Dr. Roger R. Locandro, is Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Dean of Students at Cook College, Rutgers University. He is a weed ecologist and teaches a unique course in interesting and edible plants. The course is followed by a sequel "Interesting and Edible Meats." His experiences are an accumulation of a long, traditional, ethnic heritage, fine tuned by his weed science degrees and his continued interest in teaching.
Exquisite cuisine can be discovered in the wild world of weeds. Some of the finest tasting, most succulent vegetables remain virtually untouched in fields and roadside areas. Americans have generally abandoned the European/Oriental tradition of the utilization of edible and medicinal wild plants. Standard of living appears to play an important role relative to direct dependence or even interest in wild things. As the standard of living increases, people rely more and more on specialized groups of people - farmers - to produce food.
Half of our family originated in a little town in the hills of Sicily and half from the Netherlands. Sicilians are grand masters of plant and fungi taxonomy and "culinary" economic botany. They know what's good, interesting and edible! Sicily is a mountainous, rocky island in the semitropics off southern Italy. Steep-walled valleys, covered with a thin mantle of soil, surrounded by a marine environment, are the basis of the Sicilian agrarian/fishing economy. The soil and geology is such that much of the farming is only subsistence level. Families make every inch and every plant count. While the Netherlands is a considerable contrast, the older European wild plant traditions are still evident.
Teaching weeds with an "interesting and edible flavor" unlocks excitement, interest, and motivation in all students, young and old. The opportunity to teach weed taxonomy, ecology, biochemistry, etc., through the medium of interesting and edible plants, with an ethnic twist, has proved to be very successful. From an infinite population of plant species, I have selected five plants and will claim that they are unbeatable for table fare. Most of the species are easily located and harvested.
1. Dandelion-Taraxacum officinale
2. Pokeweed-Phytolacca americana
3. Greenbrier-Similax rotundifolia
4. Lambsquarters-Chenopodium album
5. Burdock-Arctium minus
In New Jersey we start picking tender, succulent dandelions on southern slopes in early March. Dandelions are ubiquitous and can be found almost anywhere in the world. The rest of the world relishes this wild treat. In Italian we would say "chicoria," somewhat descriptive of the chicory-like leaves of dandelions. An interesting note is the constant increase in the production of domestic dandelions in vegetable growing areas of the United States.
What do you do with a dandelion? Eat it fresh in salad, use it as a vegetable, a main course, or drink it! The youngest plants - those without flowers - are prime. They make the best salad with a dressing of your choice. Dutch style provides a hot dressing of chopped bacon bits, bacon drippings, sugar and vinegar to taste. The hot mix is simply poured over freshly cleaned dandelions and blended together.
As we move from the fresh product, an important lesson is worth learning. Steam, do not boil, vegetables. Boiling effectively removes large quantities of water soluble vitamins and minerals. Steam helps to preserve the nutritional qualities, along with the fine, delicate flavors and textures. Steam the dandelion greens until tender and serve as you would domestic greens -spinach, Swiss chard, etc. The difference here is that the dandelions are fresh, free, and they don't come in plastic bags!
Now for the Sicilian treatment. Take the drained, steamed dandelions or any other green that you wish to use, and cut them into half -inch pieces. Mix them with just enough beaten egg to hold the greens together. Add your favorite Italian grated cheese to taste and a touch of finely chopped garlic. Form hamburger-like patties with a large spoon or with your hands. Fry the patties in olive oil. Drain. Here is another good tip: always drain fried food on a cake rack for a nice dry all-over texture. My only problem is not being able to cook enough dandelion cakes for my family and students. This style, or cuisine, is reflective of Sicily. Limited quantities of wild or garden vegetables, combined with small quantities of eggs and cheese, are artfully stretched to provide a balanced meal for a family.
