An herbalist friend of mine once told me that most people experience the natural world as a “wall of green.” It’s pretty, there are lots of different shades and textures, it makes us feel good, and we can appreciate our experience within it. But it is not until we start being able to identify and name the different parts of that wall, not until we begin to understand which aspects of it are edible, which are poisonous, and which parts of it are medicines that can treat a variety of different complaints, that we can truly begin to build a personal relationship with it. I tell my students that for most of human existence–hundreds of thousands of years–the knowledge that was most important to our survival and our experience of the world was the names of the plants that grow around us and an understanding of their edibility and medicinal properties. In a relatively brief span of perhaps the last 100 years, most of us have lost this fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.
The good news is that this knowledge hasn’t disappeared off the face of the planet, and it is relatively easy to start the process of reconnecting with it. For those of us who love to cook, there is the added benefit of exciting new ingredients that we can incorporate into our creations to add both novel flavors and the unique taste of a particular place. Foraged foods tell the story, not only of our cultural history, but also of our situated present. They are the most “local” of all foods.
It is partly for this reason that chefs around the world have been rediscovering foraged foods and incorporating them into modern menus. It gives their dishes authenticity, helps them to tell more personal stories, and introduces exciting new flavors that are distinctive to the places in which their restaurants sit. Want to know what makes Virgilio Martinez, Rene Redzepi, or Alex Atala some of the world’s best chefs? Well, part of the answer is foraging for local ingredients.
For me, spring cooking always means greens. At the farmers market, in the CSA box, and on the seasonal restaurant plate, early spring is about baby lettuce, fresh spinach, arugula, spring onions, sorrel, and more. The taste of spring is the taste of new life. The flavors are vibrant, fresh, bright, alive, and maybe a little bit bitter (more on that later). Spring foraging flavors are similar, and in this article I will recommend a few easy plants with which to start.
First though, a word of caution. While it is absolutely possible for even beginners to forage safely, it is important to keep in mind a couple of basic rules:
- Don’t eat anything unless you are absolutely 100% sure that you have identified it correctly. There are a number of poisonous plants out there and some of them look a lot like edibles to the untrained eye. Until you are 100% sure that what you have is Queen Anne’s Lace (which has uniformly green stems covered with short hairs) and not Poison Hemlock (which has smooth, waxy stems covered with purple spots), this is not a plant you should be including in your ravioli.
- Don’t forage from the sides of busy roads, in old apple orchards, or in urban places whose history is unclear. Until 1975, much of the gasoline burned by cars in the U.S. contained lead. For that reason, roadsides are often contaminated with this heavy metal which can have a variety of problematic health outcomes if it builds up in your body. Similarly, urban environments can have all sorts of toxic chemicals, and old houses were often coated with lead paint. Apple (and other fruit) orchards were typically sprayed with lead arsenate and DDT from the period following World War II through the 1960s, and many orchard soils are still contaminated with these compounds.
I have chosen the three plants I will introduce here because they are all very distinctive and easy to identify, they are ubiquitous and easy to find, and they are all at their best in the early spring.
The first plant I want to cover is Garlic Mustard, scientific name: Alliaria petiolate. Garlic mustard is an invasive plant native to Europe and Asia, that has become a problematic weed in many parts of the United States. It can thrive in a wide range of conditions, from deep shade to full sun, and in a variety of soil types. It grows quickly and can often outcompete native plants, particularly in wooded areas. It also happens to be a densely nutritious and intensely flavored edible. Garlic mustard is biennial, meaning that it flowers and finishes its life cycle in its second year of growth. The first year it will grow with rounder leaves in a clump, and the second year it has more pointed leaves and grows in a spike terminating in clusters of white flowers with 4 petals. The most distinctive thing about garlic mustard is it’s smell and taste, which is intense, garlicky, and peppery. Crushing and smelling a leaf should be sufficient for identification. It the plant doesn’t have a pungent garlicky smell, then you don’t have garlic mustard.
Garlic mustard is always best when it is young and tender. The taste tends to be milder and sweeter at that stage. Once the plant flowers the leaves can be tough and bitter. In my house we use garlic mustard to make a bold garlicky pesto, as a flavoring in hearty soups, and as a braising green. While I appreciate the flavor, the other reason I try to incorporate garlic mustard into my food is that it is one of the most nutritionally dense greens you can find. It has high levels of Vitamin A Vitamin C, and Vitamin E, contains a number of important trace minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and iron, and is higher than most greens in Omega-3 fatty acid.
