The Great Recession’s Latest Crop
By Jillian Steinberger, M.A., BFQL | Illustrations by Bonnie Borucki
Um . . . Did someone say, “Free food”?
After six years developing an edible test garden for my landscaping business, I’ve come to regard weeds as crops. In times like these, you just can’t let a great—and super-local—source of nutrients go to waste. Plus, when you’re craving greens, some weeds can look really tasty!
In fact, taste is a matter of culture. For instance, many Americans have learned to prefer factory-produced bland foods, loaded with empty calories and added fats and sugars. By eating edible weeds, we can adapt our palates to suit what is local, seasonal, and highly nutritive. In so doing we take advantage of a valuable food source that lies right before us—and it’s free!
Edible weeds can be managed so that they don’t take over or become a nuisance while providing an effortlessly bountiful food source. They don’t need watering or any other inputs—not even compost. And harvesting doubles as garden maintenance. (You’d be weeding, anyway).
Of course, weeds are no longer weeds, once we start regarding them as useful, just as they were not weeds to the first humans who thought to eat them and then cultivate them. Our modern hybrid lettuces descended from weeds. It’s only in the past few decades that we’ve come to expect our greens to arrive in a plastic bag. Many of our local weeds originated in the Mediterranean region, where they are still important in provincial cuisines. Some of those plants were brought here by settlers who intended them as food.
Weeds can be—for lack of a better word—“gamey.” So, you may need to get used to their taste. Once you have, store-bought greens seem, well, lacking. Recently, for example, I bought a bag of baby salad greens, and they tasted surprisingly bland. Uninspired to eat them, but wanting to avoid waste, I added wild lettuce, sowthistle, and dandelion leaves, and tossed in some orange calendula and purple violet •
Know what you’re picking before you eat it! Do your homework. Many of our local weeds are edible but a few are lethal. Our assumption is that you do not want to eat anything toxic! Yes? Toward this goal, there are many resources available to you in the East Bay, from semester-long Weed ID classes at community colleges to short courses and expert-led “weed walks.” Also, there are many helpful books on the subject. Two are Weed ’Em and Reap: A Weed Eater Reader (Roger Welsch, 2006, Falcon) and The Handbook of Edible Weeds: An Herbal Reference Library (James A. Duke, CRC Press 2000). Many, many more quality titles exist, so check ’em out before you put anything in your mouth.
CUSTOM WEEDY GREENS MIX
Create your own weedy greens mix from the following suggestions. There are no correct amounts—just play and experiment. Your mix can last up to a week in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
Bull mallow (Malva nicaeensis)
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album)
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa or Lactuca serriola)
Add salad greens and/or baby spinach, kale, beet, or mustard greens from your garden or from the market. You might also add any herbs that strike your fancy, such as lemon thyme (pull leaves off the stem and add whole); chopped parsley or cilantro, chervil, tarragon, oregano, mint, and/or chives; and edible flower petals, such as from calendula, violets, or borage.
- Pick vibrant looking weeds that are turgid (fat and vital) with unblemished leaves.
- If possible, harvest in the morning for long-lasting freshness.
- Baby weedy greens are milder and sweeter, whereas mature plants have a more bitter taste.
- Do not harvest in toxic areas, such as near busy streets (car fumes), adjacent to houses (most paint is toxic), or in any landscaped areas that you suspect might be maintained with chemicals.
- No trespassing, of course
FIVE-MINUTE MEXICAN WEED WRAP
Here’s an easily portable lunch or fast dinner. The sprouted-grain tortilla’s earthy texture stands up well to the weedy greens, and the avocado adds a smooth contrast.
For 1 hearty serving, briefly place 1 sprouted-grain tortilla directly on stove burner on medium heat. Watch closely to avoid burning, and turn to lightly toast each side. Place the tortilla on a plate and heap a large stack of weedy greens mix (see sidebar) on top of the tortilla. Top with slices of avocado, sprinkle hot sauce to taste over top. For a heartier wrap, add your choice of ¼–½ cup firm tofu or savory baked tofu (cubed), soy chorizo, raw cheddar cheese, or a small handful of chopped or slivered almonds.
For an Asian-style variation you might substitute Thai-style rice paper wrappers for the tortilla and sprinkle your wrap with prepared peanut sauce instead of hot sauce. Add baked teriyaki or other Asian-flavored tofu (cubed) for protein.
Tea made of nettles promotes radiant skin and hair, as well as prostate health. I always make extra nettle tea to use as a superfood additive for smoothies or for botanical preparations. You can freeze the extra tea in icecube trays to keep it available for other uses.
Heat up a pot of filtered water to just under boiling. (It is important not to boil if you want to maintain the active enzymes in the nettles.) Turn off the heat and add several stalks of nettles. Cover. Steep for 5 minutes or longer. Strain and serve. If the tea is too strong, add hot water to dilute. The first few times you drink nettle tea, it’s best to keep it weak and observe how it affects your body.
- Nettle Ginger or Ginger-Mint Tea: Add several sprigs of mint and/or a few slices of ginger along with the nettles to steep.
- Sweet Nettle Water: If you add honey or stevia to tea before cooling and freezing, you have the beginnings of a healthful and refreshing cold summer drink. To a tall glass of filtered water, add ice cubes made from nettle (or nettle/mint/ginger) tea and serve.
- Nettle Skin Toner or Spritzer: After washing face, apply cooled and strained nettle tea with cotton balls as a toner, or splash on face. Follow up with a good moisturizer. This works on all skin types. For a refreshing summer cool-me-down, store tea in a small spritzer bottle. Lightly spray on face as desired.
Wear gloves when harvesting nettles so you don’t get stung by the tiny hairs on the leaves and stems. The sting is not harmful, but it certainly hurts.
WEEDY GREEN LEMONADE
If you have a juicer, try making this mineral-packed tonic. You can make use of mature or bolting weeds, which have more enzymes and nutrients than young ones have, and the larger stalks will give you plenty of juice. If you pull the roots, you can juice those too. Drink on an empty stomach for best results.
- 1 bunch celery
- 1 cucumber, and/or 1 head of romaine lettuce (optional)
- 3 apples
- 1 or 2 lemons (with skins)
- Several bunches of any type weedy greens
- 1 or 2 bunches of parsley or cilantro (optional)
- 1 to 5 inches fresh gingerroot (optional—start with small amount and work up to more if it suits your system)
Juice the celery (and cucumber or romaine, if using), alternating it with the apples and lemon, and pour into a 1-quart mason jar. Juice the greens and herbs. Add to the celery mix, to taste. (The more weed/herb juice you add to the celery mixture, the greener your juice will be. Make it as dark green as tastes good to you.
Over time you will crave it greener.) Finally, juice the ginger and add as much as tastes good.
Drink your juice right away. If you have any Weedy Green Lemonade left over, freeze it in ice cube trays. Likewise, the juices made from the greens, herbs, and ginger can be frozen for later use. The cubes, when added to a glass of filtered water, can make for a refreshing summer tonic. Frozen ginger juice cubes added to filtered water is especially good for a spicy summer drink.
Jillian Steinberger-Foster wrote this story for Edible East Bay in 2010. She now works with Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in Santa Cruz. Jillian attributes her hardy good health to living an herby and organic lifestyle.
Bonnie Borucki works as a freelance illustrator/animator and sometimes teaches gardening to kids at A Living Library.