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Sick of hugging trees? Try eating weeds. (No, not that sort of weed!) Johanna Knox shows us how to rustle up a meal out of wild greenery
I’ve always been an indoorsy kind of gal, liking my books and my creature comforts. But recently, to the faint bewilderment of friends and family, I’ve started to change.
I’m frequently ducking out of the house and heading for the hills—or at least a neighbouring park. On trips to the corner dairy, I dawdle, take detours, and return with handfuls of greenery along with the bread and toilet paper. Nowadays, I actually look forward to camping, instead of being dragged kicking and screaming.
It’s because I have a new addiction: foraging.
Suddenly, being outdoors has a thrilling purpose, because wherever I am I’m hunting for food.
Armed with bags, scissors and nature guides, I set myself challenges: identify this leaf; find that berry; gather enough of those weeds to make an entire salad. The wild foods I gather are fresh, delicious, healthy and, best of all, free.
Chances are there’s an overlooked nutritional and culinary treasure trove just around the corner from you, too.
The following plants are just a small sample of the many wild greens you can gather and eat during the New Zealand summer.
Recognise it by its three-cornered stalks, droopy white flowers, and oniony smell. If it doesn’t smell like onion when you snap it, it’s not onion weed.
Onion weed belongs to the same genus of plants as onions, leeks, garlic and spring onions—so it’s not surprising you can use it just as you’d use spring onions.
Older onion weed can be a little stringy, so chop it finely or use a large bunch to flavour soups, sauces and stocks, and remove it at the end of cooking.
This plant’s flowers are as edible as its green bits, but have a milder onion flavour. They look great as a garnish or tossed into a salad. You can also batter them carefully and fry them whole.
Recognise it by its smooth, hairless, deeply toothed rosette of leaves and single non-branching flower stem.
Dandelion leaves are at their best in spring. By summer the flowers and buds are the best-tasting part. Add the petals to salads, or dip the whole flowers in batter and fry (like onion weed flowers).
You can also search for and pluck out the tiny, closed buds that hide deep in the centres of the rosettes. Steam or boil these for a few seconds, then cool and add to salad.
I’ve found that boiling them in a water/soy sauce mix is nice. They absorb some of the liquid, and make an especially yummy addition to a salad.
Recognise it by its round leaves and big five-petal orange or yellow flowers.
Both the flowers and leaves of nasturtium add a peppery flavour to salads. They go especially well with cream cheese in sandwiches or on crackers. Add salmon too, if you are so inclined.
My family thinks nasturtium leaves are delicious piled onto pizza, either as a single topping or combined with others. Tear up the bigger leaves a little first.
After nasturtium plants have finished flowering, you can pickle the small, round seed pods in vinegar or brine to make mock capers.
Beach spinach & New Zealand spinach
Tetragonia trigyna; Tetragonia tetragonoides
Recognise them by their shiny, fleshy leaves on trailing stems. New Zealand spinach is bigger than beach spinach.
You’ll find these plants close to the coast on sandy soils, often scrambling up banks or across other shrubs. To harvest from them sustainably, pull the stems upwards and pick or cut off the new growth.
Eat the leaves cooked, rather than raw. One of their great virtues is that when cooked, they hold their shape and volume well. Use them as you’d use spinach or kale. They’re great in pasta sauces, casseroles, or boiled and then sautéed in butter and garlic.
The tetragonias are very nutritious, and recent research shows that they contain anti-inflammatory and anti-ulcerogenic compounds. Like regular spinach, however, they are quite high in oxalic acid, so you may not want to eat great mounds of them.
Sonchus oleraceus; Sonchus arvensis
Recognise it by its distinctively shaped leaves (with lower leaves wrapping around the stalk) and dandelion-like flowers on branching stems.
Puwha is rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants.
Young puwha leaves make a delicious bitter salad green. I love their bitterness matched with a sweet, orange vinaigrette. A little soy sauce in the dressing is nice as well.
Bigger puwha can be cooked. Bruise the stalks first to let out the bitter white sap. If you like, you can cook the buds and flowers along with the leaves and stems.
Use puwha like spinach, and allow for loss of volume when cooked. Overseas, puwha is called sow thistle. Googling ‘sow thistle recipes’ turns up a wealth of culinary ideas.
Recognise it by its straggly, ground-hugging stems and tiny white flowers. They look as if they have ten petals but they actually have five, each one split down the middle.
Chickweed is a feral superfood, packed with vitamins and minerals. You can eat every part: leaves, stems, flowers, and seed pods.
To harvest it, find the tips, pull them upwards, and snip off the choicest bits. Chickweed can be cooked, but many think it’s best raw. Chop or snip it into pieces a centimetre or so long and use it like alfalfa sprouts.
Chickweed is especially good in pesto. It contains saponins, chemical compounds that lather up. They give the pesto a very creamy consistency. The leaves’ mild taste also makes them ideal for adding to smoothies. Just chuck a handful into the blender along with everything else for an extra nutritional wallop.
The first rule of foraging: if you’re not absolutely sure what something is, don’t eat it.
There are many resources available to help you accurately identify wild plants. A gardener, botanist or forager who can help in person is invaluable. In the absence of someone like this, a couple of good plant guides will be your best friends—and Google’s image search function may be your second-best friend.
You’ll also want to be sure your wild provender is relatively uncontaminated. The safest place to forage is your own backyard or that of a consenting friend or neighbour. In my experience, folks are only too happy to let me do a spot of weeding for them.
When foraging in the wild, make sure you’re not trespassing on private property, and avoid roadsides, trampled places, and areas where pollution or run-off could be an issue.
You’ll also want to avoid anywhere that’s recently been sprayed with herbicide. There is a time lapse between spraying and die-off, so it’s not always obvious when an area has just been sprayed. If you’re worried, your city or district council may be able to give you their spraying schedule.
It should be safe to forage new, unsprayed growth from areas that have been sprayed sometime in the past.
Make sure you wash all foraged foods well, and enjoy!
Thanks to Wayne Cowan from Greater Wellington Regional Council for assisting with information about herbicides
Wild Herb Spread
Based on traditional pesto
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 big pinches salt
- 2 cups foraged greens, torn up and loosely packed
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup cashew nuts
- 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
Makes more than 1 cup
Pound garlic and salt in a mortar. Gradually add greens, continuing to pound. (If using onion weed, chop it finely first to avoid stringiness.) Gradually add oil and nuts, until you have a smooth, thick paste.
Alternatively, use a blender for all ingredients except the parmesan, then stir in the parmesan at the end.
Enjoy on crackers or pasta, or mix with sour cream to make a dip.
Based on traditional pakoras
- 1 cup chana (chickpea) flour
- 1½ tsp curry powder or cumin
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt, or to taste
- Big pinch chilli powder (optional)
- 2 cups foraged greens, finely chopped and loosely packed down.
- 2 tbsp grated onion
Serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a snack
Whisk dry ingredients together. Add greens and grated onion. Mix to a very thick batter. If necessary, add water to moisten slightly.
Heat 1cm oil in pan, on medium-high. Dollop in small spoonfuls of batter. Turn and fry till golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
Serve with yoghurt and/or relish.