Last Tuesday, I biked to a desolate block of Brooklyn’s Wallabout area to meet Ava Chin, assistant English professor at the College of Staten Island-CUNY, and writer of the “Urban Forager” column for the New York Times’ City Room. I waited on a trash-strewn corner, adjacent to an empty lot, looking at the bright strip of green on the sidewalk and trying to determine which bits, if any, were edible.
I had biked past this same corner a few days before, and stopped when I spotted a middle-aged Chinese couple picking something and putting it in plastic bags. I asked what it was, but couldn’t match the foreign words they used with anything I recognized. I searched for it now in vain. Enter Ava. She drove up wearing a jaunty orange coat and grey beret, and immediately set to work finding the weed with white flowers and jagged leaves that I had described to her. “Aha, that’s what I thought, Shepherd’s Purse,” she said. Turns out, the couple I’d seen picking this was likely preparing some Shanghainese cuisine, in which the green leaves are used to make stir-fries, dumpling filling, and soups. An online search yielded several recipes made with Shepherd’s Purse, and advice on its medicinal uses.
A few feet away, Ava pointed out the narrow, shiny leaves of English Plantain; their juice from is recommended for soothing inflamed skin, and tea made from the leaves eases congestion. English Plantain isn’t people food, but it’s a favorite nibble for rabbits and a major source of sustenance for bees and butterflies. Cute!
As we wandered, Ava told me that she had always had a natural curiosity toward wild edibles, “The first thing I ever found was field garlic (wild chives), but my mother wouldn’t let me eat it. As an adult, I returned from grad school to find the city had become new and spiffy. The only way I could make sense of it again was to take long walks, and soon discovered that those same weeds I knew from childhood were still coming up through cracks in the sidewalk and in fancy midtown plazas. A weed doesn’t care if the city is making bank or broke, it just wants to grow.” Ava considers herself an advocate for the weeds, and wants to transform their public image from pesky invasive species into worthwhile plants that beautify our surroundings, heal as medicines, and satisfy as food. Judging from the farmer’s market, the change is already underway, with so-called weeds like garlic ramps, stinging nettles, and dandelion greens fetching arugula-like prices.
Everywhere we looked, there were large swaths of plants with leaves similar to parsley. The empty lot next to us was covered in a knee-high layer of it. This was mugwort. I felt a vaguely unpleasant sensation as I recalled my most memorable experience with this acrid smelling plant. As per folk wisdom, I had placed a bunch under my pillow before going to sleep in order to have enhanced or memorable dreams. The experiment worked, but not in a good way; both times I awoke from a string of nightmares that left me shaken for several hours into the following day. Ava pointed out tall stalks of Japanese knotweed which can be cooked and seasoned like rhubarb, and spinach-like lamb’s quarters just beginning to sprout.
Finally, there were dandelions, a weed I knew well from the Philly ‘burbs. Ava bent the bright yellow flowers gently. She had spent the day before making a batch of dandelion flower jelly that she said tasted like honey. In the painstaking process of picking off the outer green leaves from the blossoms, a necessary process to help remove bitterness, she’d become even more fond of them. For someone looking for an easy way to prepare dandelions, Ava recommended a sauté for this time of year because we’re already somewhat late in the season and the leaves are no longer sweet and tender enough to enjoy raw in a salad.
A word of wisdom from Ava on newcomers to urban foraging, the legality of which is somewhat ambiguous, at least in New York City, “Forage on friends’ property or any place where you have permission–and also away from traffic, pollution, and any industrial areas.” The latter is why we each rode away with nothing more to show for our time than photos, leaving the area to silence and the weeds.
Sautéed Dandelion Greens
This recipe by Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez is from the April 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine.
Makes 8 servings
3 pound dandelion greens, tough lower stems discarded and leaves cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Cook greens in a 10-to 12-quart pot of boiling salted water (3 tablespoons salt for 8 quarts water), uncovered, until ribs are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander, then rinse under cold water to stop cooking and drain well, gently pressing out excess water.
Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook garlic and red-pepper flakes, stirring, until pale golden, about 45 seconds. Increase heat to medium-high, then add greens and sea salt and sauté until coated with oil and heated through, about 4 minutes.