For the record, I know nothing about identifying plants in the wild. Send me into the woods to select edible greens and you may end up with a bowl of poison ivy or crab grass. But although I’m a failure in the great outdoors, I’m a master at navigating farmers markets. There, spring’s bounty is already harvested and ready for me to buy.
Among the wondrous wild greens available this season are stinging nettles. Possessing long, toothlike leaves and a salty, earthy taste, these tenacious plants grow along stream banks and in wooded areas. Because the nettles’ leaves have hairlike fibers containing formic acid, which stings upon contact, you should wear gloves when handling them raw. Once cooked, they lose this stinging property. Nettles are prepared in the same manner as spinach and other greens.
Although I like them best in a creamy, Irish-inspired nettle soup, they appear in a variety of British specialties such as nettle beer from the north of England and herb pudding from Scotland. In addition to featuring them in soup, pudding and beer, you can also boil, chop and add nettles to egg dishes, risotto, pasta and sauces. Or you can just steam and serve these iron-rich greens with salt, pepper and a splash of lemon juice or sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese.
Collected from both wild and cultivated plants, mustard greens have dark green, slightly bronzed leaves and a sharp, mustard-like flavor. Bitter when raw, they’re usually blanched and then drained before being cooked or added to other dishes. To prepare mustard greens, simply steam, sauté or simmer them. Spice up salads with a handful of young, tender leaves. Cook larger, older greens with onion, garlic, ham or bacon.
You’ll find mustard greens included in a variety of Asian, Indian and soul food recipes. They act as a nice substitute for collard greens and also go well with soy sauce. When selecting mustard greens, look for crisp leaves with a rich green color. Skip the ones with an overpowering smell, those with yellow, wilted or pitted leaves, or any with thick, fibrous stalks. Refrigerated in a plastic bag, mustard greens keep for about five days.
My dealings with dandelions date to childhood and the countless summers spent helping my father pluck them from his otherwise pristine lawn. Little did we know the culinary uses and dietary benefits of his nemesis. The zesty, jagged-edged leaves can be tossed into a salad to spice up lettuce. Topped with hot bacon dressing, they can stand alone on the salad plate. When steamed or sautéed with garlic and olive oil, they function as a tangy substitute for spinach. Dandelion greens contain more iron and calcium than spinach. Additionally, they are a wonderful source of vitamins A and C. Wild dandelion greens are available at markets throughout the spring. If picking your own, look for young plants with bright green, crisp leaves and an absence of flowers.
Of all the spring offerings, the most unusual may be the fiddlehead fern. Resembling the carved head of a violin, fiddleheads are the unfurled shoots of an ostrich fern. One of the last true foraged foods, they grow in moist woods and floodplains. Cut, washed and boiled in lightly salted water for 10 minutes or steamed for 20, they evoke the unusual combination of asparagus, artichokes and okra. Their distinct taste and firm texture make fiddleheads a good match for stir-fries as well as for hollandaise, cheese and tomato sauces. If stir-frying, remember to blanch the ferns in boiling water before tossing into your wok. (Some foodborne illnesses have been attributed to raw or undercooked fiddleheads.) With a season of just two weeks fiddleheads fly out of local markets and backyards. They have a short storage life and should be consumed within two days.
Whether you have an eye for wild, edible greens or, like me, leave the foraging to the professionals, you’ll want to head to the kitchen and enjoy the riches of the season.
Stinging Nettle Soup
Serves 4 to 6
- Fill a medium-sized stockpot with water and salt, and bring to a boil. Add the nettles, and blanch for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, drain the nettles and set aside.
- Rinse out the stockpot. Pour in the chicken stock and potatoes, and bring to a boil. As the stock is coming to a boil, heat the olive oil in a sauté or frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sautéed vegetables into the stockpot and cook for 15 minutes or until the potatoes have softened.
- Add the nettles and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Using either an immersion blender, a large capacity blender or a food processor, puree the soup. If using a food processor or large capacity blender, you may need to do this in two batches and place the pureed soup in another pot. Once the soup is pureed, add the ground white pepper, stir to combine and simmer over medium-low for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings before spooning the soup into bowls and topping with optional dollops of crème fraiche.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: Spring greens. Credit: Kathy Hunt