I am constantly amazed at just how many edible plants are out there. Many hundreds, just in North America. They're edible, yes, but worth gathering? Worth getting into your car, driving somewhere, and searching for them? That, to me, is a tall order for a plate of greens. Fact is, I rarely leave my yard when I want them.
When I say wild greens, I mean the leaves or stalks of plants that are best eaten cooked. This separates them in my mental calculus from salad greens both wild and domestic (cresses and arugula, for example). Some plants fit into both camps, depending on the time of year.
Your first forays into foraging ought to begin at home, with something familiar, like dandelions. No treks through uncharted wilderness, no danger. The wonderful thing is that wild greens are all around us. Everywhere. Look out the window. I bet you're looking at some now. Even in a big city or a desert--even in winter.
Lamb's-Quarter, Amaranth, and Orach
These are your "money" greens. All appear in late spring and last through autumn, and all bear lots of teeny seeds that can be used as grain; you might know one domestic species--it's called quinoa.
All three plants start as compact seedlings with soft leaves that can be eaten raw, then grow into rather large, sprawling bushes, with tougher leaves that bear a passing resemblance to spinach. And all are excellent substitutes for spinach, but taste better and are more nutritious. You should be able to find them with little trouble between May and September.
Orach, which tends to like seaside areas or alkaline soil, is the easiest to spot, since it has dramatically triangular leaves. Some places call this plant mountain spinach; others, saltbush. Its leaves often actually taste salty, which is a surprise when you consider how bland most greens taste. It will grow to about 3 1/2 feet tall and become a slightly woody shrub.
Amaranth is easily identified by that red tinge in the stalk and in the veins of the leaves. Do not mistake it for pokeweed in the East, as eating the older leaves of pokeweed will send you to the hospital (although pokeweed's young shoots are delicious). Pokeweed stems are a rich, dark purple the color of blueberries; amaranth or pigweed is the same red as in rhubarb. Amaranth leaves are a gentle spear shape, with prominent alternate veins at regular intervals, and plants will grow to 5 feet.
Lamb's-quarter shares the same general look as amaranth and orach, but check out the undersides of the leaves: They should be silvery and slightly fuzzy. And if you drip water on the underside, it looks like a drop of mercury. Pretty cool, eh?
To me, nettles have always been a little like acorns--something I'd vaguely known was edible, yet never bothered to pick and eat. The first time I ate what my friend Josh calls "electric grass" was after I moved to California. I harvested them in mid- January, when they were about 8 inches high--at their prime. Nettles don't come out until March in most other places.
Liking wet places and dappled shade, nettles are easy to spot. They grow in large patches straight up, and they have large, thin leaves that look a little like lemon balm or mint, only covered with fine, stinging hairs. Never grab them by hand, or you will be stung. Wear a glove or use a thick bag as a shield.
To defeat the plants' stinging defenses, you must blanch them briefly in salty, boiling water, then shock the greens in a bowl of ice water to set and brighten the color. Simply served with olive oil and a little garlic, they are just okay--pretty to look at but bland. You really need to do something else with them. Italians use nettles a lot, especially for pesto and in pastas, mostly as a filling for ravioli. Greeks add them to their wild greens pies, like spanakopita.
The most common wild mustard is black mustard (Brassica nigra), which, if you had the patience to gather the seeds and grind them, would make one fierce mustard. Collect the seeds in late summer or early autumn, when the pods are dry. I admit I've never done this, though. Instead, I wait for the first flush of flowers, then gather "wild broccoli"--a tight cluster of flower buds of another brassica, such as mustards, broccoli, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, or collards. We've bred broccoli to have that big flower head, but wild mustard does something similar, except, like broccoli raab or rapini, it has smaller, looser heads with a definite mustard bite. They are delicious blanched for 1 to 2 minutes in salty water, then sauteed in olive oil with lots of garlic. Pick them before the weather gets hot, or the flower buds will be impossibly bitter.
Dandelions and their cousins are the "gateway drug" to serious foraging. They grow in nearly everyone's lawn, and most people know what they look like and that they can be eaten. Picked young, they are great in salads, and by midspring they become a stewing green par excellence.
I include chicories and wild lettuces here because they are all similar in the kitchen and tend to grow next to each other. I've picked a dandelion, a prickly lettuce, and a young chicory side-by-side-by- side more than once.
One of the best parts about picking these plants is that in cool weather, finding them is merely a matter of venturing out into your yard. It can be cold, but the sun is shining long enough that many wild plants are still doing their thing. The ideal time to collect yard greens is after cool rains followed by some sunshine. Nights should still be nippy, and days not above 70°F.
The simplest, best way I like to eat wild greens is to wash them well, get a few tablespoons of olive oil hot in a large saute pan, then cook them while they are still wet, which helps them wilt fast with the resulting steam. Add salt as soon as they wilt, maybe some minced garlic, maybe some chile pepper, definitely black pepper--and a squeeze of lemon or lime right when you serve them. This method is simplicity itself, takes less than 5 minutes, and keeps most of the nutrients in the greens. The recipe I feature in my book showcases their beauty and flavor even further.
Try the author's recipe for Wild Greens Risotto.
When in Doubt, Check It Out
Never eat something you cannot positively identify. There are not a lot of poisonous lookalikes when searching for wild greens (in my upcoming book, I discuss pokeweed as an example), but better safe than sorry.
Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast (Rodale Books, summer 2011) is not meant to be a full-on guide, so I recommend Peterson Field Guides, Audubon books, and regional books. I have a collection of them for reference, and I also carry a couple (an Audubon and a Peterson) in my backpack when I am out and about. --H.S.