Spring, and the Brooklyn forager starts to salivate. As each edible plant pushes above ground and unfurls its fresh leaves, a delectable botanical year takes shape.
A faint panic simmers: Winter felt like spring—when will the Japanese knotweed emerge? What if someone else gets it all first? Should I teach others to identify the juicy stalks or keep their upright succulence to myself? Will this be a good year for field garlic? I’ve just about finished the ones I pickled last April (crunched in a startling number of gin martinis. Or would those have been Gibsons?) and am dying to make a pesto from their nose-warming green leaves: tonic for the soul sick of root vegetables.
First up is that knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). In March and April the red-speckled stalks push up fatly through winter’s leaf litter in Prospect Park (and every open lot—which I avoid, having no idea what is in the soil) often growing inches in a day. A take-no-prisoners invasive weed from Asia, it is the bane of gardeners and parks employees everywhere. So slice its young stalks with abandon. I gather them at any stage between four and 16 inches, any bigger and the oxalic acid is too strong. The young leaves at the tips are lovely just wilted in a pan and introduced to some good olive oil, pepper and salt. The slightly astringent stems love dairy.
Four ideas: Blanch them, then gratinate beneath a shower of Parmigiano. Whizz cooked segments with buttermilk or yogurt for a hot, tart-creamy soup, and top with powdered sumac. Cook, puree and mix into the cheesy base for a knotweed soufflé. Or melt seamlessly into the creamy sauce of a blanquette de veau.
April’s field garlic (Allium vineale), easily heads my annual list of must-have wild edibles. Rampant in parks and lawns, the widespread weed’s sharply pungent leaves, very close to chives in appearance, can be preserved for yearlong use by blending them with olive oil and refrigerating. I make a tear-pricking pesto with soft young goat cheese and raw sweet peas. This burst of green spring tops an emerald minestrone where fava beans and green garlic swim. The firm bulbs last in a vinegary brine all year, but when they’re fresh I roast them with tender pork riblets until both are caramelized and soft. And I stuff them into a deboned leg of lamb with anchovies, and roast. A song to the season.
In May, keep an eye out for pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). I collect mine in Red Hook and Jamaica Bay. As its botanical name suggests, it belongs here. You may have seen it in September when its dark-purple berries hang enticingly in dripping clusters that tempt you to eat the whole bunch, like a reclining Roman. Don’t: poisonous. That goes for the roots and seeds, too. The young, green-only stalks, however, are delicious—like asparagus, and as firm. If any pink or red is visible, the plants’ cocktail of toxic components have reached a level unfit for consumption; avoid them but remember their address and come back next year, earlier. After collecting the young stalks, up to eight inches tall, blanch them in two changes of water (though I know many who do not, and still manage to complete entire sentences, with verbs and everything) and then prepare them as you would asparagus. Or explore poke salat, a mashup of eggs, bacon and the chopped, tender-cooked stems, to which I add a grating of Jersey-milk cheese. Serve on buttered Wonder Bread to achieve the full American effect.
By late May and into early June, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), has formed young buds. Like miniature broccoli florets, they must be nipped from the plant before the flowers open. Their namesake sticky white latex tends to get into everything—a quick bath in boiling water dissolves it. I can’t bring myself to do more than cook them briefly before moistening the buds judiciously with an emulsion of butter and lemon. And a few weeks later, when you pass a stand of open milkweed flowers, stick your face into them. You can capture that divine scent in dessert by cooking the blossoms in simple syrup till tender. Bottle most of the lilac-hued syrup to drizzle over ice cream or to shake into a summer drink. Then whip some cream, stir in Greek yogurt, sweeten with the cooled syrup and fold in the soft flowers for a milkweed fool. Exercise restraint and good manners when collecting milkweed: The plant is an essential source of food for monarch butterflies’ offspring. And it is horrible foraging etiquette to take everything you see. Now forage on.
Weed eater. The author roasts field garlic, top right, with leg of lamb, or preserves it in pesto and pickles. Young pokeweed shoots, above, are a wild stand-in for asparagus. Photo credit: Marie Viljoen.