Exploring the Native Edibles in Our Backyards and at Local Grocers
Hurrah, the long-awaited spring is finally upon us! Now that we can come out of hibernation, we are just in time to enjoy the early spring greens that can be found in our natural food stores and maybe even our backyards.
While you are surely familiar with the earliest spring vegetables, such as asparagus and peas, there are a few greens that may be new to you. Fiddlehead ferns are among the most delicate, tasty, wild edibles out there, but they are not commercially cultivated (although they have been seen at some spring farmers markets and food coops). You can recognize them by their tightly spiraled heads and bright green color. It isn’t recommended to eat fiddlehead ferns raw, so try blanching them quickly in boiling water and then sautéing with mushrooms and fresh herbs.
Now we all know garlic, and if you planted some last fall you may be harvesting this summer. But have you seen that interesting byproduct of garlic called garlic scapes? This is another early spring edible—milder than garlic and good when cooked in a stir-fry or added to risotto, pasta salads, and omelets. I’ve even seen a recipe for garlic scape pesto in Fine Cooking Magazine’s cookbook, In Season.
Ramps are another flavorful plant you can find growing wild in wooded areas and especially alongside streams. They have long green leaves, a reddish stem, and a small white bulb. Ramps have a strong smell and taste much like garlic, and the greens are usually eaten along with the bulb. They are said to be tasty when grilled, sautéed or roasted with other spring veggies such as asparagus. Try them chopped and sprinkled onto a baked potato along with other toppings like sour cream or shredded cheese.
For gardeners, lettuce greens of all colors and varieties are likely the first things sprouting. Mâche is one of the most cold-tolerant, early-growing lettuces to come up in the garden. Peppery arugula and the pointy-leaved mizuna are popping up too. Wonderful salads can be made using a mix of different lettuce greens, so experiment!
Sorrel is a delicious, lemony- tasting spring green that has a lot of culinary applications. It is used raw in salads, salad dressings, and sandwiches or cooked in sauces and soups. (Note the alliteration with “s”—that’s how I remember sorrel!) According to In Season, you can even preserve it so it lasts beyond the spring by pureeing and freezing with water in ice cube trays.
Let’s not forget spinach, that nutritional all-star that is just as good cooked (sautéed with garlic and cream or butter) as raw (yet another salad possibility). It also makes a tasty pizza topping.
In England, some spring greens are considered to be the first cabbages of the year; they are good in stir-fries, soups and stews. Make sure not to overcook them as this damages their flavor and appearance. One recommendation is to sauté them in black pepper and crème fraîche.
Watercress—a member of the mustard family—grows wild in our area, but is also found throughout spring at local health food stores. Like arugula, it has a peppery bite to it and makes a fine salad green. The whole plant can be eaten, not just the leaves.
Stinging nettles, although it may not seem like it, are an excellent edible spring green. They should not be eaten raw, and in fact you should use gloves just to handle them (the “sting” is in their name for a reason). They are usually found wild although some farmers markets carry them. Use only the leaves, which can be added to soups or steamed and put into pasta dishes, risottos, and pesto.
Dandelion greens are well known for being a cleansing liver tonic. The taste is rather bitter, but can be tempered by cooking. Many people prefer them raw for their health benefits, but if you prefer a milder flavor try cooking a couple bunches of these greens in a soup along with carrots, celery and onion. This makes a satisfying meal for evenings when there’s still a chill in the air.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the spring greens out there; there are also collards, kale, endives, escarole, and parsley. Enjoy as many as you can find, for your health, for the taste, and for the simple joy of spring! (And make sure to take along a knowledgeable guide to help you find the wild ones).