Can we come up with a tasty, healthful salad, just by foraging the urban neighborhood around NPR's Washington, D.C., office? That would be the ultimate in locally grown food. But most of us don't know the first thing about foraging wild greens.
So we asked Sam Thayer to join us in a hunt for wild greens. He's a leader in efforts to revive the ancient art of foraging. As we step out the door of NPR's headquarters, Thayer starts scanning the landscape, then lopes across the street, dodging cars.
"I'm looking for green," he says.
And he finds it, right across the street: chickweed growing along a chain-link fence. But just because Thayer is passionate about wild foods, it doesn't mean he'll eat any old plant. A block away, he tests the succulence of a patch of henbit and dead nettle by tasting.
A few plants are just too urban, like a prickly lettuce growing at the base of an office building.
"Prickly lettuce is the ancestor of cultivated lettuce," he says, pointing to the lone plant in a sea of blacktop. "This one is covered with some kind of dust from the building, so we won't be collecting this."
Indeed, I'm wondering if that dust contains toxic lead from paint. I'm also wondering about dog pee. Thayer says that's just one of the safety issues to consider when foraging.
"If you're picking from a spot that looks like a dog pee kind of spot, rinse it off or don't pick there," he says. But his biggest worry is herbicides. How to avoid them? Know the area where you're foraging, he suggests, and check plants closely for damage that could be caused by spraying.
Growing Up 'On Cereal And Milk'
Thayer started eating wild plants as a boy in Wisconsin, walking to and from school.
"I was hungry on the way to school, and on the way home," he says. "I feel like I grew up on cereal and milk. I just needed nutritional variety."
The crabapples and thistle leaf stalks that he browsed whetted his appetite. Soon he was reading everything he could about edible wild plants, and quizzing his grandmother for advice. Now 34, and a resident of Birchwood, Wis., Thayer has written two field guides to edible plants, and lectures frequently on wild foods.
He says adding wild foods to the typical American diet can have a big payoff in flavor, nutrition and variety.
"Most people only eat a few different vegetables over the course of the year. But any place you live, there's probably 75 different wild vegetables you can add to your diet over the course of the year," he says.
Hitting The Wild Salad Jackpot
In an hour's exploration around the NPR headquarters building, we found more chickweed; mallow; a big, beautiful dandelion; and a prickly lettuce that was clean enough to eat. But we didn't find enough for a meal; there were none of the abandoned empty lots or wooded areas that Thayer favors.
Then we hit the wild salad jackpot: an abandoned brick flower box next to an old building, crammed full of weeds like shepherd's purse. Thayer started eating with abandon. "I just love the flavor of those stems, raw or cooked. If you can get a big patch of that, enough for a whole meal, it's just absolutely gourmet."
But what really makes Thayer swoon is the sow thistle. That's Sonchus oleraceus to you botanists — a common roadside plant that can grow up to 6 feet tall. Thayer honed in on the stems, stripping off the leaves.
"Ah, that is good!" he says. "You cannot buy anything this good. It's like celery without the stringiness, but the flavor's like the sweetest lettuce you've ever had in your mouth."
That sow thistle was indeed one yummy plant, better than anything I've bought at the grocery store. Thayer says one reason people get turned off to wild plants is that they eat the wrong parts, or eat them at the wrong time of year. Right now, that sow thistle is tender and succulent. In August, it would be nobody's idea of a treat.
Siberian elm seeds are another example of the importance of knowing a plant's seasons. Thayer had spotted a small elm tree loaded with seeds on the way to NPR and wanted to see if it was a Siberian elm. They're common street trees, particularly in the upper Midwest.
"Each one can produce literally thousands of pounds of seeds, and they're absolutely delicious," Thayer says. "They remind me of a cross between oatmeal and lettuce, but the oatmeal's already sweetened."
We track down that elm tree, and eureka! It is indeed a Siberian elm. Thayer says the small green seeds, called samaras, need to be eaten before their edges start turning brown.
"This one is in the ideal stage," he says.
He strips handfuls of samaras off a low-hanging branch and starts munching. I try them, too; they are indeed absolutely delicious, mild and nutty.
Those samaras are a delightful treat. But eating them once a year isn't going to do much to improve my diet. To find out if wild greens really are good for you, we asked John Kallas, a wild food expert, teacher and author in Portland, Ore., who is also a nutritionist with a Ph.D. Wild greens, he says, are one big reason why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy.
"Greeks on the island of Crete ate huge quantities of greens, and they were the healthiest of all the people all over the world," he explains. "No heart disease, less dementia with old age, almost no cancers, period!"
Kallas makes a point of incorporating wild greens into his usual diet, as garnishes on sandwiches and in stir-frys. The wild green frittata he makes for NPR is a good example. It contains an amazing 10 cups of wild greens: four cups of nettles, three cups of field mustard greens, two cups of curly dock, and one cup of garlic mustard.
He has reviewed the research on the nutritional content of wild greens, and says they're generally more nutritious than supermarket spinach and lettuce. The mustard garlic has the highest levels of nutrients of any leafy green ever analyzed, he says. It's high in vitamin A, beta carotene, zinc, manganese and fiber.
But then, so are the other greens going into the pan. Kallas doesn't want people to obsess over nutrients, however. He wants us to think of greens as plain old food, just as humans have done for millennia.
Taking Precautions While Foraging
But foraging comes with cautions. Both Thayer and Kallas warn that before eating a plant, you need to be absolutely sure that you know what it is. Thayer says: "You have to be as certain in identifying that plant as you are in identifying a strawberry."
Eating a plant when uncertain can be dangerous, or even deadly.
