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MORAN: Summer foraging between the rows

August 03, 2016 - 12:06 PM



We all know we have to eat our vegetables. Wild greens happen to be the healthiest ones around. Though they are abundant in spring, our edibles have bolted and gone to seed. One big difference between foraging and farming is the life cycle of the plants. On a farm you will only let your vegetables go through their full life cycle for a seed crop. Many people have not seen lettuce in flower. The plants/vegetables are always harvested during the same state on a farm. When you forage you have to be opportunistic and precise with the timing. Many plants can be harvested for weeks, but the finished product won't look the same as the season continues. A good comparison would be harvesting tender sprouts with no tough parts versus stripping large leaves off a bushy plant in an advanced growth stage. Sprouts for salad, mature leaves steamed. Raw greens in April, cooked greens in May.

In the middle of summer we are surrounded by dried out, prickly, seedy weeds that have carried out their life cycle. Many of them would have been good to eat earlier in the growing season, but there is no longer anything that can be used. This is not the case between the rows of organic farms and gardens. There are a few choice edible plants (most people would consider them pesky weeds) abundant right now. My favourite edible weeds from the garden in the summer are mallow, purslane, and sowthistle. Try not to step on them!

Mallow is related to marsh mallow, and we all know what you can make out of that. The leaves of mallow and its purple or white flowers resemble geraniums. The entire mallow plant can be stripped of leaves, young stems, and young green seeds that look like little peas. It a natural thickener in soups and makes a very mild green tea that is great to mix with other flavours, or start off your soup. It is eaten in most of Europe, and even Morocco. I had a visit to Fez, Morocco in February 2013 and noticed on the outskirts of the city that every single patch of mallow had been harvested. Old ladies would sell them in bunches on a blanket in the streets. They are used in a traditional tajine.

Purslane is a succulent and odd-looking plant that often goes by the name portulaca. Purslane also happens to be great raw, cooked and pickled. The leaves and tender stems (most of the plants usually) can be added to a seasonal cooked vegetable dish, or my favourite is a purslane pico de gallo fresh salsa. Chop up half a bowl of purslane and add all the ingredients to a traditional pico de gallo. That would be tomato, onion, cilantro and lime. I like to add lots salt to draw out the juices and cure the salsa a bit. Let it rest for ten minutes and enjoy. Purslane has an incredibly high omega-3 content, as well as all the other usual goodness of wild greens, antioxidants, detox/cleanse qualities, and most of our most important nutrients in large quantity per gram.

If I had to give sowthistle a second name, it would be false thistle. The leaves have the unwelcoming prickles of a thistle, but on closer inspection they do not actually poke. They are a softer version of the well-known thistle that can sometimes be found in a muddy vegetable plot. There are two varieties and one is smooth. I have had them both growing in the same location many times, and they can be treated as one product. Sowthistle is a great leafy plant to cook with. As it is bolting/flowering, the flower stem is hollow and tender and can be chopped up with the greens and cooked together. While doing a four-month WWOOFing (volunteering on organic farms) trip in Italy, I made ravioli with ricotta and wild greens at every home I visited. Sowthistle is one of the best candidates for this recipe. Fill up your biggest pot with greens and boil them quickly. Mash them up with ricotta cheese and use this to stuff homemade ravioli. Be sure to make a few hundred and freeze them. There isn't a better way to get hands-on with your food.

Hopefully we will never see weeds the same way again and we allow their helpful presence to continue. It hurts to imagine all the unnecessary chemicals and time/effort wasted trying to 'manage' these helpful invaders. A person who has at least one season of urban foraging greens will soon detect a definite pattern. All the best wild edibles on our fields and farms are adapted to grow on disturbed land, as in between the rows of veggies. They are evolved to follow us around, providing us with our seasonal nutrients and helping us to live in a clean way that does not affect the rest of the world (as does our current food supply). We need to stop ignoring these obvious signs.

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