Wild foods

Five wild plants currently growing in local woodlands (shown clockwise): Ramps; stinging nettles; spicebush; chickweed and garlic mustard.

Your backyard vegetable garden may be weeks away from its first harvest. But if you’re game to travel and work for your salad, an edible plant party awaits in local woodlands.

In these early weeks of spring, wild greens, shoots and leaves are strutting their stuff, a veritable cornucopia waiting to be foraged. With foraging comes a caveat, however: To get the goods, you need to know where to go and how to safely (and sustainably) harvest.

To better understand local wildness, I sought the counsel of Elisabeth Weaver and Alex Wenger, two Lancaster foragers who share a love for native plants and their role in our diets.

Admittedly, I was primarily interested in stinging nettles, which make exceptional pesto (see recipe). Both Weaver, of Lancaster Farmacy, and Wenger, of Fields Edge Research Farm, brought several other currently-in-season wild plants to my attention, including chickweed, garlic mustard and spicebush. Overnight, my life got wildly delicious.

Below, the latest from local forests and fields, along with tasting notes and cooking ideas.

1. GARLIC MUSTARD

Weaver described this invasive plant as neither garlicky nor mustardy but intensely bitter. She likes to cook it in oil and garlic until wilted, which is exactly what I did, then piled it onto pizza dough. Going forward, I will add more fat in the form of butter or bacon to round out the bitter notes. We discovered the next day that a fried egg makes a great companion, another example of fat befriending bitter for a winning combination.

2. RAMPS

Better known as a wild onion, the ramp has been a darling among chefs in recent years, and in the foraged universe, continues to “steal the show,” Wenger said. Unfortunately, its popularity has led to rampant overharvesting, and because it takes several years to regrow, the ramp is harder to come by these days. When he finds ramps, Wenger says he trims the leaves and keeps the roots intact so that the plant has a fighting chance of returning the following spring. Ramps like to be infused in oil, then drained and used in salads and other raw preparations or as a finish on grilled meat or fish.

3. CHICKWEED

This pale-green flowering plant may very well be ground cover in your backyard, but it also makes for good eating. I was delightfully surprised by its delicate texture and crunch, similar to a bean sprout. It’s fresh in the mouth like microgreens or tender lettuce. I squeezed half a lemon all over, with a handful of salad greens, some sliced carrot for sweetness, a handful of almonds for more texture and a drizzle of oil. It’s our new favorite salad.

Much to my surprise, you can cook chickweed, which Wenger says has a spinachlike texture. Weaver likes to turn chickweed into pesto and Wenger enjoys a quichelike tart from William Woys Weaver’s book, “Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking.” Wenger also noted that chickweed is one of the most nutritionally packed complete greens.

4. SPICEBUSH

This unassuming twig with yellow blossoms is a native plant of the eastern United States and an important native medicine plant, says Wenger. Once known as fever bush, it is believed to have triggered an immune-system response and cause sweating. The “spice” reference is the allspice flavor emanating from the twigs, leaves and berries, depending on the time of year. The twigs can be steeped in boiling water for tea, says Wenger, and for infusing cream, for ice cream and desserts. By next month, the leaves will be large enough to dry and oxidize for a brew that Wenger compares to green tea.

5. STINGING NETTLES

The word “stinging” scares off many people from nettles, but their bite is only an issue when the leaves are raw. Once they are cooked, the sting disappears. Nettles are extremely nutrient dense, packing fiber, protein, iron and calcium, to name a few, plus disease-fighting antioxidants in the form of carotenoids. They also offer antihistamine and anti-inflammatory support, which makes them great food during seasonal allergy season.

The best way to describe the flavor is double spinach, which means they lend themselves to all kinds of cooked preparations, from soup and sauces to frittatas and pesto. (Click here to see a recipe for stinging nettle pesto.)

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