I’ve taken foraging to the next level: I’ve started eating weeds.
It all started with the first ramsons, or wild garlic. While searching for recipes I found all sorts of other edible wild plants. I’ll now snack on wood sorrel, hawthorn and beech leaves while out in the woods. I’ve discovered that the dreaded ground elder was actually introduced to the UK as a vegetable (It tastes like a cross between celery and parsley). But now I’ve found that I don’t need to leave my own garden to gather free food: I’m harvesting weeds.
I don’t have ground elder in my garden, so I don’t count that as a weed yet, but I do have:
▪ stinging nettle
▪ white dead nettle
▪ hairy bitter cress
▪ dandelion (so much dandelion…)
Chickweed and bittercress make great salad crops. Bittercress tastes (shock horror) like cress. Chickweed has a taste all its own. You can eat the whole plant, but the younger the better.
We all know you can turn stinging nettles into nettle soup or nettle tea. It has quite a strong flavour, but I find it works well instead of spinach (I wouldn’t eat it on its own though). There’s something very satisfying about eating something as spiteful as a stinging nettle (but do wear gloves or they will bite you!). Once nettles have gone to flower don’t eat them as they become slightly poisonous (something to do with the cell structure changing and forming crystals I think), but you can cut them back and let them re-grow. If you want to give weeds a try as a vegetable (remember: think spinach) try this:
▪ collect and wash a mix of the following: stinging nettle, dead nettle, ground elder, dandelion leaves
▪ sweat down in a little oil (takes a few minutes only)
▪ add to the recipe at the end of the cooking period
I’ve added to fried rice and lentil soup and it was very yummy – and very healthy. If you have ground elder you can use it just like you would parsley. Go for the youngest leaves you can find. Like the nettles, you can cut back and let the plant regrow to get more young shoots.
The garden weed that stands above all others has to be the dandelion. It has medicinal properties, you can turn the roots into coffee, you can make beer and wine, you can eat the leaves and flowers, and as I’ve been finding out, you can turn the flowers into marmalade and syrup.
Dandelions might be free, but they are hard work. To make marmalade or syrup, first you have to pick carrier bags full of flower heads, then you have to entice the flower beetles to go live somewhere else, then you have to snip the petals off with scissors.
Syrup is then really easy: get a jug, layer it with petals and sugar, leave for 24 hours, transfer to a pan, add boiling water (about 550mls for 1kg of sugar) and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. It stores for ages and makes a great summer drink with water and sliced lemons.
The marmalade is a bit trickier: soak the petals overnight in fresh apple juice, add some lemons (and any other pectin rich fruit you think will work), heat gently to extract the pectin and strain. Next step: add sugar (use jam sugar if you didn’t use much high pectin fruit) and some extra dandelion petals, then boil until you reach setting point. Job done.