If you are planning to eat dandelion greens, fresh or raw, harvest only up to the flowering stage. Plant chemistry changes considerably when the flowers are in bloom. But don't stop now. Wait for full bloom, and begin the dandelion wine process. The wine is made from the golden blossoms. The following recipe is from the Dutch side of the family. They settled in New Jersey over two hundred years ago.
10 quarts blossoms, no stems
15 quarts water
Boil water, add blossoms and remove from heat. Allow to stand overnight. Next day simmer for one hour. then strain and retain only the liquid.
Add ten pounds of sugar, eight sliced oranges, eight sliced lemons, two pounds of raisins. Place in large crock or plastic container. Ferment for nine days. Stir twice a day. Place in bottles or jars until fermentation is complete. If the first fermentation does not begin within one or two days, add a cake of bakers' yeast or dry yeast.
Do not seal the jars at this point. After the second fermentation has stopped in the jar or bottle (the time interval depends on the temperature of fermentation), remove sediments by siphoning off the liquid into clean bottles. Again, allow the bottle cap to remain loose until no further fermentation takes place. Seal the bottles, store away, and prepare for some old "medication"!
Burdock starts to grow in early May in New Jersey. The plant is characterized by large, rhubarb-like leaves and edible stems and roots. This is another plant species enjoyed by the rest of the world. in Africa it is known as "gobo." To Italians it is "cardone." The best part is the young, succulent stem. Don't eat the leaves. Try the roots. . . they're okay as a steamed vegetable but not as good as the stems. Cut the stems into half-inch pieces and steam until tender. Proceed to use the Sicilian formula with the eggs, cheese, garlic and olive oil. You may also enjoy burdock in stews, soups, or served as a cooked vegetable.
I predict that pokeweed will be completely removed from the wild scene when discovered as a good vegetable. Prepared and served as asparagus, and alongside of asparagus, people will select pokeweed almost every time. The highly succulent, tender, sweet shoots are harvested in the early spring. Pick the shoots up to eighteen inches in length. Strip off all the leaves beginning at the base. Stripping downward removes some of the outside cuticle in the process. Retain the leaves in the whorl at the tip. Cook them along with the stems. if you say pokeweed is poisonous, you're right. The plant contains an alkaloid - phytolacin. Fortunately, the alkaloid is highly soluble and can be easily extracted from the plant tissue. The alkaloid is generally concentrated in the roots, fruits, and leaves and, to a lesser extent, in the stems and young shoots. Cut the prepared shoots into two-inch segments and - break a rule - boil for thirty seconds. Pour off the water and proceed to steam until tender. Serve as you would asparagus, as a vegetable, in soups, or try the Sicilian treatment.
Lambsquarters is probably the closest relative to spinach only it's better! Taste tests continue to indicate a high preference for lambsquarters over spinach. Steam and serve. In New England, lambsquarters is canned for winter use. Pick out only the young shoots or allow a couple of large plants to grow and continue to harvest the new side shoots. The more you pick, the more lateral budding is induced.
The best is saved for last - greenbrier, Rapidly growing vine tips are harvested in the spring and summer. Snap them off the ends of the vine with your fingers. They will crack where the tender shoot extends out from last year's woody tissue. Serve as a hot vegetable, add fresh to a lettuce salad, or use the "treatment." This is another Italian delicacy, also known as "rauni." it's hard to believe that such a fine, delicate treat as similax comes from a thorny, green bramble tough enough to be used as a cattle fence.
Not all weeds taste good or are pleasant textured. And be very cautious to avoid plants or plant parts that are poisonous. We spend little time foraging among the sticks and stones and concentrate on the many good and edible plants.
An extended list of eating delicacies include the highly underutilized wild onion, Allium vineale; chickweed, Stellaria media; yellow rocket, Barbarea vulgaris; watercress, Nasturtium officinale; day lily, Hemerocallis fulva, and many others.
Your introduction to edible plants may serve as an entryway to an exciting, dynamic career in plant sciences. From the fields and byways, the classroom and laboratory ... bon apetit!
