Book Review: A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

The evening a review copy of A Feast of Weeds: A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants came in I couldn’t put it down. I chased Kelly and our guest Nancy Klehm around the house to read excerpts: on the obscene etymology of the Italian word for the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), on the history of Mallow (Malva parviflora). And who knew that Italians eat red poppy leaves?

Ballerini is a professor of Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles. But don’t worry, this is not a dry academic tome. Ballerini is erudite, witty, even bawdy at times. Ballerini’s book infuses foraging with history and meaning,

Gathering, cooking and reading seems like a triad of imperatives much more appetizing than the believing, obeying, and fighting through which one famous twentieth-century dictator tried to reduce Italy to idiocy (largely succeeding) and the buying, pretending not to know, and not giving a damn about others with which his political heirs pursue that same design.

Each chapter profiles a common foragable plant and includes a set of Italian style recipes for what to do with them such as spaghetti with nettles and purslane frittata. The wild plants Ballerini writes about are found in Italy, but most (minus capers, sadly) can be found all over North America. This is not a guide book–it assumes you already know how to identify the plants Ballerini is discussing.

I had one quibble with the chapter on prickly pear cactus–you do not need to peel the pads to eat them. This is an understandable mistake for an Italian to make. For some odd reason only the people of the New World eat the pads of prickly pear–in the Mediterranean and Middle-East, where the plant has been imported, only the fruit is consumed.

I’m looking forward to cooking up some of the recipes, which were contributed by Ada De Santis, who runs a farm on the Salentine peninsula of southern Puglia. Thanks to A Feast of Weeds, there will be many future evenings, “gathering, cooking and reading.”

Nasturtium Leaf Pesto

nasturtium flower pesto

Chicago artist and permaculturalist Nancy Klehm gave me this idea. Funny how it takes an out of town visitor to make you aware of a resource at your own home–right now our yard is choked with nasturtium and I’ve never made good use of the leaves. I have used the flowers for a pesto, but it’s kinda labor intensive. Nancy made a pesto with the leaves and I had to try my own version:

Nasturtium leaf pesto

2 fistfuls of nasturtium leaves
1 fistful of nuts–pistachios preferred but any will do
a half fistful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
olive oil
salt
pepper

Roast nuts in a pan. Let them cool and add to a food processor with the nasturtium leaves, cheese, salt and pepper. Add olive oil as you pulse the processor. Process until smooth. Add to your favorite pasta or use as a dip. Garnish with a nasturtium flower.

Nasturtium Powder

Around this time of year Nasturtium becomes a kind of massive monocrop in our yard. We’re always trying to figure out uses for it. Of course it does well in salads, both the greens and the flowers, and we’ve made capers of the pods. Also, the flowers make a particularly beautiful pesto. But this year, inspired by the culinary experiments of forager Pascal Baudar and his partner Mia Wasilevich (friend them in Facebook if you want a daily dose of foraging greatness) I decided to make a nasturtium powder. It’s simple:

  1. Dry the leaves. Here’s a fast way: take a bunch of nasturtium leaves and spread them in a single layer between two paper towels. Microwave for two minutes.  Or use more conventional methods. Just don’t let them get so dry they lose color. (Important note from Mrs. Homegrown: Careful with this microwave trick! It’s a new one for us. It worked perfectly for Erik when he dried a whole bunch of leaves, but today I tried to dry just one leaf, a celery leaf, as an experiment and it burst into flame after about 30 seconds. Scary!!!!! We think it success has to do with mass and moisture: lots of leaves, not just one.)
  2. Put the dried leaves in a spice mill or coffee grinder and pulse until ground.

Think of nasturtium dust as a kind of zombie apocalypse pepper replacement. Or as a salad dressing ingredient. It is surprisingly tasty–better than fresh nasturtium, and without that bite. It would be fantastic combined with a little good salt. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how to use this magic powder. We may just keep it on the table and sprinkle it on everything.

What do you like to use nasturtium for?

Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.

How to Cook Broadleaf Plantain

The last plantain in our yard–the only one which survived the long, brutal summer without water. The winter rains, which are just beginning, will have plantain sprouting all over Southern California soon.

We’re big fans of foraging teacher Pascal Baudar. He approaches wild foods like no one else we know–as a gourmet experience. Combining Old World traditions, Native wisdom and a good deal of culinary invention, Pascal and his partner, chef Mia Wasilevich push foraged food to “the next level.” In fact, together they run a website called Transitional Gastronomy dedicated to just this idea.

If you want to learn how to make your foraged food delicious, go see Pascal and Mia. If you live around LA or are planning a visit you can hook up with them through MeetUp. And you should definitely check out Pascal’s foraging website, Urban Outdoor Skills. Both of their websites feature “food labs” which have some of the most inventive wild food recipes I’ve seen anywhere.

On a recent visit to Urban Outdoor Skills, I was very excited to find he’d developed a cooking technique for broadleaf plantain (Plantago major, the common weed, not the banana relative). Though I know plantain is very nutritious, it is also bitter and heavily veined, so I prefer to collect it as a medicinal herb. I infuse it into oil that I put into salves and creams and I use it as a fresh poultice on itchy bites and hives. But eating it? Meh. I’ll put baby leaves in a salad. Erik has sprinkled the leaves on pizzas--and I’ll eat anything on a pizza. The seeds can be collected and used in seedy applications. But all in all, the flavor and tough texture of plantain left me uninspired.

Trust Pascal to figure out how to cook the stuff. He boiled it, testing often, and found a sweet spot: the exact time it takes to boil out of the bitterness, but still leave the leaf intact. The short story: 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old ones, so 4 minutes works for a mixed batch. This makes a tender cooked green with an almost seaweed-like texture. Go to his site for all the details and an extra bonus: an Asian-style sauce to make this dish sing.