Foraging for edible weeds
I have always found a deep satisfaction in growing food and using it to feed myself, my family, and friends. Perhaps it is the patience required when tending to a growing plot prior to harvest. No instant gratification to be found. The dreaming of what those months-away-heads-of-garlic will be used for (pickled garlic of course!). It makes it so rewarding once you get there! Perhaps the satisfaction comes from knowing the effort invested in each morsel of food on a plate. Or perhaps it speaks to that part of me that likes the idea of being as self-sufficient as possible.
Gathering dinner from the 'wild' takes this satisfaction to a whole other realm (as I spot edible weeds in my workplace garden, I chuckle at the use of the term 'wild'). It changes how I see the plants around me, and my awareness of subtle changes in the season that might herald the arrival of a new 'crop'. I am acutely aware that these things are outside of my control. And there is something about that that makes me feel grounded.
'Foraging' is becoming a pretty popular modern hobby. Which I imagine in some parts of the world, and in some cultures, (where this has always been a recognised and valid form of harvesting food), must seem a little funny. However I see this shift in how we view our potential food sources as an acknowledgment to those who have been doing this for a long time that they were on to a good thing. Hopefully it doesn't take the rest of us too long to 'catch up' (that I suppose could be considered slowing down).
Wild food harvesting drives a desire in me to be more creative with how I use the plants. To do this, it is important to understand their taste profiles, so they can be used well. There is a very different flavour profile to understand when harvesting edible weeds - notably, a lot of bitterness that your palate may not be accustomed to. But don't let this put you off. Not all edible weeds are bitter, bitterness can be balanced, and can in fact add to the flavour profile of a dish. Ideally edible weeds can be used in place, or alongside, the cultivated plants we are more familiar with, without having to sacrifice flavour.
Here are a few edible weed taste profiles to get you started, and a simple yet impressive dish to try, using a selection of my favourite edible weeds.
If you are new to foraging, see my recommended resources for edible weed foraging below.
Edible weed tasting notes
The very young leaves of all plants are best for eating as they are far less bitter.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) - nutty sweet baby leaves, mild grassy flavour - devein them if you want to minimise the bitter notes.
Dock (Rumex sp.) - varying levels of bitterness with a lemony backnote that is quite pleasant.
Farmer's friends (Bidens pilosa) - an initial sweetness followed by a mild bitterness. Not grassy. Appealing soft texture to raw leaf. Pairs well with mint.
Plantain (Plantago sp.) - raw mushroom flavour, fibrous
Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) - soft and sweet when young.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) - grassy but soft texture. Mixes well with cress.
Baked ricotta with wild greens recipe
Makes 4 individual ramekins
2 tbs olive oil
1 red onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
500g fresh, firm ricotta
4 tbs chopped wild edible greens - I used young sow thistle, dock and young dandelion leaves
1 tbs tamari
1/4 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Butter or oil the ramekins.
2. Add the oil to a frying pan and saute the onion on a low heat until caramelised. Add the garlic and heat until fragrant - only a minute or so. Burnt garlic will add to the bitter notes from the greens.
3. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, cooked onion mix, chopped greens, tamari, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Pack firmly into the ramekins and bake for 25-30 minutes until browning and the ricotta is coming away from the side of the ramekin. Let cool before turning out.
5. Serve with a green salad dressed with balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of salt.
Edible weed foraging resources
If you are going to start eating weeds (obviously recommended), then you do need to be able to confidently identify them. I suggest starting learning about a handful of common weeds, like those listed above. Get used to identifying them, their taste, and how to incorporate them into your meals and then learn about a handful more! There are a couple of excellent resources to assist. Here are my favourite.
Diego Bonetto, a wild food advocate and experienced forager based in Sydney, has a database of edible weeds, particularly relevant to the East Coast of Australia, as well as The Wild Food Map app. I can't wait for this app to be available on IOS so it can come with me on foraging trips!
My favourite field book for Australian weed foraging is The Weed Forager's Handbook A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland. Their website Eat That Weed includes a gallery of edible weeds, with particular relevance to Melbourne.
Both Diego Bonetto and the Eat That Weed team offer foraging courses in Sydney and Melbourne which is a fun way to get started and to build your confidence. If you are in the Byron Bay region come and join me on a foraging excursion where we will explore the flavours of edible weeds, sharing a meal made from the wild ingredients.
Edible Wild Food is another excellent resource, more relevant to Canada and the US, however relevant outside of these countries too as many edible weeds are distributed widely (as 'weeds' tend to be).