I spent the summer of 2010 working in a one Michelin starred restaurant in the heart of California’s wine country. The restaurant was the kind of place that grew most of its own vegetables. It was there that I learned how to forage for food. Our two-and-a-half acre farm that grew the restaurant’s vegetables not only harvested the foods they had planted, but they also picked anything edible that happened to be growing on the land. We had fennel, purslane, miner’s lettuce, and plums to name a few – straight from the farm. All wildly growing. What many farmers would call weeds, we called delicious. I couldn’t help but start looking at what was growing in the lush landscape around me. I found wild blackberries, parsnips, watercress, and many more. My wife and I gorged ourselves on foods provided by Mother Nature. Best of all? They were free.
When I moved to Boston I was disoriented. I wasn’t seeing the same plants I knew from the west coast. I felt hopeless, yearning for my days foraging in the wine country. But there were things around that were edible, I just wasn’t yet able to recognize them. My eyes weren’t yet cued-in to the shapes of the leaves and the colors of the flowers of New England’s wild edibles. After a few years here I began to learn new species and recognize old familiar plants that looked slightly different. I was relieved to learn that no matter what coast I was on, Mother Nature would still provide. Here are a few of my favorite plants I’ve found in the greater Boston area.
This is not only one of the most interesting plants you’ll find, but it’s also one of the healthiest. It has a fresh, tart flavor and the highest omega-3 content of any leafy green. It’s naturally high in magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and iron. The green pairs well with citrus and melons and also adds a bright counterpoint to rich meat dishes.
An aromatic yellow flower, these little beauties have a great deal in common with their more familiar cousin, chamomile. They look very similar, except you won’t find any white petals surrounding the pineapple weed flower. Both have citrusy aromas that make refreshing chilled tea, perfect for the hot summer months. Pineapple weed, however, smells distinctly of tropical fruit. To identify the weed, crush the flowers between your fingers and smell for pineapple.
My absolute favorite discovery, sassafras, is the key flavoring agent for root beer (at least before natural and artificial flavorings came along). The stunning sassafras trees grow abundantly in the Northeast. It’s root, most tender and sweet in the spring, was traditionally used as a digestive aid. Root beer was originally designed as a lightly fermented health drink for pregnant women and sick children. You can recognize the trees by their mitten-shaped leaves.
Easily recognized by its bright red flowers, sumac is one of the most overlooked wild crops. It’s a close cousin to the sumac found in the Middle East and Mediterranean. It’s often used in preparations such as za’atar and hummus. Most foragers recommend steeping it in water overnight to make a tart, lemonade-like beverage. Next on my list is to dry and grind it for use in my own spice blend.
This spicy green is absolutely everywhere so you’ve probably walked past it a thousand times without ever knowing it. It gets its name from the heady aroma of garlic that comes from the plant when its leaves are bruised. It can be treated like any other hearty green – sautéed in olive oil with crushed red chiles and a heavy dose of salt. No garlic necessary.
Knotweed is a particularly devious invasive species that has taken over much of New England, strangling native species and preventing them from thriving. One of the best things we can do to preserve our lands is to search out these invasive species, harvest them, and eat them. Knotweed has a terrific mild sweetness accompanied by a tart tang. The flavor is very similar to rhubarb and the plant can be cooked similarly, it’s great for compotes, pies, and sweeter applications.
I’m always excited to see lambs quarters. They’re easy to spot with their dark green leaves that fade to a dusty light green hue where the leaves approach the stem. It’s also known as goosefoot due to the irregular shape of the leaves. The leaves are very tender yet hold up well when cooked. It’s fantastic raw in salads, and you can also be sauté it like a heartier green.
It’s quite simple to get started for yourself. If you’re interested I recommend finding a good guidebook and/or take a class. I like “Wild Plants I have Known… and Eaten” by Russ Cohen. He’s also Boston local who teaches foraging classes in the area and you can find his class schedule here. It’s important to identify something positively before eating it and to make sure that the surrounding soil isn’t contaminated. Don’t worry, guidebooks and a good instructor can help with this. Your first goal is to be safe. Second goal? Have fun.
Author: Sebastian Nava, Chew Product Developer