Once considered a nuisance in relatively recent history, ‘weeds’ are making their way into the kitchen and onto the menus of high-end restaurants.
Farmers and gardeners are giving up fighting many of the invasive plants they once considered ‘weeds,’ and selling them to chefs, CSAs and health food stores, making better profit for less labor.
Not only are these weeds making them more money than many of their traditional crops, because of their ‘ invasive’ nature, they take no work at all to grow. What’s more is that some so-called weeds are even more nutritious than kale bought from the grocery store!
Invasive plant species produce large quantities of seeds that are spread long distances by birds, wind, or humans.
They thrive where traditional agricultural crops can no longer grow because of damaged soil and repair the soil with their long, dense root systems.
While most farmers hate them for competing with their labor-intensive, annual crops, New York City forager, chef and author Marie Viljoen encourages them to give in to the free food Mother Nature is providing without them so much as lifting a hoe.
With no tilling, fertilizing, planting, weeding, or watering required, farmers could make a killing just by going out and harvesting what grows naturally, she says in an article for Saveur.
Below she lists 10 of her favorite delicious and nutritious culinary ‘weeds’ from her new book Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisine:
The sour crimson fruits of autumn olive (also called autumn berries) are as tart as red currants and can be used in similar ways. Their high lycopene content can cause jams to separate, but their color and flavor invigorate sweet and savory sauces and fruit leathers.
Peeled burdock stems are crisp and versatile. Dip them into hummus or braise them. Burdock’s cold-season taproot (better known as gobo) is a substantial, starchy vegetable that takes well to slow, moist cooking.
With its appealing flavor of nutty corn silk, spring chickweed is a delicacy best appreciated raw. Its tender stems, leaves, and flowers are ideal fillers for summer rolls, and a gentle bed for seared seafood.
Familiar dandelions are the gateway plant to eating weeds. With crisp rosettes in late winter, mild leaves and succulent stalks in spring, and assertive flavor in summer, dandelions’ evolving profile makes them appealing throughout their growing season.
Prolific field garlic (also called lawn chives, or wild garlic) is sold in neat bunches at New York City green markets. The little wild onions fetch $3 a bunch. The bulbs and leaves are a sustainable-if diminutive-alternative to vulnerable native ramps.
Spreading thousands of seeds after flowering, biennial garlic mustard inspires ecological ire. Edible in its entirety, the plant offers second-year roots tasting like horseradish, leaves that are a gustatory marriage of broccoli rabe, mustard, and garlic, and budding stems in late spring that are an ephemeral delicacy.
Japanese knotweed is notoriously invasive, but also delicious. It will definitely become more familiar as a market vegetable in years to come. Its mid-spring shoots resemble asparagus, but taste and behave like an earthier version of rhubarb crossed with fresh sorrel. Use it raw or cooked, especially in savory dishes that need a sour boost.
Mugwort’s feathery leaves are packed with a sage-like fragrance that is wildly versatile in the kitchen. Author and wild foods purveyor Tama Matsuoka Wong says they are ‘awesome as tempura.’ From its first shoots through to its winter stalks (which can be used as kebab skewers), this under-appreciated herb is about to experience a slow-burn renaissance.
Known as poke sallet in the South, this indigenous but prolific plant was originally eaten by Native Americans. It is a succulent spring vegetable when blanched in ample boiling water, but it must never be eaten raw. Pokeweed’s notoriety stems from livestock poisonings or improper preparation … but once blanched, young poke shoots are delectable.
The early-season alternative to watercress, wintercress (also called creasy greens, wild cress, or upland cress) is a land dweller whose leafy heat is reminiscent of wild arugula. Later in spring, wintercress stems shoot up, bearing acid yellow flowers. These tender morsels, like baby broccolini, are a prime and ephemeral spring ingredient.
Images: Marie Viljoen