Scavenging On the Sidewalk: You're going to pull those weeds anyway ... why not eat them?

Today you have a blur of green grass. Tomorrow you possess a purple-and-yellow dotted canvas. Weeds – those masters of evolution that visit without calling ahead – bring this surprising color every year to St. Louis backyards. Most of us look with disdain at these plants with boundary issues, but harvesting unwanted weeds can make meals more adventurous and nutritious.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, wild edibles enjoyed a better reputation – at least among people of alternative eating persuasions (i.e. hippies). But now, after decades of neglect, les mauvaises herbes are making a comeback in gourmet circles.

Sidewalk weeds
Early this month, you may find the sprawling arms of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) creeping from the cracks in the sidewalk. One of the Midwest’s few succulents, purslane contains loads of cancer-fighting antioxidants as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower cholesterol levels. Like many wild edibles, purslane tastes similar to spinach. Some people prefer the shoots cooked in soups or omelets, but others like Sam Hilmer, a farmer who has sold the weed – both in wild and cultivated varieties at Clayton Farmers’ Market and local restaurants – prefers them raw. “I use it as a salad green,” Hilmer said.

Lawn weeds
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers numerous options for culinary adventurers – every part of it is edible. The flowers can be used in pancake batter, the stems in tea, the vitamin-rich leaves in salads and the roots as a coffee substitute. John Griffiths, the executive chef of An American Place, recommended picking the weeds early: “Springtime, they’re more tender. As [dandelions] begin to grow, they become more fibrous.” In his original Tangle of Wild Greens salad, Griffiths mixes dandelion greens, watercress, wild garlic and burnet – all wild edibles from this area. Dandelion leaves, especially older ones, have a bitter taste. To decrease the bitterness, Jan Phillips, author of “Wild Edibles of Missouri,” advised placing the leaves in three separate pans of boiling water for one minute each.

The shy violets (Viola species), which shoot up from the lawn in early spring and linger around until June, are also edible. The blossoms have a bland taste, but when candied, they make exquisite cake decorations. Nicola Macpherson, who forages wild edibles for local restaurants, advised novices to start with flowers: “The flowers are the easiest to prepare. You just eat them.” Violet leaves can also be used in salads. A natural laxative for many, the leaves should be consumed in moderation.

Garden weeds
Long before the summer weeds poke their heads into the world, lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) has resided in the garden for weeks and will continue to grow there all season long. This tenacious weed, which fancies rich soil, is a private hell for gardeners around the country. Had I known earlier about lamb’s quarters’ versatility in the kitchen, I would have saved myself from a number of tantrums. “It’s just really neat to have something wild that doesn’t require any cultivation,” Griffiths said. A highly versatile ingredient, lamb’s quarters can add an earthy flavor to casseroles, soups and salads. You can substitute its toothed leaves for spinach or chard. It also works well in place of lettuce.

Backwoods weeds
If your backyard contains a patch of wilderness, you may come across poke (Phytolacca americana). Few upscale restaurants in the area have courted this weed, but Missourians in rural areas have eaten the young shoots for generations. One South County farmer, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers gathering the weed in the 1930s for a “nickel a bunch. That was our ice cream money.” With fellow farmer Dan Ziegler, he sells poke (or pokeweed) in early and late summer at the Soulard Farmers’ Market. Challenging to prepare because the leaves must be cooked and the roots and berries are poisonous, poke nonetheless, keeps a steady following. Both farmers said their customers parboil the weed and use it, yes, like spinach.

Ziegler also sells the peppery and ever-popular watercress (Nasturtium officinale), which grows in Missouri’s springs and spring-fed streams. Macpherson, who also forages the plant, admires watercress’s zingy quality, which comes from the plant’s cancer-fighting compound, phenethyl isothiocyanate. “Even when you cook it, it’s got an extra peppery flavor,” she said. Watercress adds punch to salads, sandwiches and soups, but care should be given to the water source – make certain it is uncontaminated. When in doubt, Phillips recommended soaking the plant in water with a water-purifying tablet.

Some words of caution
As you venture into the vast edible weed world, keep in mind the following vocabulary: identification, sanitation and moderation. Rookies especially should carry a field guide when foraging. “Know what you’re picking,” Macpherson cautioned. After checking a guide, if you still question a plant’s identity, contact the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening or the St. Louis Mycological Society for help.

Also, foragers should know the history of the area where they gather plants. “You have to be careful and make sure that there are no pesticides,” said Glenn Kopp, the instructional coordinator for adult programs at the Kemper Center. So you might consider having your first hunts for edible weeds at home. Once picked, the weeds, of course, must be thoroughly washed. Kopp also recommended limiting the intake of wild edibles. “Don’t make them your whole diet,” he said.

So while you take a greater risk in obtaining your nutrients from your backyard versus the grocery store, the benefits of cooking with wild edibles – an adventurous meal, high nutrition and grocery savings – will inspire you to experiment with this growing cuisine. Macpherson said, “There’s more interest in getting something local, wild and different."