Productivity is everything in the vegetable garden and to that end every square inch and no end of loving labour is employed to conjure a good yield from the precious loam. But what of the forgotten harvest, the unbidden crop which appears in the absence of work and care?
Weeds are easy to write off with a one way ticket to the compost, but in fact many are perfectly edible and can bring a whole new dimension to cropping the veg plot. At this time of year the weed harvest is even more precious, as it supplies fresh salad leaves and greens, at a time when many cultivated crops haven’t even germinated.
At the top of my tasty weed list is chickweed stellaria media, a great coloniser of cultivated ground which forms tangled mats during the winter months. To me it’s the iceberg lettuce of the foraging world, mild and sweet with a superb crunchy texture. Select the young growth and use it as a bulk salad ingredient or lightly steamed for a delicate vegetable dish.
The dandelion taraxacum officinale needs no introduction and despite traditional beliefs, will not have you wetting the bed if you eat it. Try using the young shoots sparingly to add a little chicory-esque piquancy to a warm salad of duck confit – the results are stunning! Also the effort taken in digging out the long roots will be well rewarded if, after a quick scrub they are baked until black and brittle, then ground to make a caffeine free alternative to fresh coffee.
Though there are many more to choose from, hairy bittercress cardamine hirsuta (the name belies its edible qualities) completes my gourmet trinity of spring weeds. They pop up just about anywhere on bare ground and produce distinctive florets of cress shaped leaves. The young growth has a wonderfully peppery tang, almost identical to the cultivated cress of windowsill fame. Fresh or cooked, bittercress will give a wild kick to all sorts of dishes including salads, tarts and pasta dishes.
Welcome then to the enlightened world of weeding, where with the prospect of a good meal every pull is a pleasure, every dig delight!
Please remember that the correct identification of edible plants is vital! Use a decent field guide, or search the web using a plant’s Latin name, for information and images from reputable web sites.
- words: Michael White
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