Earth Day 50 Guest Post: Foraging 101

Disclaimer: Make sure you observe all local social distancing guidelines/regulations when foraging, and do not cook or eat anything you are not 100% confident is safe.

Foraging for Food 101

In these Corona times we need to stay safe and not have many gatherings. So how can we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day? Well, one way is to forage for food. Foraging for food is as old as mankind. It does require some knowledge; therefore, I am limiting Foraging 101 to plans that are easy to identify. By foraging we get in contact with nature and understand what nature can provide. You can educate yourself and others and you can do this by yourself, with your family or a friend, as long as you follow government-recommend social distancing guidelines.

An important rule to keep in mind, do not pick plants in areas where you think pesticides may have been used. If you are not sure, it is always best to exercise caution and do not pick or eat food that you are not 100% confident is safe.

You can forage in the woods, or in parks, fields and gardens looking for “weeds”. These foods can be found almost anywhere. I am selecting only three plants to start with, but there are hundreds of edible wild plants. Two of these plants should be available in the early spring, depending on where you live. I invite everyone to contribute to this information. Add recipes, other plants and any additional knowledge about “your plant”. I am hoping many accept this invitation. I am not an expert in this field, but I have picked plants that are easy to detect.

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Creamed nettles (my favorite)

Nettles have been used for centuries in traditional medicine and as food. Nettles are high in iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, silica, chlorophyll and vitamin A, C, and D. This makes nettles an awesome superfood. They are commonly used for kidney and bladder problems, including urinary tract infections. They are also known in the past, as an all-around tonic for women’s reproductive system and were often used when trying to conceive. Due to their high concentration of minerals, nettles are also commonly used for ailments such as arthritis and osteoporosis.

When used medicinally, nettles are often dried and made into a tea. The leaves can be easily dried on a drying screen, in a dehydrator or just tied and hung to dry. When dry they no longer burn or sting. The dried leaves are easily crumbled for teas or like parsley on dishes or soups.

You MUST wear gloves to pick nettles. The tiny soft hairs on the stems and leaves have a stinging effect, which when rubbed against the skin the small protruding hairs can penetrate the skin causing a burning sensation and temporary rash. Your gloves can be leather, rubber or any material so the hairs do not get in contact with your skin; do not use knitted wool or cotton gloves. Wear rubber gloves when washing and cleaning the plant. Once it is cooked, even for a minute, you can cut up the leaves with bare hands or a food processor. If you should get in contact with the plant use either Calamine lotion or an antihistamine cream to reduce symptoms.

Nettles have several other uses in the vegetable garden, they have the potential for encouraging beneficial insects. Nettles contain nitrogenous compounds, which can be used as a compost activator. If you have left over stems throw them in your compost heap. Or pick a bunch, fill a bucket full of nettles, fill with water, cover and let it ferment for several weeks or longer (best kept outdoors). Stir the mixture regularly to bring in oxygen. When it has a peculiar odor and the water has darkened you will have an excellent free liquid fertilizer concentrate for your house plants and garden. Add several tablespoons to your watering bucket.

It has also been reported only young leaves should be used because older leaves develop gritty particles which can act as an irritant to the kidneys. So, from April until late June is the best time to eat and pick nettles. The rule of thumb is that they are best before midsummer and can become bitter once flower pods appear, as depicted here.

One of my all-time favorite soups is nettle soup. As soon as spring comes, I start foraging. I try to freeze some for the winter as well. The soup is so wonderful that the Queen of Sweden had it on the menu for her 50th birthday celebration. I have also seen it on the menu for Nobel banquets.

Nettle soup recipe:

1/2 large shopping bag of fresh nettle tops


1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon butter

1/2 cup chopped shallots, onions or spring onions

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 pound of Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled and chopped

4 cups stock of chicken or vegetable

1 to 2 cups of water

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried thyme (or a couple sprigs of fresh thyme)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 to 3 tablespoons of cream

  1. Blanch the nettles: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Wearing protective gloves, transfer the nettle tops into the boiling water. Blanch for 2 minutes. Strain in a colander. Cut away and discard any large stems from the nettles. (This should be easier to do now that the nettle stingers have lost their sting due to the blanching.) You should have 3 to 4 cups of blanched tender nettle tops and leaves for this recipe. Any blanched nettles not used at this point can be frozen for future use.