Mike Oehler on Cattails
Harvesting Wild Thistle
What Weeds Tell Us About The Soil
Those nasty weeds, always complicating our lives and making more work for us than what we desire. Weeds are bad…..right? Well, not all of them. Simply put, the definition of a weed is “a plant out of place.” It’s good to think of them that way because some of those plants are edible and very healthy for you! So, it’s really not a bad idea to learn about weeds and their effects on your diet as well as their effect on your garden. Let’s take a look at some common weeds that you probably have growing in your garden.
DANDELIONS. Believe it or not, these critters are beneficial weeds! They are edible, and can be found usually in salads. They are beneficial because they add good minerals to the soil. They attract pollinating insects, and release ethylene gas, which helps fruits to ripen. Dandelions also have been used as medicines for such ailments as infections, liver problems, and cancers.
MORNING GLORY. Does this plant have any uses? It is on the Federal Noxious Weed list, and technically it is illegal to grow, import, sell, or even have in your possession. It is edible, being known in southern states as water spinach. The Morning Glory grows fast and tolerates poor, dry soils. Some species vine, and are used for creating shades on building walls, helping to reduce heating and cooling costs. The roots do have minerals which can be returned to the soil when composted.
CHICKWEED. If you have chickweed growing in your garden, it is a good indication of some very good soil. This plant has a tendency to accumulate some great minerals such as potassium and manganese, which return to the soil upon decomposition. They are edible, commonly being used in salads.
CLOVER. This plant indicates low fertility in your soil, especially low nitrogen levels in the soil it grows in. It is used a lot as a cover crop. Farmers will use clover to help control soil and water quality, weeds, pests, and diseases.
DOCK. This weed indicates a poorly drained soil that is becoming acidic. Some species are nuisance weeds, but others are edible. There are not that many known uses for this particular plant.
HORSETAIL. This weed is widely known as a nuisance weed. It is difficult to get rid of, even after pulling it out as it grows deeply into the ground. It grows in poor, acidic soil. However the Horsetail does accumulate some good minerals which go back into the ground when it decomposes. Increasing the PH level in your soil will do a lot to get rid of this pest.
VETCH This plant also indicates a poor soil that is low in nitrogen. Like some of the other weeds, it does accumulate some good minerals which go back into the soil. It is a plant that is occasionally used as a cover crop also. There are no other good uses for this particular weed.
QUACK GRASS. Not much to say about this particular plant. It is hard to get rid of because of the creeping rhizomes (underground root system) which allow it to grow quickly. Quack Grass is usually considered an invasive weed. A sick dog will dig it up and eat the roots to cure its ailments. It has been used in herbal medicine since the time of the Greeks.
THISTLE. This particular weed usually is found in compacted soil. Butterflies like these plants. The Thistle is the national emblem of Scotland. It is also the emblem of Encyclopedia Britannica, which originated in Scotland. Other than that, no medicinal uses and you surely do not want to eat it!
SORREL. Yet another type of weed that exists in soil that is acidic and low in lime. The leaves of this product can be found in soups, salads, and sauces. In little quantities, it is harmless for human consumption. However, if a person ingests too much of this weed, it can be fatal. Oxalic acid, which is a poison, is found in Sorrel; thus, the reason why a large quantity can be deadly to the person eating it.
PLANTAIN. Here is another one of nature’s products that is found in acidic, compacted, and low fertility soil. This plant has been used since prehistoric times as an herbal remedy. Other than that, not an item you want to find in your soil.
Make sure you are careful if you are thinking about eating the plants that are listed as edible. There are many species of each plant, and you want to make sure you are eating the right one. Talk to a master gardener or well experienced produce person to get the right answers. You know the saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?” In this case it’s more like “if you can’t weed ‘em, eat ‘em.” Just section off a part of your garden and grow some of these pesty weeds. Nurture them along with some water during the hot months and you’re all set. Happy gardening!