How to Cook a Weed takes its’ title from one of the greatest and most strange of American food books, the 1942 volume How to Cook a Wolf, written by the inimitable MFK Fisher. Released during the era of wartime rationing, it contains innumerable recipes, philosophies and approaches to living not only well but elegantly while stretching budgets and pinching pennies. The heart of this work touches something that has always been close to me : making the best of limited resources.
I won’t spend much more time singing the praises of Fisher and her masterpiece (believe me, there will be enough and plenty to come), but rather extrapolate on why that volume relates to our work here.
On the surface, this site is about foraging and using wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and medicines in the pursuit of a thrifty, healthy, green lifestyle without forsaking elegance or the pleasures of the table. This is the world of cucina povera–the cooking of the poor and the working classes. The best, most heart and soul-warming cooking there is. It is about making the most of what we have, and maybe realizing that we had more than we thought. There will be more attention paid here to the multiple uses and benefits of plants and mushrooms, and responsible and delicious ways to use and grow them, than botany lessons or identification guides. There will always be some identification content but this site is not intended to cover that well-trodden ground. Many have already done it much better than I ever could.
On a deeper level, this site is about re-examining our use of the food resources we already have, and understanding our responsibility should we choose to use the additional wild produce provided by our environment. Our culture is one of waste and gross negligence. I won’t be spending much time harping about that, again, other people have done it much better. What we are interested in here is solutions, ways in which we can rethink our environment from the woods we take a hike in to the yards and gardens of our own houses.
We have fought against the wildlings. We pay people to spray them with chemicals or pull them from the ground. Some of them might not be so bad. Some of them might even be a whole lot better than the denatured spinach in a plastic bag you plunk down your hard-earned cash for.
It’s time to let the wildlings in.
It’s time we learned how to cook a weed.
A couple of weeks ago I was craving a salad, full of the sharp and sometimes bitter “weeds” and wild plants of spring. And while there was a little bit of snow on the ground and ice on the waters, I was confident that I could find enough wild greenery that wasn’t frost-bound to make a salad.
Make no mistake, this wasn’t a survival exercise. I just wanted a nice salad, to complement my more traditional wintery offerings of dried and preserved goods and winter produce.
This was a useful test of winter foraging skills. Not only did I have to remember where certain winter greens and herbs grew, I had to think of areas in which they wouldn’t be covered in an inch or more of snow. They would still be perfectly edible, but water-logged and wilted. It was a challenge to my memory of not only wild plants but the landscape around them. I needed perimeters, areas where there was a either shelter from or drainage for the snow. I had to do a bit of looking, but first I had to do a bit of thinking.
I found tiny cleavers (Galium aparine) and patches of chickweed (Stellaria media) peeking their way up from an old field where long dried pieces of last years overgrown grasses provided shelter. Around the bases of trees and other well-drained spots in the woods crept garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata) and the mild leaves of mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica). In my own yard in garden vegetable rows were hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) and, poking up above the snow and perfectly crisp, field garlic (Allium vineale). Fresh, tiny rosehips made for a perfect garnish, the whole thing being simply dressed with a pinch of salt, some olive oil and just a bit of vinegar.
The salad was delicious, the exercise (in both senses) invaluable. Sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to discover something beautiful in the snow.
When it comes to enjoyment or dislike of various flavors, no two people will ever completely resonate. For each of us, the answer to whether a particular food (wild or domesticated) is edible, palatable or actively distasteful is always going to be different.
Wild plants place us in a particularly easy to resolve area of this conversation. If something is technically edible but we don’t enjoy it, we leave it uncollected for those who do. For example, I actively dislike the berries of the wildly invasive Japanese barberry. I sincerely doubt that a time will come in my life when I will need this overwintering berry to survive. But if I ever did, you can bet that I would regard them as palatable. And then their sheer abundance would then be a blessing rather than a curse.
So by “palatable” in a wild plants context we are usually indicating a plant we aren’t interested in collecting. The distinction is an important one to bear in mind when studying and learning new plants and mushrooms because it often keeps us from over-harvesting or attempting crazy, time-intensive kitchen preparations trying to properly cook something we’ve learned is “edible.” It’s another reason why multiple sourcing any wild plant or mushroom is so very critical. In general, one will begin to get a sense of the limitations of using or preparing one’s catch by the widespread consensus on whether something is edible or merely palatable.
Into the latter category one will often find mushrooms and plants whose use is classified as “technically edible” or “medicinal.” The birch polypore mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus, pictured above) could be considered both. It’s an abundant late fall to winter mushroom in our area and can be used to make a tea for drinking or a broth for cooking. Technically, I could probably figure out a way to reduce its spongy, dense body into something that could pass through my body. But it would require such an expenditure of energy that it’s unlikely I’ll ever conduct the experiment. I’m content with steeping and infusing it, where it’s neither palatable nor distasteful but nicely bitter and useful for cooking and health.
When does an otherwise excellent edible become merely palatable? Beyond matters of taste, all foods require proper preparation to be delicious rather than simply digestible. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had (and made) a tasteless potato at some point in our lives, but then we discover how to cook them. The same is true of wild plants–each new ingredient must be learned on its’ own. It is at this point that comparisons to domesticated plants and cooking directions such as “prepare like asparagus” become ineffectual. One must learn to prepare nettles like nettles, not like spinach. Needless to say, the proper preparation is especially important to bear in mind when elements of toxicity are involved, as with milkweed or pokeweed. More often than not though, it is the difference between something one enjoys eating and something one merely gets through.