Weeds: It's What's for Dinner
Every season or so a group of like-minded friends gathers together for a unique shared meal. We call ourselves the Foragers Dinner Club, and the meals feature ingredients foraged, grown, caught, or killed. We also like bartered, traded, or gifted foodstuffs, as these usually come with a great story attached. Every one of these meals has been unique and entirely pleasing, and this season's evening was no exception. Not only are these meals a treat to attend and consume, but they also offer many delights in the preparation. I've definitely ranged far and wide for ingredients in seasons past -- forest fire morels, wild turkey, venison, Wind River salmon. For this dinner, I already had a generous portion of razor clams in the freezer, the happy results of an outing my brother made with his family to the Washington coast, as well as some home-cured bacon from the pigs he and I slaughtered over the winter. Not a bad starting point, but a spring meal devoid of fresh greens would be criminal. So rather than head for the mountains or the coast for some far-flung foraging, I chose instead to search for spring greens from garden beds, roadside strips, and a local park, all within an easy walk from home.
There is a forest of food all around us, if only we train ourselves to see it. I'd been studying Melany Vorass Herrera's book The Front Yard Forager over the winter, and this weekend was a perfect time to put some book-learning into practice. Melany provides a guide for edible urban weeds, along with incredible recipes and tips and tricks for preparation and preservation of weedy windfalls. So out the front door I went on Sunday morning, with the looming Sunday afternoon dinner deadline fast approaching.
First Stop: Front Yard Garden Bed
Although I can't claim to have weedless garden beds, I wasn't after weeds for my first pick of the day. Late last fall I had scattered Mache, or corn salad, seeds in my garden beds. Over the dark winter months the seeds lay in waiting, then sprouting forth in these warm February days, the first of the garden greens.
I made a wilted greens salad with the thick, silky mache leaves, which gave me a vehicle for some of the bacon in addition to the greens.
Wilted Mache Salad
A goodly bowl of washed mache leaves
A slice of bacon
Sweet onion, sliced thinly
Apple cider vinegar
Fresh ground pepper
Fry the bacon till crispy enough to crumble. Remove from the pan, crumble, and set aside. To the hot bacon grease add some apple cider vinegar to deglaze the pan, and maybe a tablespoon of sugar to sweeten the dressing. Simmer for just a bit to dissolve the sugar. Add onions and crumbled bacon to the greens, pour the dressing over all, add some fresh ground black pepper, and toss.
Second Stop: A Local Park
Some 10 or 12 blocks away from my home is a beautiful wooded park with a creek running through it. I was after wood sorrel, a clover-like lobed plant with a bright, citrusy taste. A little bit of wandering through the woods brought success -- the vibrant green flush of a wood sorrel patch. A few minutes work, and I had as much as I needed.
Melany's book had a recipe for a German potato salad with wood sorrel, which I was keen to try. It also asked for some bacon, which I'm always happy to oblige. The bright acidic flavors of the wood sorrel were a perfect offset to the fat of the bacon and starch of the potatoes.
Creeping Wood Sorrel German Potato Salad (The Front Yard Forager, page 72)
6 medium-size red potatos (peels on), quartered
1 teaspoon salt
2 pieces bacon, chopped to 1 inch pieces
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons raw sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup loosely packed creeping wood sorrel greens
Place potatoes in a pot and fill with enough water to cover. Add salt. Bring to a boil and cook for about 15-20 minutes or until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and set aside to cool to room temperature.
In a large deep skillet, fry bacon on medium-high heat until browned and crisp, turning as needed. Remove bacon and set aside. Add onion to bacon grease, and cook over medium heat until browned.
Add vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and pepper to the pan. Bring to a boil, then add potatoes. Crumble in half the bacon and transfer to a large bowl. Mix in creeping woood sorrel greens just prior to serving to preserve color and flavor. Top with remaining bacon and serve at room temperature.
Third Stop: Unkempt Sidewalk Strips
Dandelions are notoriously prolific, which is handy for the spring forager because they are also edible and nutritious. However, dandelion greens can have a bitter flavor. Happily an almost equally prolific dandelion cousin offers the same leafy green goods without the bitterness. It goes by Cat's Ear, or Flatweed, or sometimes False Dandelion, but if you're like me you've simply been lumping this unobtrusive weed in with things-that-look-like-dandelions. Close examination will show a thicker leaf, covered in fine hair on both sides, with a predisposition to horizontal growth close to the ground. Cat's Ear is a diamond in the rough, quite literally. You can find it in the unkempt edges and corners that are common in even the most well-groomed neighborhoods. I carried a paper bag with me as I walked back from the park, stopping to add choice Cat's Ear leaves along the way.
I planned to use these hearty greens to dress the top of a crispy flatbread loaded with the razor clams, spiked with red pepper flakes. For the recipe I only slightly modified one that I found in the comments section of one of my favorite blogs, Hank Shaw's Hunter|Angler|Gardner|Cook. If you ever find yourself in possession of wild foods but lacking culinary inspiration, look him up! The recipe is a bit long for reprint, but here's a link. The only modification I made was to sprinkle thinly sliced Cat's Ear greens on top of the pizzas as they went into the oven.
And with that, I had everything I needed for the dinner. While I was out, however, I tried to make note of other foodstuffs I could collect in the future. Lots of spring plants are in full bloom right now, including dead nettles, plantain, ferns, and horsetails. The Front Yard Forager is a guidebook to most of these plants, and I'm looking forward to exploring Melany's recipes in more depth.
The Main Event
I wasn't alone in my preparations. The Foragers Dinner Club table was, like always, loaded to capacity with an incredible variety of homemade food and drink. Pickled beans, turnips, carrots and strawberries acted as hors d'oevres. A crusty artisinal loaf of bread with roasted garlic kept people occupied while deep red fillets of salmon were grilled to perfection. The salmon had come from Alaska, traded for some backyard meat rabbits. On the table a winter root vegetable mash, fresh pasta laced through with garden greens, the razor clam flatbread, potato salad, and wilted mache corn salad, all chased down with a pony keg of homebrew IPA.
For dessert, straight up heart-stopping pieces of honey comb, heavy with honey, along with some dainty cookies. A bottle of apple brandy, laid up last fall from a pressing of Fuji apples, provided a deep and fruity warmth to end the meal.
What a day! A morning of foraging, hunter-gatherer reflexes turned on, walking through woods and down sidewalks, stooping to find edible gems scattered in unlikely places. Foraging locally transforms the local streets, alleys, and parks into places of new interest. An afternoon of cooking with novel ingredients, learning new recipes. An evening shared meal, with amazing food, even better company, lots of laughter and long lingering at the table. If there are any things more real than these, I sure can't think of them.