  2. Sauté the shallots and celery: In a 6 quart soup pot, heat the olive oil and butter on medium heat. Add the chopped shallots and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

  3. Add potatoes, stock, bay leaf, thyme: Add the chopped potatoes, the chicken stock, bay leaf, and thyme. If using unsalted or low sodium stock, add one teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes.

  4. Chop blanched nettles, add to soup pot, add water, simmer: Roughly chop the blanched nettles. Add 3 to 4 cups of the chopped blanched nettles to the pot. Add enough water to just cover the nettles and potatoes, 1 to 2 cups. Return to a simmer and simmer for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and the nettles tender.

  5. Purée the soup: Remove the bay leaves (and thyme sprigs if using) from the pot. Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a standing blender, purée. Return to the pot and take off the heat.

  6. Adjust seasonings, add lemon juice, add cream: Add salt to taste. Depending on the saltiness of the stock you are using, you may need to add at least a teaspoon or more to the soup. Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Add lemon juice. Right before serving, swirl in the cream. Adjust seasonings to taste.

  7. Sprinkle with black pepper and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint to serve.

Dandelions (Taraxacum)

Most of us can identify a dandelion. Dandelions are found everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, anywhere between the tropics and the polar regions. The English name, dandelion, is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning "lion's tooth", which refers to the leaf s shape. Dandelions are one of the most vital early spring nectar sources for a wide host of pollinators. And their seeds are food for birds.

There are many species but for the purpose here we are referring to the common dandelion pictured here. Common dandelions, which we want to look for, have only one flower on each stem. The entire plant is edible including the roots which can be boiled. But I have only used the leaves and flower. The leaves are best when the plant is young, it is less bitter before the flower appears. So early spring is the best time to pick and eat dandelions greens.

Dandelions are known for the health benefits. The greens are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K. They also contain vitamin E, folate and small amounts of other B vitamins. Dandelion greens also provide amounts of several minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Dandelions are full of potent antioxidants. They are a rich source of beta-carotene and polyphenolic compounds, both of which are known to have strong antioxidant capabilities that can prevent aging and certain diseases. In studies on animals, dandelions have been shown to reduce inflammation and aid in controlling blood sugar levels. They are a mild diuretic so they can contribute to maintaining blood pressure. In some parts of England, they are called Piss-a-weed since it makes for more frequent urination. But dandelions have been used by humans for food and as an herb for much of recorded history. They were well known to ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and are recorded to have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for over a thousand years. The plant was used as food and medicine by Native Americans. Dandelions most likely arrived in North America on the Mayflower, not as stowaways, but brought on purpose for their medicinal benefits.

Dandelions can also be beneficial in the garden. They have been cultivated in small gardens to massive farms. They are a good companion plant; its roots bring up nutrients for shallow-rooting plants. It is also known to attract pollinating insects, which provide them in return for food,  and release ethylene gas, which helps fruit to ripen.

The entire plant is edible and nutritious. The most common way to prepare dandelions is to blanch young dandelions, allow them to cool, chop and then sprinkle with olive oil, lemon juice and salt pepper and any desired herb. Blanching removes some of the bitterness. Young leaves can also be added raw to a salad. The yellow flower can be pulled from the plant and eaten raw. They can be eaten whole or torn apart.

If you have plant allergies be cautious in eating an abundance of dandelions flowers. Allergic reactions can occur.

