Feature

Edible weeds

G Magazine

Some of the plants that are hurled on the compost heap actually belong in the kitchen. Weeds can be nutritious, delicious, eco-friendly and an exciting addition to recipes – you just need to know what to look for.

dandy-story

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

purslane-story

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea).

nettle-story

Nettle (Urtica species, esp. Urtica urens).

chickweed-story

Chickweed (Stellaria media).

amaranth-story

Amaranth (Amaranthus species).

fennel2-story

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

oxalis-story

Oxalis (Oxalis species).

mallow-story

Mallow (several Malva species).

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Believe it or not, those wild weedy plants that we arduously pull from our gardens are often not only edible but also more nutritious than the vegie plants we cultivate with care. While their environmental reputation is stereotypically poor, it’s hard to imagine a meal with less ecological impact than the one made from a plant that grew itself, metres from your door, with no input at all. A range of novel gastronomic experiences await the adventurous forager – try one of these!

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Perhaps the most iconic of all weeds, the dandelion is also one of the most nutritious plants on the planet. It’s high in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. All parts are edible, from the oh-so-decorative-in-a-salad yellow petals to the root, which can be slow-roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The freshest-looking young leaves are lovely cooked, or make an excellent addition to salads for those that like bitter greens.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

One of the first plants to colonise bare earth over the warmer months, this prostrate semi-succulent, with its jewel-like leaves and reddish stems, is another nutritional superstar. Valued in cuisines in the Middle East and Mexico, purslane has a crisp, tart flavour and more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green ever tested. Cooked, it excels in tomato dishes. Raw, it’s a great foundation for salads or tzatziki-style dips. Yoghurt neutralises the oxalic acid in purslane, which is the plant’s one pitfall. Purslane is not recommended for pregnant women or people with arthritis.

Nettle (Urtica species, esp. Urtica urens)

This is an easily identifiable weed – one can do it by touch alone, as it carries a fierce sting. If dried, or wilted in boiling water for 30 seconds, it loses this disagreeable feature and is transformed into a highly nutritious cooking green. Nettle is extraordinarily high in calcium. Strip the young leaves from the stems and use as a spinach substitute, one of such deep chlorophyll green that it’s easy to appreciate its reputation as a blood tonic. The dried leaves are used for tea, and nettle gnocchi with sage butter is a classic.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

This delicate cool-season herb is a common volunteer in the vegie patch, as it likes moist, rich soils. The taste is very mild, and it is highly nutritious, being particularly high in iron, vitamins A and C and antioxidants. Trim the youngest leaves off the top with scissors and use in salads, sandwiches and pestos. Look for the single row of hairs along the stem as an identifying marker to distinguish chickweed from its many look-a-likes.

Amaranth (Amaranthus species)

This ancient grain alternative, prized by the Incas and Aztecs, is also a metropolitan weed and a fine cooking green, high in protein and minerals. Pick the growing tips and young, freshest looking leaves, and boil in water. Discard the water (amaranth contains oxalic acid) and serve with a little olive oil, salt and lemon as a side dish, or use anywhere you would use spinach.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel’s feathery foliage and yellow flowers can often be found alongside railway tracks and on other sloping land. Hemlock is a poisonous relative, so be sure you have fennel by sniffing for its intense aniseed aroma. The seeds and young foliage are both digestive aids and a good accompaniment to bean dishes. Fennel is a popular ingredient in teas, while the pollen is an expensive gourmet ingredient used in sweet and savoury dishes.

Oxalis (Oxalis species)

Also known as soursob or wood sorrel, this clover-like plant is the bane of many a gardener due to its obstinate bulbs. However, they have a delightful lemony flavour and, used like a herb, can be added to any dish where this tang is welcome. Use sparingly as they are rich in oxalic acid.

Mallow (several Malva species)

A common sight with its dark green geranium-like leaves, mallow is a lovely mild-flavoured green. It is a relative of okra and contains the same mucilage fibre, which is good for digestion and can thicken soups and stews. Young leaves can be used in salads, but mallow’s flavour develops when it’s cooked. The young round seed heads can be used like tiny okras in stews and curries.

G Tip:
Proper identification is essential, so study a good weed identification guide and have someone who knows the weeds assist you. For recipe ideas for cooking with weeds, click here.

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More information: Adam and Annie are producing A Weed Appreciators’ Handbook: Edible and Medicinal Weeds of Australia, and run edible weeds walks in Melbourne. Find out more at www.eatthatweed.com. Sydney residents can head to workshops by Diego Bonetto (www.weedyconnection.com).