I admit it. I am a lawn-eater. Or to be more specific, I am an eater of those plants that live among the grasses which most people call “weeds.” Hurumph. A weed is simply a plant growing where you don’t want it to — any gardener will tell you volunteer tomatoes are weeds.
Now is the time of year to venture out on that most intimate of foraging trips — your yard — in search of edible wild green things. The weather is still cool, but the sun is shining long enough that many wild plants are thinking of spring. And spring brings flowers. Time is ticking, because most lawn edibles are not very tasty once they flower.
I know, I know. Many of you live in colder climates and the very image of this lovely green salad in February is setting you on edge; it’s because you’ve been eating too many rutabagas and turnips. Hang in there, though, because your time will come soon enough.
Fun fact of the day: Most typical yard weeds are European migrants that arrived with settlers, and most are eaten back in the Old Country — or at least someone’s Old Country.
Pretty much everyone knows about dendelions, right? I mean you can even buy them in a store. I see them at the produce section of Raley’s and smile. $1.29 a bunch? How about free, suckers? I have several dozen dandelions growing in my yard at any given time. Not enough to make a proper dandelion wine — you need a field full for that — but more than enough for some bracing salads.
Living alongside these wild chicories are the wild lettuces. Californians can see them flowering already — these are the ones with the little white flowers. Longer leaves with fewer serrations, and a little less bitter than the dandy leaves.
The ideal time to collect yard greens is after a series of cool rains followed by some sunshine. Nights should still be cold, and days not beyond 70 degrees.
This, by the way, is also an ideal time to collect snails, if you are so inclined. I’ve never done it, and was about to several years ago when just days after I’d proclaimed to Holly my intention of catching snails to eat — they all disappeared. Have not seen them since. My theory is that the snail KGB had bugged our house.
Basically, when picking wild salad greens, if it looks more or less like a dandelion or escarole leaf and it is growing in a rosette in your yard, it’s probably edible. Pick a leave and take a bite. It should be a little bitter, but not overpoweringly so. Pull the whole plant if you can — that way you get your weeding done at the same time you are preserving the leaves.
Another common lawn denizen is chickweed:
Mouse ear chickweed is the lettuce of your lawn. Mild, pretty and slightly crunchy, it can grow in great masses. Clip these off and cut the stringy chickweed to about the length of your thumb; they’ll be easier to eat.
Depending on where you live, there are other lawn weeds to add to your foraged salad. Back East, wild onions and garlic grow everywhere: They look like little clumps of chives. By all means use them, and by so doing make me jealous — we don’t have any here. Wah.
Cresses are another good idea. I have a tiny little cress growing wild in my yard that I can’t get enough of its mustardy taste; I think it is Pennsylvania bittercress, but, eaten in winter, it is not so bitter. Most people have some sort of cress living near them, so keep an eye out.
Sorrel is another common migrant. I have European sorrel growing in my yard, because I planted it and the seeds have since naturalized. But there are also the smaller sheep sorrel and wood sorrel, which grows all over the place — all varieties taste like lemonade in a leaf: sour and crunchy.
Some areas also have wild violets or Johnny Jump-Ups, which are completely edible. A few violet flowers on your salad spruces up things nicely.
I’ve seen all kinds of other things in yards, too. Wild mustards (look for the four-petaled yellow flowers), wild mints and other herbs, and here in California, you can sometimes see wild fennel — with its anise aroma and frilly fronds, it is unmistakable. I use it a lot in spring.
(If you are wondering how to properly identify all these plants, I’ve linked to some of my favorite foraging books below. They should have all the information you need.)
Vetch, a kind of bean, can take over certain places — it is a good indicator that your soil needs nitrogen — and can become a nuisance. You can make vetch work for you my clipping the last few inches of the growing tip and eating them like pea shoots. You can put the most delicate vetch tips in a salad, or briefly saute them in olive oil.
The brief saute is my the second go-to preparation for lawn-foraged greens. Older dandelion, curly dock leaves, wild mustard leaves and even filaree, also known as stork’s bill, can all go into the pot for a quick dance with hot olive oil, salt, garlic, a little chile and a squeeze of lemon.
Once cooked this way, you can also wrap them up in phyllo dough for a kind of Greek spanakopita. I wrote about the Greeks’ love of wild greens two years ago, and I still always associate springtime with Greek cooking.
For an Italian take, gather your greens and make a green minestrone with them — use lots and lots of green things, cooked for varying lengths of time, using my minestrone recipe as a base.
I’ve made a cool pesto with dandelion leaves, too. Just sub in dandelions for basil in your favorite pesto recipe. It results in a zingy, slightly bitter pesto that really backs up mild meats like chicken or pheasant.
My final ritual in this early “spring cleaning” is to scour my garden for strays, holdovers and volunteers. Chervil, Italian chicories, overwintering lettuces, the ends of fava beans, the tops of green garlic or onions, etc., etc., etc. These add yet another dimension to your salad or saute and clean up your garden beds, too. Remember that even a wanted plant growing in the wrong spot is a weed, so be cruel when you have to in the garden beds.
So how, exactly, do you make a wonderful salad with such odd ingredients? I wrote an extensive guide to it a while back that I called A Proper Salad. I have pretty strong ideas on how to compose a salad, and I set them all down there.
Foraging need not be some big production. So long as you don’t regularly douse your yard with chemicals, you can make quite a few meals from the vagrants and migrants that have set up shop among your prized bluegrass. And the best part? They’re free.