Visit one of Vancouver’s high end restaurants and you are likely to be taken aback by what’s on the menu — especially the salad menu. The trend among our top chefs is to serve up alien labs carts and wild flowers rather than the more traditional salad ingredients. Ask what’s in your salad, and expect to hear dandelion, ox-eyed daisy, purslane, wild sorrel, nettles, chickweed, shepherd’s purse and barrage as well as fresh herbs such as chervil and watercress.
Our prestigious chefs don’t just serve any old weed, of course. While it is tempting to visualize them roadside, attired in their white hats, pulling dandelions up by the roots and stuffing them into coolers, such is not the case. Our chefs obtain ‘high quality weeds” which are grown organically by local farmers who specialize in supplying salad greens and other vegetables to high end restaurants.
And get this: the demand for high quality, organically grown weeds is so high that one farmer reports supplying weeds and veggies to twenty-seven restaurants and has an additional seven restaurants on the waiting list.
The question now among foodies is whether or not the average family will jump on the organic weed bandwagon and start serving wild foraging crops at their family dinners and barbecues.
One can only imagine how a side of weeds would taste. Still, to be fair, many of the foods we eat are acquired tastes. Remember the first time you tasted broccoli? Or green olives? Or parsnips? Chances are you had to train yourself to eat those foods. No doubt we can train ourselves to eat weeds as well.
You can buy your weeds from organic weed growers, if you have any in your area. Otherwise, you can be truly authentic, spurning purchased weeds and foraging for your own. Before you start, you might want to avail yourself of one of the publications on this topic, such as Samuel Thayer’s book, The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. This book pretty much tells you what you need to know when you start to forage for wild plants. It also discusses how to identify them, serve them and cook them.
The appeal of foraging is twofold: first, the plants you find are free, so you save money. Second, the weeds qualify as local produce so you’re doing your thing for the environment.
Alternatively, if traveling around looking for good quality weeds isn’t your idea of a fun way to spend Sunday, then you could encourage the weeds that want to grow naturally in your lawn or garden. Not that they need much encouragement, but you get the idea.
However, and I want you to know that I have TRIED ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS, but apparently if you are planning on turning your lawn into a big salad bar, you will discover that you have to fiddle around with the weeds to make them good eating.
You may have to thin your weeds out, just as you do your row of garden lettuce and carrots. You will have to remember to harvest your weeds while they are in their prime, else they will be too old and tough. One dedicated weed eater maintains that she trims her chickweed with scissors every four to seven days, ensuring it stays tender all spring.
Buying foodstuffs that are grown locally has become a mantra for many – and with good reason. Locally grown food is likely to be fresher, environmentally friendly (given that it has not required undue amounts of carbon based fuel to transport it), and buying it supports the local economy.
Eating local weeds certainly fits the first two items on the list, and if you buy your weeds from a local organic farmer, you’ve covered the third one as well.
Not all weeds, of course. Some are poisonous. You will need to know what you are doing, especially if you forage for your own weeds rather than buying the specially grown ones.
If you do your own foraging, be sure to avoid plants that are growing roadside. They will have absorbed pollutants from vehicle exhausts. Also, regardless of where you find your weeds, be certain they haven’t been sprayed with insecticides or other toxic chemicals.
Take the dandelion. Although the dandelion is not a popular food in North America, Europeans have a long history of cultivating and eating this plant. Tender spring dandelion shoots are good in salads, and the greens can be cooked the same way you would cook spinach or other greens. Mix your boiled or steamed dandelion greens with a bit of sautéed garlic, onion and pepper; add Parmesan cheese and dress with oil and vinegar dressing.
The plant is rich in vitamins and minerals and in some cultures is used both as a food source and medicinally. One thing to keep in mind: the dandelion is a powerful diuretic. It was once known as Pee-the-Bed plant.
Chickweed (Stellaria Media) is another example. This weed flourishes almost anywhere and is said to be an exceptionally sweet wild green. As with the dandelion, you can eat the greens in a salad or cook them as you would cook spinach. Chickweed is rich in copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, silicon and zinc. It is high in calcium, chlorophyll, phosphorus, potassium, protein, Vitamin A and fat, and it is a good source of Vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine and plant sodium.