How I enjoy thee, weed that shows up
With green leaves and blooms that fill up our cup.
You offer your life to bird, bug and bee.
I’ll leave you to grow so you can feed me.
~ Ellie Hadsall, Mother Nature’s Garden, 2012
As children we are blissfully unaware of stifling adult distinctions—high vs low class, art vs kitsch, weeds vs plants of value. I remember as a kid grazing on all sorts of edible and barely edible plants—pink clover flowers, sorrel, honeysuckle and a mysterious juniper-scented bush outside of my grandparents’ farmhouse. Inevitably one of these forays led to a trip to the hospital after I mentioned something to my mom about having a tummy full of “dewlicious parsley” from the yard.
But then we grow up, and the world–mythological, ideological, and even material–starts to constrict as we are acculturated with endless adult classifications and judgments. Some plants, it turns out, are prized and valued, others are not. Those beeootiful dandelions are a scourge upon the earth. That pretty purslane is a Biblical plague. That nice leafy lambsquarter must be ripped from the ground.
Funny how it’s the tenacious, brilliantly adapted, independent plants that we scorn–ones that we had no part in cultivating but that overrun our best-laid plans for our yards and gardens.
Well, I’m sure there’s a life lesson there, but Euforkia isn’t interested in lessons. Euforkia is interested in creative food craft, which we have in spades this week as we explore the verdant, vivacious world of edible weeds with Ellie Hadsall and Dara Saville.
Because weeds are sprawling and ambitious, so is this edition of Euforkia: two guests, three recipes (batter-fried flowers, weed pesto and wild green muffins), and links to sundry patches of weed lore on the world wide web. I’m also changing up the format a bit to accommodate the sprawl.
But first some introductions: This is Ellie Hadsall, spiritual mentor, blogger, Kriya yoga minister, weed cuisine instructor, and author of Nature’s Garden: Edible Weeds in an Albuquerque Yard. You can become better acquainted with Ellie at her website cosmicgathering.com
Ellie’s weed plucking, like many of us, harkens back to childhood. But unlike many of us, this habit was encouraged by her mother, who sent her regularly to gather wild violet leaves, poke salad and lambsquarter (also known as wild spinach) that grew under an oak tree on their 360 acre Kansas farm. Due to the ready abundance of free, edible greens already growing in their yard, Ellie’s mom saw no need to plant similar greens like spinach.
As an adult, Ellie continued to keep her eyes peeled for lambsquarter while hiking or biking near her homes in Texas, Indiana and Kansas. When she moved to the New Mexican desert in 2004 she says she kind of figured her days of flush foraging were over. Until she walked around her backyard and found what any Albuquerquean with a lawn and a master plan could have told her: Weeds. Weeds galore.
With a camera and the help of the Soil Conservation Office, Ellie was able to identify the unfamiliar plants in her yard– from sow thistle to amaranth– and figure out which were edible and which were better left untouched. She also started her own lambsquarter crop after a sales clerk at the garden store gave her a starter for free, no charge, because it was a weed. From there she says she got “kind of carried away” with culinary experimentation.
Her book Nature’s Garden: Edible Weeds in an Albuquerque Yard is available as an e-book for a small donation ($3 suggested, less than the cost of a bag of greens at the grower’s market).
This is Dara:
I’ve known Dara for awhile now, having taken a series of herbalism classes with her at Albuquerque Old School. Dara is more than a fount of knowledge; she’s the floodgates of heaven–refreshing, passionate, utterly comprehensive. Dara bolstered her plant skills at Tierona Low Dog’s Foundations of Herbal Medicine and apprenticing with a string of well-known herbalists such as Mary Lou Singleton, Bert Norgorden and Beverly McFarland.
You can just nick the surface of her amazing herbal medicine prowess at her website albuquerqueherbalism.com. (While you’re there, sign up for a class!) Though Dara’s field of expertise is herbs as medicine–infusions, tinctures, balms and the like, she also enjoys slipping her beloved plants onto the dinner plate.
“Weeds are so persistent, tenacious. There’s something to admire there. When I eat weeds I’m filling myself with that same power, that tenacious strength…My philosophy of herbalism is use what you have available; what grows around you and what is offering itself.”
