Wild Food Foraging
There are enough green vegetables growing wild in the countryside to feed you for a week—if you go out and look for them!
This article will tell you where to find nettles, wild asparagus, and chicory and how to cook them.
You will need a few items for a day foraging in the countryside and along the byways for these delicious healthy greens...
- Comfortable walking shoes or boots
- Old sweater and/or old jacket
- Gardening gloves
- A knife
- An old reusable bag to put your greens into (which you can hook in your jeans at the back)
- A walking stick
How to Find and Cook Wild Nettles (Urtica)
Nettles come back every spring; they're green, tasty and stingy! They usually prefer to grow in rich soils, though not necessarily. My brother and I spent our youth falling in nettles on the farm we grew up on in North Wales, but by rubbing the stings with nearby dock leaves, we got rid of the bumps quickly enough.
Nettles are full of goodness containing 10% protein more than any other vegetable. They contain very high levels of lots of different minerals, such as magnesium, potassium and iron. Years ago, when women were prone to weakness and were 'faint' or 'fatigued', the humble nettle, dried, was used to brew her tea to strengthen and revive her. It was also brewed up as a tonic for the chronically ill.
Nettles have been used as dyes for centuries; the fabric dyers among us will know how many shades of green they get from this humble weed. Interestingly, the modern fashion designer has just realized how useful a fiber it is because it is hollow and can accumulate air, creating natural insulation in summer clothes.
But back to our food procuring walk! With your gloves on, you snap the nettle off below the 2nd or 3rd bract. The tasty parts of the nettle plant are the young leaves which you pick by stripping them downwards towards the ground.. You can strip the leaves off at home, (with your gloves on because the sting is still in the plant—till you put them in liquid!)
There are so many meals and drinks you can make with cooked nettle leaves, including a pasta sauce, but my favorite has to be nettle soup.
Recipe 1. Nettle Soup
For the soup:
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 finely chopped onion
- 2/3 chopped potatoes
- half teaspoon chilli pepper
- 1 white turnip
- 2 carrots
- salt to taste
For the garnish:
- 3 cloves of garlic chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- bunch of finely chopped nettles
- Heat the oil, add the onion and ground chilli pepper and cook till onion is transparent.
- Add the chopped vegetables and stir and flavor for about 5 minutes, adding salt (half teaspoon).
- Add a couple of cups of water and bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, take the leaves off of about 1 pound of nettles. Add them to the soup and cook slowly together for about 8 minutes (about four big handfuls).
- Blend together to make the pottage (a soup made of vegetables and potatoes and blended to make a dense, thick soup).
- Pour back in the pan.
For the garnish
- In a frying pan, add olive oil and the chopped garlic cloves and fry them for 5 minutes (they will look burnt, in fact they are burnt, but they're very delicious).
- At the last moment, add a handful of finely chopped nettles. Mix together.
- Add this burnt garlic mixture to the soup, mix it in, cook it a minute or two. Serve your soup in rustic looking bowls if you have them, with crusty bread.
Note: The bread can be old bread. This is about being frugal. You just slice it and toast it. It is great dipped into the soup.
How to Find and Cook Wild Asparagus
Wild asparagus grows from a lilly family bulb. When it is grown and weaving among other natural habitat plants, it looks like cultivated asparagus, except that its stems are much thinner. As it grows, it waves in the air like a thick grass. You will find it in well drained soil (if you look hard enough), not too far from riverbeds or streams, often by the side of the road or country lanes.
Our Maremma wild asparagus grows under the oak trees and along the driveway. It grows from clumps around the old pear trees that have been left to go wild through the years in the backfields. It loves the sun, though it also hides in the shade. It tastes wild and fresh (raw or cooked).
It's really hard to spot among the other grasses, but once you identify your first one, you will always spot others. It is a little like looking for octopus among coral.
My favorite recipe and one that I invented is this.
Recipe 2. Papardelle With Asparagus Sauce
- 1 packet of egg noodle pasta such as papardelle (or, if you are being sensible and frugal, you could make your own pasta if you have eggs and flour)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Large bunch of wild asparagus
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- Chilli pepper to taste
- Handful of Parmesan or mature sheep's cheese, or leftover 'whatever' cheese
- 2 to 3 eggs
- Put a large pan of salted water on to boil.
- Snap the tops off the asparagus (they will automatically snap about 6 inches from the harder stem). Very finely chop.
- Grate the cheese in a bowl and set aside.
- Chose the bowl you will be serving the pasta in and beat the eggs well in it. Set aside.
- How to make the pasta dish.
- In a very small pan, put the olive oil, garlic and the chilli pepper to heat.
- When it is bubbling up nicely you add the chopped asparagus and you cook them together about 8 minutes, maybe more, maybe less.
- You cook your pasta al dente and drain it quickly. (Hold back a cupful of the water.)
- Toss the papardelle in the eggs in the bowl, mixing quickly,
- Add the still boiling hot asparagus and oil mixture, mixing quickly (it is actually cooking the eggs on the pasta as you pour and mix).
- You might like to add some of the pasta water now, depends on how wet things are in the bowl, you don't want them dry.
- Lastly sprinkle the cheese over and mix.
- Serve and eat straight away! That's Italian!
How to Pick and Cook Wild Chicory
Interestingly, chicory comes originally from the sunflower family.
Unlike the sunflower, though, it has a bright blue flower and looks a lot like the dandelion plant. In March it grows in uncut lawns and in new grassy fields. It is abundant, fresh and tasty and so good for you. And it is relatively easy to spot, though it shouldn't be confused with similar plants that are not good for you.
You cut the root with your knife at ground level so that you have managed to contain the entire round form of leaves. If you pick carefully enough, you can avoid picking the soil with it to make washing the chicory easier when you get home.
Once you've picked as many bags as you like, wash very well to remove the soil from the plant near the root.
You boil it as you do spinach or other greens, in a pan of salted water, and for the same time.
Drain really well. After you have left it in a colander to strain, you can also squeeze it by hand to get the water out (you can drink that water with a drop of olive oil as a tonic).
Recipe 3. Simple Boiled Chicory
It's a good boiled vegetable, sprinkled with lemon juice and olive oil, or you can toss it in the pan with olive oil and garlic.
We do that at my house in the spring, round Easter, and we eat it between two pieces of warm freshly baked pizza bread.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.