Preparing the greens:

Preparing the flowers: (flowers in three differ ways)

Lamb's quarters or PigWeed (Chenopodium Album) also called Fat Hen in New South Wales

Lamb’s quarters are believed to be native to Europe. Archaeologists analyzed carbonized plant remains found in storage pits and ovens from Iron Age, Viking Age, and Roman sites in Europe showed the use of lamb's quarters . And recent archaeological studies have shown that the seeds were stored and used by the Blackfoot Native American tribe during the sixteenth century.

The leaves are light green on the top and whitish underneath, with some teeth along edges, and are goosefoot-shaped or somewhat diamond-shaped. The plant tends to grow upright at first, reaching heights of 10–150 cm (rarely to 3 m).  Lamb's quarters can be identified by the telltale dusty white coating on new growth and the undersides of leaves. and when moist, water simply beads and runs off. This whitish “powder” is an important identification factor. How to this plant view here:

It is a purifying plant and helps to restore healthy nutrients to poor quality soil. This unique plant tends to spread quickly no matter the soil condition. Lamb's quarters can be found in most places in nature, such as parks, roadsides, gardens, open fields and clearings etc. The species is cultivated as a grain or vegetable crop (in lieu of spinach), as well as animal feed in Asia and Africa, whereas in Europe and North America, it is commonly regarded as a weed in places such as potato fields. In Australia it is prevalent in all states and regarded as an environmental weed in New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia. This invasive plant is capable of increasing crop losses, but it can aid also in pest control. If you have allergies, avoid picking this plant when it is in flower or producing seeds. The flowers are very small, greenish, densely grouped together into small, granular clusters along the main stem and upper branches. They have five green sepals but no petals.

Lamb's quarters , a favorite among foragers, who mostly gather it for the leaves, tastes like a mild version of spinach. In many regions of the world, particularly in the regions of India and Pakistan, people intentionally grow lamb's quarters as an agricultural crop. The leaves are exceptionally high in vitamins A and C, as well as in calcium, iron, and protein. It ticks all the boxes! Its plentiful seeds provide a nutrient-packed meal for birds, especially in the food-scarce late fall. One lambsquarter plant can produce up to 75,000 seeds. And the seeds can also serve as a powerful flour additive, porridge ingredient, or bread enhancer. The seeds are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium and are closely related to Quinoa, which is grown specifically for its seeds.

My mother-in-law was very pleased to have this plant in WW11 in occupied Norway. It was commonly in use to replace any green vegetable. She loved to serve it creamed to her children, using the same recipe as one would for creamed spinach or nettles. Depending on where you live Lamb's quarter is a summer plant. It might be difficult to find in the north in the early spring. The good news, you can also pick into the late summer and fall, since it unlike most plants does not become so bitter later in the season.

You can treat or prepare lamb's quarters the same way one prepares spinach. Lamb's quarters contains some oxalic acid, as does rhubarb, kale, spinach cocoa powder, beets etc., therefore when eating this raw, smaller quantities are recommended. Cooking removes this acid. Steaming this edible weed is one method of cooking, or can be added to soups, sautés, stir fried dishes, omelets and much more. Unlike dandelions, which are best in the spring, lamb's quarters can be harvested through the summer season.

Lamb’s quarter frittata

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly, preferably with a mandolin

1 pinch salt and pepper

3/4 cup lamb’s quarters tips (top 4 to 6 inches of tender leaves and stem), roughly chopped

2 .5 ounces Gruyère or swiss cheese, grated

5/6 eggs

2 tablespoons cream

  1. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.

  2. Add the sliced potatoes, salt, and pepper. Cook for 8 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside in a large bowl.

  3. Cook the chopped lamb's quarters in the same pan for 2 minutes, or until just tender and deep green. Add a tablespoon of water as it cooks, if it becomes dry.

  4. Combine the cooked lambs quarters, eggs, cheese, and cream in a large bowl.

  5. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large saucepan at medium heat, then pour the entire egg-lambs quarters-potato mixture into the saucepan and stir the top around so that it browns evenly.

  6. Add more ground pepper, then flip it once it's lightly browned. Cook until it's set in the middle, and serve 4 to 6 immediately.

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