Many weeds commonly found in our backyards are actually highly nutritious and tasty and have been eaten as 'wild greens' in other cultures for centuries. These notes show you how to harvest edible wild greens and turn them into simple and nutritious pies, salads and omelettes.
© Mark Dymiotis
Wild greens are rich in vitamins, fibres, antioxidants, proteins and considerable quantities of flavonoids. Wild greens produce nutrients during the day and store them in the roots at night. Therefore it is advisable, according to some literature, to harvest young shoots in the afternoon and roots in the morning. In practice however, this is not usually done.
The juice of cooked vegetables can be dressed with lemon and drunk as a tonic. It is nutritious, has a cooling effect and is a diuretic.
Most of the wild greens are normally available in winter. They start growing soon after a good autumn rainfall and under favourable conditions they are available until early summer. Typical wild greens growing in summer include amaranth, fat hen and black nightshade (but only the young shoots which are always cooked to kill the poison in them) as well as silver beet.
Harvesting and Preparation
For some wild greens such as some thistle types, amaranth, broccolini, stinging nettle, mallow, purslane and fennel, harvesting consists of cutting the young shoots by hand. Wash them in plenty of water so that any dirt is removed - changing the water if necessary.
Other vegetables are harvested by cutting the whole plant from the root just below the base. Remove old and sick looking leaves and wash them by dipping them in plenty of water, changing the water until no dirt is left.
If you feel comfortable, chop vegetables by hand directly into a bowl or cooking pot. The use of a chopping board risks the loss of nutrients into the chopping board.
The most common way of cooking wild greens is by cooking them in boiling water, serving them as a salad – either warm or cool. Cooking greens in boiling water helps maintain their bright green colour. They are cooked until soft. Some, such as amaranth, take only a few minutes to cook while others such as dandelion take longer. Add salt towards the end of the boiling. Make a dressing of lemon and olive oil - diced onion and / or garlic are optional. Serve as an accompaniment to other dishes or eat with bread, olives or cheese as a light meal.
Cooking with olive oil
Wild greens and olive oil are good companions. A very generous quantity of olive oil (preferably virgin) is essential for the development of their superb flavours, especially in pies. Fry onion and garlic in olive oil until they start browning, add diced tomato, cook for a few minutes and then add the wild greens. Cook on low heat until the greens are cooked and the oil blends with the water and the juices. Add salt to taste.
Making a pie is a very common way of eating wild greens and is tasty and filling. Normally a number of greens are mixed together to enhance the flavour. Some greens such as thistle, chicory, cat’s ear and stinging nettle are fillers while others such as Mediterranean hartwort, fennel, parsley and mint are used in smaller quantities to improve the flavour and aroma. After washing the wild greens chop them into smaller pieces and place them in a large bowl. Add the olive oil, a diced onion, salt and plenty of olive oil. Mix well and squash them well by hand. The addition of burghul or rice will absorb the excess juices. With some recipes wheat flour and / or course corn flour are used instead of rice or burghul.
Oil the baking dish generously with olive oil and cover the base with batter (water, flour, olive oil and salt). Add the wild greens and top them with a thin layer of batter. Bake in a preheated oven at 1800C for about an hour.
For an omelette use only tender, easy to cook greens such as amaranth and stinging nettle. Place olive oil in the pan, add the washed greens, cover with a lid and cook them until soft (a steaming effect). For better flavour add some of the flavouring greens such as mint, parsley, fennel, hartwort, leaves of rape and radish leaves. Break the eggs – as many as you like – in the pan and mix them in after a couple of minutes.
Common wild greens found in backyards
AmaranthAmaranth is available from mid-spring to mid-autumn. Regular watering is essential. Harvest young shoots and wash them well in plenty of water. Cook in boiling water for about 5 minutes or until tender. Dress with olive oil (virgin) for a salad.
BroccoliniA winter vegetable that thrives in well-watered fertile soil. Harvest the young shoots, cook them in boiling water and dress them for a salad.
Cat’s earA winter wild green. Cut them below the base with a garden knife. Remove dead and old leaves. Cook with other greens for a salad, pie or casserole.
CichoriumAnother winter wild green. Cut them below the base with a garden knife. Remove dead and old leaves. Cook on its own or with other greens for a salad, pie or casserole.
DandelionAn autumn to spring vegetable. Cut them below the base with a garden knife. Remove dead and old leaves. Cook on its own or with other greens for a salad, pie or casserole.
MallowAvailable most of the year. Harvest the young shoots. It is normally cooked with other greens and used in salad, pie or casserole.
Mediterranean hartwortAvailable from autumn to spring. It enhances the flavour of other greens.
PoppyAvailable from late autumn to spring. The young shoots are harvested and cooked with other greens.
PurslaneAvailable from late spring to autumn. It is found in cultivated land and parks. Harvest the young shoots. It is mainly eaten raw in salads.
Stinging nettle (darker green, held in hand)Available in autumn to mid-spring. It is mixed with other vegetables and cooked as an omelette, pie and casserole. Mint is a good accompaniment to it.
Thistle (lighter green, in foreground)There are many different types available. Some are available in autumn and winter while others in spring. Harvest the young shoots and cook them for a salad, pie or casserole.
Other flavour enhancing vegetables, especially for pies, are fresh mint (dry mint could also be used) and continental parsley. Consider also some leaves or tender shoots of radishes, zucchini, mustard and rape.
For more information on ‘Living simply, the traditional Mediterranean way’, visit www.markdymiotis.com