Troublesome Weeds

October 18, 2011

Garden-variety Invaders

Greens: Dandelion, Lamb’s-quarter, Purslane, Sorrel
Native range: Eurasia
Invasive range: throughout North America

Americans spend more than $500 million each year fighting a losing battle with weeds like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) that stubbornly crop up in their yards. They could save a lot of money and avoid a lot of chemicals by taking a cue from early colonists, gathering the tender, young leaves for salad and the golden blooms for flower wine. There are numerous exotic species–relished in their native lands but abundantly ignored here–that require no sowing or garden plots. European brought many of their favorite herbaceous plants to North America, where they quickly took root. Some were intentionally introduced as garden plants; others arrived as weeds in soil or livestock fodder.

Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, and purslane, Portulaca oleracea, are often found growing along the edges of fields and roads, where they compete with native plants. Purslane can be identified by its rosette of thick, paddle-shaped leaves, surrounding a small yellow flower. (Accoring to Katherine Powers (in The Boston Globe) “a little recumbent jade plant. And Charles Dudley Warner “a fat, ground-clinging, spreading, greasy thing.) Rich in vitamins A and C, as well as omega fatty acids, it’s low in calories and has a pleasant tangy taste. In Mexico, purslane, or verdolaga, is a comfort food, eaten in omelets and stews.

Lamb’s quarters, or fat hen, often grows in fields and on roadsides. It can be recognized by its diamond-shaped leaves and red-streaked stems. Lamb’s quarters cooks down like spinach, and its seeds can be ground to make a dark bread (a fine, if time-intensive, way to help control its spread). In their book, Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Fernald and Kinsey recall a dinner party for botanists, with a puree of fairy ring mushrooms, escalloped purslane, and lamb’s quarter, or pigweed, bread:

A bread of Pigweed-seeds was decided upon. Proceeding in January to the border of a frozen truck-farm, a peck of seeds with husks and other fragments was quickly gathered. Winnowed by pouring back and forth from containers out-of-doors so that the lighter husks and debris blew away, a yield of a full quart of the black and drab fruits was left. When supper was served, Mrs Fernald brought in the soup which found favor, with thin biscuits of Jack-in-the-Pulpit flour, then the Purslane and salad, with a plate of intensely black muffins. I explained that, having no cook, I had volunteered to make the muffins. The plate went around the table, regularly to receive a polite, “No, I thank you,” until it reached the late Emile Williams, half-French and with more than usual Yankee consideration for others. Everyone else having declined my black muffins, Williams took one, put on his eye-glasses and inspected it, then sniffed at it. “Ah, Chenopodium album,” was his immediate diagnosis. Asked how he guessed, he replied: “I’ve just been reading Napoleon’s Memoirs. Napoleon at times had to live on it.” The plate was promptly cleared and returned to the kitchen for more, to nibble with the Beach-Plum preserve.

With common names that recall pigs, lambs, and hens, Chenopodium, along with dandelion and purslane, may well have made its way to the New World in the fodder of early colonists. Most of these species persist in cleared areas and lawns throughout the continent.

With its bright yellow blossom and airborne seeds, the dandelion is familiar to almost everyone. In spring, the rosette of deep-toothed leaves can be gathered and served as a salad green or potherb. (Although cultivated dandelions have been selected for their large size and mild taste, wild exotic leaves are best collected early in the year, when their flavor is most palatable.) The open flowers can be used for wine and the roots for a coffee substitute. During Colonial times, dandelions made one of the most common flower wines. Blooming early in the year, before apples and grapes ripened, dandelion flowers provided a spring source for yeast and a robust wine to accompany the rabbits, songbirds, and squirrels that many colonists depended on for meat.

In recent times, it would seem that dandelions are more of an annoyance to lawn aficionados than a scourge to naturalists, but the bright yellow flowers are very attractive to bees and other pollinators. As a result, native flowering plants can be deprived of the insects they depend on to breed. More dandelion heads could mean fewer trilliums, gentians, and spring beauties.

Before you collect greens for consumption, be sure that they haven’t been sprayed with insecticides or herbicides. In fact, eating these green invaders is a great alternative to spraying. Research in Canada has shown that herbicides, if not used carefully, can actually lead to invasions by more weeds. According to biologist Walter Epp: “The more we disturb the soil ecology with toxics, the more we are liable to create conditions that favor adaptable weeds and disfavor long-term native viability.” By keeping soil healthy, we can preserve our native flora.

Exotic Jade Soup

David Hirsch
Moosewood Cooperative, Ithaca, New York

Exotic Jade soup, adapted from a Moosewood classic by David Hirsch, creates a warming spring tonic from the chaos of exotics. Young, tender greens make a subtly flavored soup.

Serves 4 to 6.

4 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
6 cups vegetable stock (canned or homemade)
1 1/2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced carrot rounds
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced leeks or onions
6 lightly packed cups chopped exotic spring greens (dandelion, watercress,
sorrel, lamb’s quarters, or purslane are just a few of the common
invaders you can gather); use at least 2 or 3 exotics for better flavor
1 cake tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
soy sauce to taste
chopped scallions or chives
dark sesame oil (optional)

Place the shiitake mushrooms in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water, and set aside for 10 minutes.

Heat the stock and add the ginger, carrots, leeks, or onion. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the greens; cook for about 5 to 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender but still somewhat firm.

Drain the shiitake and add their soaking liquid to the soup. Thinly slice the mushroom caps, and add to the soup with the tofu. Heat 5 minutes. Add soy sauce to taste.

Garnish each serving with scallion or chive and a few drops of sesame oil.

Garlic and Exotic Green Pizza

David Hirsch
Moosewood Cooperative, Ithaca, New York

This recipe works well with assertively flavored greens, providing a good complement to young and tender greens that can be added to a salad.

Serves 4 to 8 as an appetizer, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

15-inch prebaked pizza shell (available in most supermarkets)
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup boiling water
4 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 packed cups rinsed, chopped, and stemmed greens, such as chicory, dandelion, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters. Choose 2 or more.
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (2 tablespoons dried)
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Preheat the oven to 450.

Cover the tomatoes with the boiling water and set aside.

Sauté the garlic in the oil for about 1 minute. Add the greens and salt to the skillet and cook on medium heat until they are just tender, 5 to 10 minutes depending on the greens. Chop the sun-dried tomatoes and add with the basil to the greens.

Spread the vegetables on the pizza and sprinkle with cheese. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

Both Moosewood recipes are adapted by David Hirsch from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (Simon & Schuster 1994).

Dandelion Salad with Warm Hazelnut Vinaigrette

Adapted from Gourmet, April 1999

Serves 6

2 large bunches dandelion greens (about 2 pounds)
1/4 cup hazelnuts
3 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Red onion and shaved Parmesan are great additions to this salad.

Discard tough stems from greens. Cut top 5 inches from dandelion leaves and reserve. Cut remaining greens into 3/4-inch slices. Transfer all greens to a large serving bowl. Coarsely chop nuts and finely chop garlic. In a small heavy
skillet cook garlic and nuts in oil over moderate heat, stirring, until garlic is golden. Stir in vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Pour hot vinaigrette over greens and toss to combine.

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