Show a little old-fashioned ingenuity and dine like a prince on foraged plants
t’s amazing how quickly everyday things can suddenly come to feel quite extraordinary. After queuing for 45 minutes to do my weekly food shop, walking through the supermarket doors felt strangely emotional – the sight of such bewildering choice, particularly of fruit and veg, stopped me in my tracks. Despite having seen this thousands of times before, the ability of the modern food system to offer up such plenty, even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, really felt like a minor miracle.
Many traditionally foraged foods have disappeared from our diets
In the not-so-distant past, this time of year was known as the “hungry gap”. Stores of winter crops were running perilously low and the first spring harvests were still a few weeks away. Many people were forced to wade into ice-cold streams to gather watercress to stave off hunger pangs, which gives the plant its traditional nickname: “poor man’s bread”. Thanks to the work of scientists, farmers, truck drivers, shelf-stackers and hundreds of others who rarely get much credit, the term “hungry gap” is one that is today little known beyond hobby veg growers.
This newfound plenty has, however, meant that many traditionally foraged foods have disappeared from our diets. Just like watercress, these ingredients might not have been much fun to base your diet on, but they can offer up a source of unusual flavours and textures, not to mention a rich source of vitamins and minerals, when there is little else homegrown around.
Dandelions are not just edible but, if prepared correctly, can be positively delicious. In regional Italian and French cuisine, they are actively planted in vegetable gardens as a prized alternative to chicory, to which they are related. Mature leaves are wilted in hot oil with a few lardons and bring a rich bitter green taste to dishes such as risotto. However, if you fancy a milder flavour, simply cover the plants with an upturned bucket for a week or two before harvest. This excludes the light and results in longer, pale yellow leaves with only a hint of bitterness.
Shepherd’s purse is a relative of watercress and has a similar peppery flavour. While its summer leaves can be tough and fiery, its new flushes of spring growth rival the fanciest salad greens. Traditionally eaten everywhere from here to Japan, the leaves can be used in all the same dishes that watercress can.
Finally, I know eating nettles might sound like some kind of bizarre punishment, but the tiny, venom-filled needles that cause them to sting are rendered harmless by a minute or two in a hot pan. Like shepherd’s purse, its peak of deliciousness is right now, so don’t wait around. It’s like a richer, more complex-flavoured spinach, with no hint of bitterness. Trust me, I wouldn’t don rubber gloves to pick them each year if they weren’t genuinely worth the effort.
So, there you have it, three delicious and nutritious crops that are often overlooked in our food culture, which will turn the drudgery of weeding into the joy of harvesting, just when your veg patch needs it the most.