It’s with a spring recipe that I – finally – come back to you*. Within a few weeks, spring has taken over the countryside out here with its shades of vibrant green.
Our garden turned into something of a jungle, from the first proudly opened daffodils to irises spreading along the walls, from the first cherry tree blossoms to hundreds of actual flowers – soon all gone with the wind.
This is perhaps rather a no-recipe, actually, since it definitely is a flexible one: mesclun basically is a French anything and everything type of salad mix, of which components vary along with seasonal produces. While still being quite a newbie to foraging (but having a biologist dad helps somewhat to improve my skills), I took profit this year to gather some of the edible greens with which our house is surrounded.
Lucky coincidence, this article nearly got published for 2015 Earth Day ! Thus, as a humble homage to our foster-mother and a prompting to a more mindful use of our environment, here is a very summary guide to edible wild plants (which often are loaded with vitamins and other health-enhancing elements) plus a few picking/consumption advices, for whatever it’s worth! Nature can change a lot from a place to another, so let me know if you could make good use of it – perhaps aren’t you that familiar with salad eaten on its own, as first course with some baguette bread (which I found out, through my Hungarian/Czech grandparents’ amazement toward lettuce, is a very French thing), so I’d be glad to hear about your experiments, too.
- Never pick plants you can’t identify positively.
- Don’t pick too much from one single place (other beings need to get nurtured by mother nature !).
- Don’t forage nearby roads or dog walk places.
- The fresher, the better: look for the plants in shady places (woods, embankments) rather than in full sunlight and don’t wait more than half a day for prepping (and, as much as possible, using) your harvest.
- The younger, the better: pick plants at the beginning of the season, before they get mature/flowering. It took me a couple of weeks to gather the pictures and info for this article, so it might be a bit too late for some of the plants described here according to the place where you live, but hope it would help for some next time !
- Before use, clean the plants as explained here for nettles (in vinegar added water, then plain water) and drain them well (I use my salad dryer).
- For more scientific information about each plant, click on their names to jump to their Wikipedia page which look trustworthy.
CLASSIC GREENS TO FORAGE
Does this one really need an introduction ? It was long despised because it grows like weed, but it seems to have more fans nowadays. I was used to eat dandelion as child – when my father picked the ones in the garden to make us salads – so it may well be an acquired taste, but I still like dandelion’s bitterness and even more the sweetish blossoms at the base of the leaves. Not only is it easy to find anywhere, but only amongst the easiest wild plants to identify (the only plant it is to be confused with is edible too). It’s a versatile green (which I’ll surely be led to tell you about again on the blog), yet it is somewhat delicate and turns brownish and bitterer as soon as it is no fresh enough anymore.
During his last visit, my father found a small bush of sorrel in the middle of the forest, but I have to admit I’m not as gifted as him and did not find any since then. It’s too bad, since sorrel makes a nice, lemony addition to both raw and cooked dishes. When looking for sorrel before its flowering time, take care of not mistaking it with young leaves of arum, which is toxic (and to see in the top right corner of the first sorrel picture above).
Though less favored than their ephemeral cousin from the Allium genus, namely wild garlic (which I obviously could’nt find in the area), chives can give a tasty garlicky and oniony touch to dishes or salads as well. Chive is a cultivated species, but numerous clumps happen to be found at the edges of fields around here. They just need to be identified from weed, which I find rather simple given their bluish green color, long and hollow stems and distinctive smell when cut.
GOOD-TO-KNOW WILD PLANTS
The leaves of viola odorata are less sweet-smelling than its flowers (which are traditionally candied or turned into jelly here in France), however they are loaded with vitamins and fresh-tasting, with a nice firm, fast juicy consistency. Interestingly, they can also help thickening soups. They’re good to pick as long as the plants are showing up.
Cuckooflower / Lady's smock
Cardamine pratensis is considered a good substitute to watercress, with which it shares a peppery taste. As its Latin name suggests, it should be looked for in meadows, especially, as far as my experience goes, nearby waterways. The slightly lilac flowers showing up on top of long thin stems make it easily recognisable, but it’s at their feet that you’ll find the watercress-like leaves. Pick the tenderest ones, because their flavour turns rather sharp as they get older. Separate the leaves from the flowers and the thicker stems before consuming.