"Poison hemlock and wild carrot look alike," Kallas says. If people haven't studied the plants, it's easy to confuse the two. "They find something that they think is wild carrot. It's actually poison hemlock, and they eat it and then they die."
Field guides and classes can help foragers learn enough to chomp safely and enjoy the hunt. As Kallas says: "If you can walk around your neighborhood and get sustenance without having to go to the store, you don't need any money. That's an amazing thing."
Frittata With Wild Garlic Mustard
Adapted from John Kallas' book Edible Wild Plants
Makes one serving
1 tbs olive oil
Pinch of salt
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/2 red sweet onion, chopped
1/4 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1 tsp rosemary
1/2 cup garlic mustard greens
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Whisk eggs and set aside. Heat olive oil on medium high in an oven-safe pan. Add the onion, pepper and mushrooms. Saute until the onions have caramelized. Add the rosemary to the pan, stir quickly, and add the eggs. Add wild greens and cover. Lower heat to medium low and cover for 2 minutes or until greens are wilted. Shut off heat. Two minutes after adding egg mixture, remove cover and place on middle rack of preheated oven. Leave in oven for 5 minutes or until dish is done. Let sit for a couple of minutes prior to serving. (This can also be prepared as an omelet cooked entirely on the stove top.)
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We're going to hear now about a movement to bring wild food back into our diets. NPR's Nancy Shute went out foraging and found out how to eat wild food safely.
NANCY SHUTE: But Sam Thayer sees this landscape differently.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)
MONTAGNE: I'm looking for plants.
SHUTE: Sam Thayer is an edible wild plant expert. He's convinced that he can come up with a great fresh salad on the streets of Washington, D.C.
MONTAGNE: Here's something.
SHUTE: He starts finding edible plants right away.
MONTAGNE: Henbit and dead nettle. They're both in the mint family. They're both edible, but they're not - well, let's see.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
MONTAGNE: Would I want that in my salad? No.
SHUTE: Just because Sam loves foraging doesn't mean he'll eat just any old plant. Some aren't tasty enough. Others aren't safe. A few are just too urban. Like this prickly lettuce growing at the base of an office building.
MONTAGNE: Prickly lettuce is the ancestor of cultivated lettuce. This one is covered with some sort of dust from the building, so we wouldn't be collecting this.
SHUTE: That dust could contain toxic lead from paint. And I'm also wondering about things like dog pee.
MONTAGNE: If you're picking from a spot that looks like it's a dog pee kind of spot, then rinse it off or don't pick there. But the big worry is spraying of herbicides.
SHUTE: What should people do to make sure they're not getting plants with herbicides on them?
MONTAGNE: I'd like to look at that plant.
SHUTE: Thayer likes to forage in wooded areas and empty lots. He says he can usually find 14 or 15 different edible plants within arm's reach.
MONTAGNE: Most people only eat a few different vegetables over the course of a year. But anywhere you live, there's probably 75 different wild vegetables you can add to your diet.
SHUTE: But we didn't find enough for a meal - until we hit the wild salad jackpot.
MONTAGNE: Look at that.
SHUTE: It was growing in an abandoned brick flower box next to an old building and it was full of plants like shepherd's purse.
MONTAGNE: I just love the flavor of those stems, raw or cooked. If you can find a big patch of this and get enough for a whole meal, it's absolutely gourmet.
SHUTE: There's henbit, too, and chickweed, and prickly lettuce and wood sorrel. But what really makes Thayer swoon is the sow thistle.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
MONTAGNE: That is good. Oh, Nancy, you've got to try this.
SHUTE: Oh man, that is good.
MONTAGNE: You cannot buy anything that good.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)
MONTAGNE: It's like celery without the stringiness, but the flavor's like the sweetest lettuce you've ever had in your mouth.
SHUTE: John Kallas says yes. He's a wild food expert and a Ph.D. nutritionist. He says are one big reason why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy.
D: Greeks on the island of Crete ate huge quantities of greens, and they were the healthiest people of all the different people all over the world. You know, no heart disease, less dementia with old age, almost no cancers - period.
(SOUNDBITE OF POT OPENING)
D: So we've got four cups of nettles...
SHUTE: Kallas is making a wild greens frittata at his office in Portland, Oregon.
D: Three cups of field mustard greens, two cups of curly dock, and one cup of garlic mustard.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
SHUTE: By using so many different greens, Kallas is ensuring that he's getting lots of nutrients. The mustard garlic that's going into this frittata is a common weed.
D: According to my research, garlic mustard is the most nutritious leafy green ever analyzed up to this point.
SHUTE: It's really high in vitamin A, beta carotene, zinc, manganese and fiber. But then, so are the other greens going into the pan.
(SOUNDBITE OF GREENS COOKING)
D: So we take the whole mass of 10 cups of greens, threw it right on top. Lots and lots of greens. They're covering the whole pan.
SHUTE: Eat this frittata for breakfast and you're good for the day. But there's one must know thing about eating wild: don't eat a plant if you're not absolutely certain what it is. Kallas says mistakes can be dangerous, or even deadly.
D: Poison hemlock and wild carrot look alike. Unfortunately, when people don't know what they're doing and they find something that they think is wild carrot, it actually is poison hemlock. And so they eat it and then, you know, they die.
SHUTE: So before you start forging, it's essential to study up with field guides or a class.
D: You need to be confident that you know the plant. Can't be just well, I think I've got it. You know, you really need to be confident.
SHUTE: But learning wild greens can pay off.
D: Boy, if you can just walk around your neighborhood and get sustenance without having to go to the store, you don't need any money, that's an amazing thing. That's fun.
SHUTE: Nancy Shute, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.