms and a hardboiled egg provided a fine feast. Each bite was more delicious because of the time I spent outside noticing and appreciating these under-used wild vegetables.
Supermarket of the Swamp
I’m keeping an eye on the cattails in a nearby wetland. The male parts of the cattails are just beginning to flower and produce pollen. Euell Gibbons rightly called cattail “the supermarket of the swamp.”
Indeed, every part of the cattail offers opportunities for cooking or creating for the casual harvester as well as for the more industrious. I’ve joined the ranks of those industrious enough to pound the starch from the fibrous roots, but the cattail pollen is one of easiest and most rewarding yields this plant offers. The pollen is a fine yellow powder that can be easily collected by tipping this flowering head into a bag and shaking. A bag works better than a bowl because the pollen is so light that a breeze may blow away your harvest if you are unable to quickly close the opening.
I mix anywhere from ¼ to ½ cup of this golden pollen in my pancake and muffin recipes and appreciate the golden gleam and distinctive taste and texture it offers—not to mention the extra nutritional value.
Wren Smith has led wild foods workshops for over 20 years and serves as the interpretive programs manager at Bernheim Forest near Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The bulk of her work involves training volunteer naturalists in a program that encourages naturalists to deepen both their emotional and intellectual connections with the natural world.