Springtime’s wild greens are on the rise in the woods, by the creek, near the train tracks and in your garden, where they’re known as weeds. These plants can be intensely bitter and aromatic, making them too flavorful for many palates. For those who haven’t yet acquired a taste for them, turning these greens into pesto is a great starting point.
Pesto is a process as much as a recipe. It’s a method of turning greens into an Italian-style paste by grinding them with garlic, oil, nuts and cheese. These ingredients, also robust in flavor, can turn the strength of wild greens into an asset.
Every region has its own array of edible and nutritious spring greens. I found nettles growing in a wild spot near my house and dandelions in the garden. So, I decided to make dandelion and nettle pesto. Dandelions are bitter like a fine IPA, but the pesto they make isn’t because their flavor is covered up by the other ingredients. Nettles have a fruity, metallic flavor. Thanks to their prickly nature, it’s best to harvest them with scissors and gloves. The stingers wilt when cooked — and, in the case of pesto, when blended.
This wild pesto is in the spirit of old-fashioned spring tonic, a mix of wild plant parts traditionally gathered at the end of winter in many rural parts of America. Back in the day, our pioneering and homesteading predecessors survived the winter on rations that would dwindle to the likes of flour, bacon, potatoes and sugar. When winter finally broke after months indoors on a white, greasy diet, the first hunt of the year for vitamin-rich green shoots was an awakening for the mind, body and belly.
Foraging helps build a relationship between you and your landscape. You see the landscape more closely and deeply. You find yourself having thoughts like, “I’m going to be down in the valley this afternoon, where the dandelions will be further along and bigger; I should grab some.” Whether you find anything to eat, the very act of exploring vacant lots, river bottoms and random woodlands is a reward in itself.
The bitter nature of wild plants is the flavor of both medicine and poison. But if you’ve done your research properly, the bitterness should all be medicinal. Or, at the very least, nutritional, as wild plants tend to be more nutrient-dense than their domestic counterparts.
Just remember, every would-be forager must assess the grounds at their disposal and strategize accordingly. Always harvest away from trails and don’t ever wipe out a location, so the patch can recover. If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, explore every square inch. Avoid foraging in dog parks, toxic waste dumps and close to roads. Just as important, remember that the food we gather has not been vetted for edibility like grocery store food. Make sure you know what it is you’re gathering. Nowadays, there are apps that can identify plants. If you’re old-fashioned, you can use a book. Either way, foraging in the modern age is still foraging, and the wild foods of spring are just as wild as ever.
Pesto is one of the tastier ways to consume strongly flavored green plants. Today’s pesto is made with dandelions and nettles, which create a thick, aromatic sauce. Feel free to substitute any number of wild greens or weeds, like lambsquarters, watercress or chickweed. You can also add basil, parsley and other domestic herbs.
Makes 8 servings
Add the garlic, salt, oil, almonds, cheese, lemon juice and zest to a blender and blend until combined. Carefully add the greens, a few at a time, until the mixture is a smooth, green paste.
Toss your pesto with piping hot noodles, which will cook the garlic just a tad. I like to stir in some sauteed greens as well.
Refrigerate the leftovers for up to a week or freeze them for up to a year.
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