Though it shouldn’t be consumed in too large amounts, this one sure is my favorite. I love its very distinctive, flowery flavour, making it suitable for both savoury (e.g. sandwiches) and sweet (e.g. a syrup) preparations. You can brew a herbal tea with versatile medicinal uses from it. And in spite of the slightly rough consistency of the leaves, they make among others a nice additions to salads (I discard the stems and flowers).
PLANTS TO USE MORE SPARINGLY
Unless you have a well-maintained lawn for garden (which isn’t our case), there’s probably some Plantago lanceolata in there. Besides some helpful – cough-healing, antihistaminic – properties, it can also be eaten as it is. However, these lovely-looking vegetarian “lamb’s tongues” reveal a rough, fibrous consistency and a bitter taste. The good news is that the youngest (smallest) leaves have a slighter bitterness than older ones. Plus, according to me, they taste a little of mushroom !
Ubiquitous around and inside woods, Ranunculus ficaria is easy to recognize with its bright yellow flowers. However, it should be used with caution, only in small amounts, especially when raw. Take care of picking the youngest and freshest leaves (small, paler, succulent looking). Their consistency is somewhat reminiscent of lamb’s lettuce, and makes for a light, interesting bitter touch in salads.
POSSIBLY USED TOO, BUT NOT HERE
I already said how highly I think of nettles in this article. However, because of its consistency, I have a preference for nettle cooked (even briefly, as in omelettes) rather than raw, even though it emphasizes its fine flavour.
Not to be confused with nettles, with which they’re yet often mixed with, dead-nettles aren’t itchy and carry white or lilac flowers. Their uses are the same than nettles though, with the advantage of being soft which makes them more suitable for raw uses. Plus, their health benefits are praised (purple dead-nettle, in particular, has a high iron content). As to the purple ones, I know the flowers are edible along with the other parts of the plant.
In spite of my liking for this plant, I wouldn’t use it along with the plants listed above, of which pronounced flavour would likely overpower burnet’s taste. It’s up to you, but I already suggested, a while ago, a method to actually capture this subtle flavour.
WILD PLANTS I’M LESS COMFORTABLE WITH
I’ve read about Geranium robertianum, which has a delicate smell reminding me of chervil, that the youngest leaves may be eaten in salads, besides having medicinal uses. However, I’m not quite sure when they are to be considered as no more young enough, so I haven’t dared giving it a go yet.
Aptly named stellaire, meaning “stellar” in French, this plant has lovely star-shaped flowers, always made of five petals divided in half. But I’ve been highly disappointed when I found out that the ubiquitous stellaria species in my area wasn’t the one recommended as a salad green. Indeed, though edible, all species don’t have the same interest for culinary uses: the one I can pick around here has narrow, tough and grass-tasting leaves, whether stellaria media presents larger and more succulent leaves which can be used either raw or cooked, as far as I know.
One of the species of this broad genum (one that sticks to clothes with its hairy leaves) seems to be edible, however I find somewhat confusing to identify it, as well as not handy for culinary uses.
To finish, here’s a list of links to a few complementary sites to improve your knowledge on the subject:
Spring mesclun (mixed greens salad) with foraged wild plants
Once you’ve collected a certain amount of leafy greens, nothing could be easier than making mesclun. Clean (see instructions above) and roughly chop the leaves if needed (chives, dandelion…). Combine them together in amounts of your liking in a large salad bowl, then toss well to mix them evenly.
Eat the mesclun on its own (with a light vinaigrette), use for potato salads, or add to cereal bowls, spring rolls, etc.: be imaginative! Some of the herbs listed above also make nice aromatics. Or you could think of making a pesto out of them. Also, there’s a Japanese typical end-of-winter meal named nanakusa-gayu, which consists in a rice porridge seasoned with seven different spring herbs. I haven’t tried it out, but I bet my mesclun would fit the bill right!
Anyway, if you’re not going to use it immediately, transfer the mesclun to a bag (I prefer waterproof paper ones to plastic), keep it in the fridge and eat it within a day or two.