Nettles. Getting stung by them is a real pain (especially since the sting lasts so long) but you can get back at them. Eat them! It might not seem like a good idea, but once you cook them, their bite goes away and you get some good nutrients in you. At one of the farms I was on in Italy, they made a delicious soup of it with potatoes in a nice broth.
Early in the trip, while we were working on our first farm, we were introduced to foraging. While walking from the house to farm land, our hosts would point out something that was edible or good for your health or just tasty. This got me thinking about doing a post about foraging and sharing a bit of what I learned. Finally, after some warranted procrastination, I got my photos together and here it is.
You might have been hiking around in the cool mountains with shorts on when you brush up against some foliage and all of a sudden you feel a sting and a persistent itch bothers you the rest of the day.
Here's a closer look at the leaves with their stingers. I read somewhere that one type of nettles have so much poison in them that a sting can kill a horse! Luckily, I don't think that type is in the States. We used dried nettles, at our first French farm, to plant tomatoes. Dried, rolled in a ball, and planted below the tomato plant, it gives the plant a ton of nutrients when the roots get hold and helps protect them from bugs.
Melissa. This delightful and abundant plant seems to thrive anywhere weeds can. When you tear the leaves, a mouthwatering, sweet lemony scent is released. We steeped these leaves in cool water overnight and enjoyed the refreshing water after work the next day. I bet they would make a tasty syrup, ice cream or even a hot tisane.
Salad. This one is obvious with what to do, but I was surprised at how easily resilient lettuce is. While I was plowing some land and getting it ready to plant, we found 10, maybe 12, lettuce plants growing on their own in the hard, unworked land. We transplanted them to the lettuce box; why not, free lettuce! Once in there though, we made sure they didn't get too much heat and kept them well watered. It they don't get enough water and their roots strain to find some, the leaves get bitter and, for me, a bit hard to eat.
Purslane. This little guy takes some looking around to find. I was on my knees weeding when I found it. Ironically, purslane is a fast growing and abundant weed that seems to grow best in sandy soil with lots of sun. But it is very easy to uproot and is extremely healthy for you. The tiny succulent is packed with Omega-3 fatty acid and has a nice, subtle grassy taste. In fact, I think it has the most Omega-3 out of any green.
At the pretentious, but amazing-what-they-did-with-food, restaurant I worked at, they used the purslane leaves in a mediterranean salad. It takes a bit of work to pick off all the leaves, but it's a great way to get some flavor, texture, and nutrients into a meal. I've done it with a quinoa salad, mixed it with some leafy greens, and even thrown it in fried rice, right before serving.
Keeping with leaves, but moving away from straight up edible, here are some herbs and flavors. I'm sure these are all pretty obvious, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.
Bay Leaf. These grow everywhere from little bushes into decent size trees in dry and wet climates. I've seen a few different types during our travels, but the fact that I've seen them all over the place makes me wonder why they are so expensive in the grocery store. Right before heading to Paris, I picked some from a hike we took in Brittany and saved them for cooking here. If you get the fresh stuff, it takes a few more leaves to get the same flavor as the dried ones. In addition, the essential oil of bay leaves are good for helping muscle pain.
Mint. This is a pretty young one, but mint can grow pretty high and their stems can get pretty thick. They seem to grow best where the soil can stay damp in the shade, under taller plants, or in the hills. Steeped in boiled water and mixed with some sugar, it makes a nice, delicate tea. I throw in a teabag of black tea to give it some body. I also dig using mint, with basil, to make pesto and tossing a chiffonade in a leafy or grain salad.
Fennel. Another thing I've seen everywhere is fennel. The fuzzy looking fronds are unmistakable, no matter how tall the plant gets. You can use the fronds, like we did at one of the farms, to flavor some steamed trout, add them to a vinaigrette, or add the sweet licorice flavor as a garnish to a potato salad or even scrambled eggs. The root of fennel the fibrous bulb that looks like a big onion with the texture of celery. I've had it roasted and caramelized, sauteed with onions, bacon and potatoes, and have even seen it eaten like an apple - Italians love the stuff.
Now I'm going to ditch the leaves, keep the flavors and add the flowers.
Mustard. The bright yellow flowers of mustard can be seen far and wide in the spring on the I-5 between the Bay Area and Bakersfield. They were growing with the strawberries at our second farm and seem to do well in the heat. Obviously, the most common use is to grind the seeds with water and vinaigre and make mustard, but we munched on some of the leaves and I think it would add a nice, subtle mustard flavor as a garnish or tossed in a salad.
Garlic Flowers. These beautiful, bell shaped flowers are those of garlic. They are pretty small, maybe the size of a pencil eraser, and have a nice, garlic taste without the overwhelming kick. We found them growing in shady, grassy areas, but I suppose they could grow out in the open, as long as they got enough water. We added these to our salad it not only made it the salad look amazing, it also added the right amount of spice.
Poppy. A sign of fertile land, poppies have a couple uses. The seeds, of course, are used in baking and add a nice flavor as well as making those muffins look irresistible. But we spent time picking a ton of the petals to make syrup. Mixing pounds of petals with sugar encourages the petals to give up their tasty juice. Then heating it with a little water until its a nice consistency makes a delicious syrup that we drank with cold water as a refreshing beverage. I suppose it would also taste pretty good drizzled over some vanilla bean ice cream. Poppies seem to be able to grow anywhere where the weather isn't too aggressive, and I said before, is a sign of healthy land.
Elderflower. These trees are so abundant in France, and I wonder if I'll start noticing them everywhere in the States now that I know what they are. If you've ever had elderberry soda, juice or liqueur, you are somewhat familiar with the taste of the flowers. They have a subtle, sweet, grassy and floral taste and used more as a flavoring than eating. Using the same method as the poppies, they can be made into a nice syrup. You can also steep them in milk to make yogurt and even a delicate ice cream flavor.
We'll, that's a bit on foraging. Since getting a taste for it (pun intended), taking hikes and walking around is a somewhat different experience. I see plants for what they could be and I can't wait to learn more. It's not the most useful skill, but maybe it satisfies some instinct left over from when we were nomadic hunters and foragers.