Spring has sprung and all around us fresh green leaves are shooting up out of the ground. Gardeners across the country are desperately trying to rid themselves of those unwanted plants invading their gardens – the dreaded weeds. But across the pond in Europe the French, Italians and Spanish are out in the countryside foraging, filling their bags with these unlimited free foodstuffs that we collectively term as weeds.
Take the stinging nettle or urtica dioica for the Latin speakers among us. We associate them with the burning pain felt on brushing upon them, but for those in the know they are a delicious and free alternative to spinach. Armed with long gloves, young shoots can be picked pain free and the sting vanishes from them within hours of being harvested. They are nutrient dense, packed with minerals and amino acids and are reputed to increase energy levels and if eaten regularly, some say, may even prevent hay fever. With a sweeter and milder flavor than spinach many people may even prefer the free alternative and another bonus for the chef is that they retain their attractive deep green color when cooked. For hundreds of years nettle soup has been a spring staple in Europe and if you don’t mind waiting a few days nettle beer can be brewed.
Then there are dandelions. We may never give them a second glance but the French plant them directly outside of their kitchens so that they are never short of the crucial ingredient for dandelion flower fritters. The flowers are said to impart a sweet almost honey like flavor whereas the leaves are reminiscent of chicory. Even the roots can be used in soups and stews and are even roasted and ground into a health giving coffee. Dandelions stimulate the whole digestive tract meaning we derive more nutrients from our food and suffer less with gas and constipation but they are also a diuretic hence the old English name of pissabed.
Sorrel is an innocent looking weed packed with a big lemony flavor that is a perfect marriage with fish. The lime green low growing chickweed is another overlooked plant with a sweet and mild lettuce type of flavor. Ramps or wild garlic can be found growing in the woods where more often than not, you can smell them before you can see their delicate white flowers. Wild Asparagus, day lilies and many more pickings are all available now for free. Purslane can be found growing just about everywhere yet seeds are available for people to sow their own and perhaps cook into a traditional Portuguese purslane soup.
Farmers markets are the place to go if you aren’t a pick your own type of person. But at $4 for a bag of nettles why not get out in the garden and do a spot of weeding, as the old saying goes “if you can’t beat ‘em eat ‘em”.
Photos courtesy of Flickr thanks to brewbooks, itsmepete, Lisa and Justin Tilson, Happy Veganarian and Seatttle Bon Vivant.