Ellie admires weeds for their beauty, their enrichment of the soil, their economy, and vitality. As she says in her syllabus for her Cooking with Weeds Class: “At our Albuquerque home, nature provides sufficient plants to feed not only our family, but any open minded friends who love culinary adventure.” And: “No, our yard does not look like an empty lot! In fact, it looks quite charming–in my own quite biased opinion and demonstrated by the genuine enthusiastic response of visitors.”
Ellie does trim and contain her weeds, creating weedbeds and even integrating them with her vegetable garden for shade and soil enrichment. “When controlled, they provide shade to allow lettuce to grow longer into the summer heat, loosen the soil so moisture soaks in more deeply, and send roots deeply into the ground to pull minerals up toward the surface…Specific weeds, such as purslane, provide living green mulch.”
Bittersweet Weeds: It’s true, weeds can taste bitter or peppery. Americans aren’t used to it, Dara says, but this bitterness is good for us, stimulating digestion. You can tone down bitterness by steaming greens in a pan with a tight-fitting lid or just, you know, temper them by mixing with milder greens.
Ellie warns that when first eating wild greens, take it easy. “Some people who suddenly eat a lot of wild weeds experience diarrhea from their powerful vitality. If this happens cut back or only eat occasionally. You get greater nutritional benefit than with domestic plants, so eat less. Eventually your body will adjust and love you for it.”
Weed Gathering and Cooking Tips: Ellie finds that weeds taste best when picked in morning or evening. Dara emphasizes the importance of gathering from a clean source, that means growth areas uncontaminated by herbicides or car exhaust. It may be tempting to pick weeds from the acequias, for instance, but those lush acequias are also funnels for agricultural run-off.
Book recommendations: Dara recommends the following for people smitten with the idea of eating weeds or just learning more about herbs: Weeds of the West by the Western Society of Weed Scientists. “A botanist’s book, great for indentification.” And Healing Wise by Susun Weed (no joke), an in-depth profile of six medicinal and culinary plants including violet, dandelion and burdock.
So, your options are vast when it comes to weed harvesting–purslane, wild mustard (London rocket), amaranth, Canada fleabane…but here we’ll just focus on the plants used in the given recipes, currently in season, starting with the ubiquitous, gorgeous and much maligned:
Dandelion! Dandelions are naturalized all over the temperate regions of the world. Both the flowers and greens are edible. Dara tosses them into smoothies, soups and uses as sandwich greens. “There’s a lifting of the spirit that comes with eating dandelions,” she says. “Many of us associate dandelions with the carefree feeling of childhood and playing in the grass. It amazes me how many people try to kill the dandelions in their yard. Pick that stuff and eat it!”
Lambsquarter and dandelion greens are basically interchangeable with spinach in most recipes.
Lambsquarter—Also called wild spinach. This plant also grows pretty much everywhere. Though lambsquarter can be bitter, the leaves I tried were mellow and pleasant.
Stinging Nettles—Dara says this is the most nutritious plant that grows on land and she just laughs and laughs when she hears about people forking out for seaweed in a store when they could be eating nettles for free. Well, maybe they’re afraid to get stung, I think to myself, remembering that super fun time I sat on a stinging nettle whilst peeing in the woods in France. But Dara says that if you are respectful, mindful and unhurried when working with nettle, you won’t be harmed. Dara and Ellie both prefer the little, tender leaves for their youthful vitality and flavor. Dara grinds them up for use in soups and stews.
On the Fork: Ellie’s Battered Dandelions and Primrose Blossoms. “Surprisingly delicious and fun to surprise people with…!” She often makes them at home with gluten free flour. Pick your flowers fresh, right before frying because they clench up if left to languish too long.
Wild Green Pesto: Dara switches up this recipe every time she makes it based on what’s available in her garden. She usually goes halvsies on weeds and the traditional basil to dampen the bitterness. If you still find it too pungent, Dara advises chucking in more garlic. Instead of expensive pine nuts or walnuts, she throws in rampantly nutritious hemp seeds. As usual, with pesto recipes, you should adjust any ingredients to taste and preferred texture.
Dandelion Green Muffins: Ellie says these lightly sweet and attractive muffins are “an instant hit and a great way to get veggies into children’s tummies!” She knows because she has a granddaughter.
So see, we can liberate childhood delicacies from adult judgment and return to our meadow eating ways. Many thanks to Ellie and Dara for diving right in and giving us adult reasons to do it.
Next week: Pimento cheese extravaganza with Amy Black of Supper Truck fame!
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.