The next plant will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to tend a manicured lawn. Dandelion, scientific name: Taraxacum officinale, is native to Europe but is abundant throughout the United States in disturbed soils, pastures, and lawns. Dandelion leaves grow in a basal rosette close to the ground. The leaf shape can vary from plant to plant, and while some have deeply toothed margins (edges) other plants have margins that are essentially smooth. Many lookalikes have leaves that are hairy, while dandelion leaves are not. The easiest time to start getting familiar with dandelion is while it is flowering—typically early spring and fall. Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Roots are best before flowering in early spring or in late fall when the plants have had a full season to store energy. Roots are typically roasted and used to make a rich dark tea. Flowers can be a great addition to brighten salads, but should be used immediately after being picked, since they begin to wither quickly. Sometimes people will marinate the unopened flower buds to make something like a large caper. But by far the most common culinary use of the plant is the leaves.
I usually use dandelion leaves fresh, in salads, smoothies, sandwiches, etc. as a heartier and stronger tasting substitute for lettuce. Many people find dandelion bitter, and it tends to become more so as the weather gets warmer. I am not really sure why bitter has become such a maligned flavor in American culture, but dandelion is a great way to start reintroducing it to your palate. Bitter is one of five tastes that can be sensed by the tongue and is important for us physiologically. The flavor bitter stimulates the stomach to produce acid and starts the process of peristalsis, the undular muscle contractions that move food through the intestine. This only happens when we experience bitterness as a flavor, not when we eat something that is inherently bitter but has been overwhelmed by sweetness.
Like garlic mustard, dandelion is high in antioxidants and loaded with vitamins and minerals. Dandelion has traditionally been uses as a diuretic, to support the liver and gallbladder, and to improve kidney function. Modern research has suggested that it can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity and decrease blood sugar levels, and reduce cholesterol, among other things.
Bedstraw is the common name for a wide number of plants in the genus Galium. Bedstraw has a unique appearance with 4 to 8 needle-like leaves arranged in whorls around the stem. I love bedstraw as a mild spring green that adds a distinctive beauty to the plate. It is easy to find almost anywhere that soil has been disturbed, in meadows, or along forest edges. Like most spring greens, it is best shortly after it has emerged in the spring. As it gets older it gets leggy, and the further down the plant you go, the tougher and woodier the stems get. While it is easy to gather lots of whole plants, I usually take the extra time to pick just the tender growing tips. The literature sometimes refers to bedstraw as bitter, but I have never found it so. At least one species, Galium aparine, sometimes called “cleavers,” is distinctive in its tendency to stick to fabric or fur. While cleavers are edible, they must first be cooked, and I like bedstraw best when it is raw. I use it mainly in salads, pesto, smoothies, and as a garnish and palate cleanser in heavier dishes. I have read that the roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute, but the seeds are tiny, and I have never been able to harvest more than a fraction of a teaspoon. By the time the plant is flowering and producing seed, it is no longer good as an edible green, but can be harvested again as new growth begins in the fall.
It is difficult to find information about the nutritional composition of bedstraw, mainly because it is not commonly thought of as food. It has, however, been used for centuries as a medicine for an incredibly broad range of symptoms including cancer, epilepsy, chest and lung ailments, hysteria, as an antispasmodic, and topically to sooth reddened skin and reduce inflammation.
In general, foraged spring greens are a great balance to heavier dishes and richer flavors. In the same way that sour flavors are used to balance sweetness, bright, lively, and bitter flavors can be used to balance umami. Umami, which we find in things like mushrooms and aged meats, is the flavor of decay. Spring greens bring the flavor of new life. CIA Provost Mark Erickson has even proposed that their taste belongs in its own category, for which he has proposed the term “vigor.” Spring, of course, is the best time of year to put that idea to the test. Happy hunting!
Dr. Taylor Reid is an assistant professor of Applied Food Studies at The Culinary Institute of America’s New York campus. He teaches courses in food systems sustainability, farm to table, and applied food studies. His current research interests included the restaurant industry’s response to COVID-19, chef’s motivations for included foraged food on menus, and depictions of farming, foraging, and food insecurity in the zombie genre. Before coming to the CIA in 2018, Dr. Reid served as chair of the Sustainable Farming and Food Systems program at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, NY. He has a broad academic and professional background in areas ranging from agricultural product development to national farm policy, organic farming systems, beginning farm education, and the creation of agricultural standards.