My father has always railed against what he calls “yard clipping salads,” a.k.a. any salad that isn’t made of iceberg lettuce. That’s too bad, because literal backyard clippings (and forest clippings) are not only good for you, but super flavoursome, and can be easily foraged for. (And they’re usually free.) Let’s explore some of the edible weeds, ferns, and flowers that can be found outside your door.
Edible portions: You can eat the leaves, stems, roots and flowers.
How they’re good for you: Dandelions are chock-full of antioxidants and are rich in Vitamins A and K as well as fibre.
How to eat them: The leaves are great in stir fries, the flower heads can be fried in tempura batter, and the roots can be dried and made into a coffee-like beverage. The video below has some great tips for dandelion prep, cleaning and cooking.
How to clean them: It’s best to let the leaves soak in a sink full of cold water overnight, as this can help loosen any dried on dirt. Some people recommend soaking the greens in a vinegar water mixture to help disinfect, but I must note that vinegar is not a registered disinfectant and will not protect you against all bacteria.
What they look like: You know what these guys look like (see above.)
Where to find them: Dandelions can be found pretty much everywhere, but you should still be a little choosy while gathering them. Avoid areas where weed killer may have been sprayed, like the sides of highways, near telephone poles, or close to train tracks (honestly I wouldn’t eat anything off of a train track) and steer clear of dog-friendly outdoor spaces (this is a pretty good foraging rule in general). Dandelion leaves can be harvested year-round, but taste sweetest in the early spring.
Fun fact: “Dandelion” is also the name of Keith Richards’ and Anita Pallenberg’s daughter, though she goes by Angela (her middle name).
Edible portions: The leaves, stems, and roots are all edible, but the young leaves (found towards the top of the plant) have the best flavour.
How they’re good for you: Stinging nettles are high in vitamin A, calcium, iron, and pack a surprising amount of protein.
How to prep them: As mentioned above, this plant can hurt you, so wear gloves while picking and handling them until they have been cooked. Cooking disables their defence system, and a quick blanch will transform the prickly plant into delicate greens that taste like the lovechild of spinach and cucumber.
How to eat them: Stinging nettle can be used like any other cooked green and can be swirled into soups, made into pesto, and baked into cheesy tarts. Young shoots are apparently used to make beverage called “nettle beer,” which is alcoholic so that’s nice. The roots are said to have medicinal properties (and may help with certain “male issues”), but I’m not a doctor and therefore must recommend that leave your prostate care to a medical professionals and not a plant you found at the park.
What they look like: Stinging nettle plants are three to six feet in height with toothy, tapered, somewhat heart-shaped leaves that are around one to six inches. Thin catkins of tiny green flowers grow from the leaf axils. Oh, and the whole plant is covered in tiny, stinging hairs.
Where and when to find them: You can find stinging nettle in damp areas around rivers, streams, walking paths, or any shady place with rich soil.
Edible portions: The leaves, flowers, and seeds are all edible, but the young leaves tend to be the most tender and have the best flavour.
How it’s good for you: Purslane has a ton of Omega-3, but is also full of vitamins E and C.
How to prep it: Store purslane clippings in a plastic bag until you’re ready to eat it, then rinse under cold water and soak in diluted vinegar, with one more rinse after the soak. You can skip the vinegar soak if you are comfortable with your source (like your yard), but I will leave that up to you.
What they look like: Purslane is a sprawling plant that grows out from one main root in all directions. It grows either flat against or low to the ground, always more out than up. According to Serious Eats:
It is distinctly recognisable, with leaves that are smooth and succulent, like a cactus without any thorns. Each leaf is shaped like a little oar, and tend to cluster together at the tips of a thicker stem that is sometimes faintly reddish.
Purslane looks a little like the toxic spotted spurge, but you can easily tell the difference by checking the leaves and sap. Spurge’s leaves don’t have a succulent quality to them and purslane’s are always free of fuzz. Spurge also contains a milky sap, which is absent in purslane.
Where and when to find it: This stuff grows everywhere. According to the blog Penniless Parenting, there isn’t a single continent (besides Antarctica) that doesn’t have purslane growing on it. Purslane loves heat, so look for it during the hottest part of the summer, though you may be able to find it year round. It’s not the hugest fan of shade, so look for this “weed” in sunny spots amongst other plants on grassy knolls or in your garden.
This is just a small sampling of the many free foods you can find outside, so feel free to share your favourite (along with any tasty recipes) in the comments. Happy hunting!