Dandelions are good for more than just wishes. They were used as medicine well before we started placing our hopes and dreams on the petals blown into the wind. In fact, many of the weeds we pay to exterminate are often nutrient-dense medicinal powerhouses. Even if the rest of the supermarkets end up like the toilet paper aisle as we get deeper into this period of self-isolation, you can find a bounty of medicinal foods at your literal doorstep if you know where to look. Follow these seven steps to begin foraging for your next meal.
1. First, research
Specialized social media groups can be a great beginner resource. Search for “wild edible” or “foraging” groups on Facebook or Reddit. Scroll through those groups, as they provide plenty of records to answer your questions and offer preparation suggestions. Groups are also handy for posting pictures when you need help identifying the plants in your harvest. But before you pick anything, be sure you know what you’re putting into your mouth.
Pro tip: Many forager Facebook groups are extremely active. During times like these, we could all use a bit more human interaction, even if it’s virtual. Foragers are typically friendly folks, and you’ll be welcomed as a newcomer! There’s no such thing as a dumb question (in fact, in this time of quarantine, many fellow group-members are thirsty for opportunities to offer some advice).
2. Start local
Learn the most common wild edibles in your area. An easy Google search of “common wild edibles in [my region or planting zone]” will get you off and running. These are often easy to identify and have no dangerous look-alikes. Research which part of the plant is edible and how you can prepare it. Avoid chemically-treated lawns and areas with high exposure to car exhaust. Only harvest what you need, and never take all of a plant from one area. Remember, they grow a stone’s throw from your kitchen, so no need to hoard.
Pro tip: Picking from your neighbor’s lemon tree does not count as foraging. Stay away from neighbor’s properties.
3. Be positive
We’re serious on this one—it is crucial to make a positive identification before consuming any wild edible. Confirm the leaf, root, and stem structure. Know the leaf size, shape, edges, and how they form along the stem. Is it low-lying? Does it creep? Does it grow in clusters or isolation? Keep a record of positive identifiers for each of your harvests for future reference.
Pro tip: Keep a photo log of the plants you have successfully identified, or try an app such as Wild Edibles.
4. Start small
Any time you change your diet, your body will react to the shift, so start with small portions to test the waters. Nibble a raw leaf to note the flavor, then wait an hour to see how your body reacts. If your stomach is content, prepare a simple side dish made by quick-sautéeing the greens with a little salt, pepper, oil, vinegar, and a finish of lemon.
Pro tip: While it may seem pastoral to eat straight from the earth, take your harvest home and wash it first.
5. Identify the dandelion
We’ve all wished upon countless weeds assuming they were dandelions, but there are quite a few look-a-likes out there. Fortunately, most dandelion look-alikes are also edible and nutritious. For the real thing, look for the true dandelion’s straight, tube-like stem and smooth, forked leaves. Every part of the dandelion is edible—raw or cooked—but the younger leaves found at the stem’s base are less bitter. Roots are good for teas or tinctures, and the leaves and flowers make excellent additions to salads.
Pro tip: Need some direction? Try this Dandelion and Bitter Greens Salad recipe.
6. Identify mallow
Already mastered the dandelion? Try mallow. Another beginner’s friend with no dangerous look-alikes and easy identifiers, mallow has round leaves that grow together in little sprawling clusters. Look for lace-trim edges with tiny ridges and a tinge of purple at the petiole. Every part of the mallow plant is edible—including its tiny flowers and seed pods. It contains protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. Boiled mallow roots can be used to reduce inflammation, and mallow leaf tea soothes irritated throats.
Pro tip: Try making Khobiza, a traditional Palestinian side dish of sautéed mallow.
7. Start cooking
Prepare your harvest by separating the leaves, stems, buds, flowers, and roots, as each part will have its own best cooking method. Rinse the parts with room temperature water and soak anything you intend to eat raw in a vinegar solution for six minutes before preparing. Blanch the stems of both dandelion and mallow together and sautée them with the buds in sesame oil and soy sauce as you would with a noodle-based stir fry. Pair this cooked combination with weeds’ greens and you have a whole meal, from lawn to table.
Pro tip: Make your meager harvest go a long way by mixing in a generous helping of grains. This Wild Greens and Barley recipe never fails us.
Photo credit: Borealfolk