Nothing Says Spring Like Fresh, Wild Greens

White dead nettle and nettle tea.

When I was a kid growing up in rural Muskoka, we tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. This was not only because my grandparents enjoyed growing and gathering their own food, but also out of necessity. In those days, trips to the grocery store (and drugstore) in town were few and far between!

Today, I still enjoy cooking and serving locally grown food, which is why our spring woodlands are my favourite “shopping” grounds. After dining all winter on store-bought produce, nothing tastes better to me than a wild spring treat served on the same day it was gathered.

Since my grandmother was a well-respected herbalist, I learned how to use wild plants for good health and well-being. I still enjoy harvesting them for the dinner table, and I still rely upon grandma’s recipes from her old doctoring journals to turn food into medicine. And of course I’ve developed a few of my own family favourites too.

Below are some of the first plants that come up in spring which make fine picks for the pot. So get out the baskets, gather the family, and work up an appetite for a wild and wonderful feast.

Asparagus

When it comes to asparagus, nothing tastes more like spring than biting into a delectable green spear. In Ontario, this plant can be found growing wild in areas with full sunshine and water nearby. Or look for asparagus in season in your local farmers’ market.

According to grandma, asparagus helps flush impurities from the body which tend to build up over the cold weather months. Modern-day herbalists call this “detoxifying” the system.

She also has it noted that asparagus keeps the heart healthy and bones strong. She even claimed that asparagus tea keeps the skin looking young and healthy. Like her, I make tea by using the thick ends of the stalks (the pieces that normally get discarded as they are too tough to eat). Simply put these pieces into a saucepan, cover with water and simmer until all the goodness has been leached from the ends. Strain into a teacup and smile while drinking.

Rich in protein, B vitamins, and potassium, asparagus is valued for its role in prevention of various cancers, especially those of the stomach and bowels. It also helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and birth defects. Adding asparagus to one’s diet can help reduce pain and inflammation, and it’s even purported to have aphrodisiac properties.

Stinging Nettles

Grandma has it written that a cup of stinging nettle tea is a wonderful spring tonic because it’s rich in minerals, iodine, and sulfur, as well as tannin, beta-carotene, and amino acids. And this wild herb is especially good for flushing accumulations of winter impurities from the kidneys and liver.

(Editor’s note: According to herbalist Keith Stelling, nettle tea provides “gentle cleansing for the skin and the liver. Nettles not only extract toxins from the body but at the same time provide remineralization and vitamins: iron, silica, calcium, and vitamin A are abundant. There is also a kidney drainage function to this plant which removes uric acid and is used for nephritis.”)[1]

Stinging nettles make for a pleasant cup of tea, whether steeped from fresh picked leaves or those that have been dried especially for the pot. To dry nettle leaves, simply cut or break off the stalks near the ground, tie them into bundles, and hang them upside down from the attic ceiling or in a warm place. Dry until the leaves are crispy. Then untie, crush, store in a tea tin, and you can reap the healthful benefits of this satisfying tea all year round!

Not only are nettles useful for cleansing the bladder and kidneys, they can also play a role in the herbal treatment of gout, goiter, anemia, thin blood, epilepsy, poor circulation, depression, pin worms, and more. Being rich in vitamin C and B complex, it’s no wonder that nettles were also praised as a gentle cure for colds and flu in grandma’s journals.

Dandelion

Another highly valued spring pick is the dandelion. Considered by most lawn lovers as a nuisance, dandelion is appreciated by wild food connoisseurs –  not only as a delicious, readily available salad green and potherb, but also as a proven tonic for cleansing the liver (just like stinging nettles).

(Editor’s note: According to Pat Crocker’s article, The Bitter Tastes of Spring, “the taste is moderately bitter if wild dandelions are picked in spring before flowering (delicious eaten raw in salads and sandwiches), or buy organic dandelions all year round at health food stores (great for steaming and stir-frying). Dandelion leaves stimulate the liver to eliminate waste and toxins.”)

Cattails

CattailsCattails are tall, reedy, marsh plants found growing all over Ontario. In the spring, the “tails” of the cattail are tender and green, resembling little ears of baby corn. They can be harvested for table fare until the spikes turn into fuzzy tails (at which point the pollen is ready to collect and can be mixed with ground grains and used as a nutritional additive to baked goods or as a thickening agent for soups and stews). The young cattail corns  – or cattail “corms” as I knew them – are delicious when steamed and eaten in place of asparagus. Like grandma, I enjoy them served with a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil. To harvest, break the tip off near the head of the stalk. You won’t need many; I find that two or three tips make a tasty serving, leaving plenty behind for ripening.

Grandma always joked that eating cattails made you as frisky as a cat! On the more medicinally serious side, she wrote that a poultice made from bruised cattail roots is good for drawing infection from sores and wounds, and ash collected from burnt leaves can be used as an antiseptic.

RECIPES

Editor’s note: What follows are a few good recipes by Linda Gabris, Beverley Gray, and Julie Daniluk, pulled from Vitality’s online archives.

(Editor’s note: And here is a simple recipe from the book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North by Beverley Gray, published in 2011.)

Stinging Nettle Bouillon

This is a light, nourishing soup.

(Makes 4 bowls)

  • 3 cups broth of your choice (vegetable, chicken, wild game, or miso)
  • 1-1/2 cups young stinging nettle shoots, washed
  • Salt and Pepper (optional)
  1. If you are using miso, do not bring to a boil, just heat it and add the other ingredients, keeping it at low temperature to let the ingredients warm and meld. Otherwise, in a saucepan bring broth to a boil, reduce to simmer, and add nettle shoots.
  2. Simmer with lid on for about 2 minutes or until nettle is tender. Add salt and pepper if desired.
  3. If the flavour is too strong, add water or more broth. with croutons and chopped chives.

Greek Dandelion Salad

Greek Dandelion Salad ~ by Linda Gabris

(Serves 6)
Dandelions are always delicious in the salad bowl – you can toss them with any “house” dressing, or make them into traditional salads such as a Caesar or Waldorf, or go Greek as I have done with this favourite recipe.

Salad Ingredients:

  • 6 cups torn dandelion leaves
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves
  • ½ cup pitted sliced black olives
  • 1 cup chopped peppers (red, yellow, and/or green)
  • 1 red onion cut into thin slices and separated into rings
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese (or non-dairy alternative)

Dressing Ingredients:

  • 4 Tbsp virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp liquid honey
  • 2 tsp fresh chopped oregano (or dried herb)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Put salad ingredients in bowl, scatter with feta cheese.
  2. Mix dressing ingredients separately. Pour dressing over salad and toss.

Dandelion Supper Soup ~ by Linda Gabris

Dandelion LeavesHere’s a hearty soup that fills the belly after gathering your woodland fare. Serve it as a first course or load up the bread basket and call it the “full meal deal.”

  • 4 cups dandelion leaves (picked wild or store-bought)
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 minced onion
  • 3 chopped potatoes
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups milk (low fat or soy milk works great)
  1. Heat the oil in a soup pot, sauté garlic and onions until soft. Add potatoes, vegetable broth, and dandelion leaves.
  2. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Remove from heat.
  3. Purée the mixture in batches using a blender. (Grandma forced hers through a sieve, but the blender makes a smoother soup.)
  4. Return mixture to pan. Add milk and seasonings and heat through. The yellow petals of a dandelion flower make a pretty scatter for the top of the soup.

Garlic Roasted Asparagus ~ by Julie Daniluk, RHN

This recipe is excerpted from the food feature entitled “The Ketogenic Diet”, currently posted on Vitality’s website at: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/the-ketogenic-diet/

Succulent and tender asparagus is one of the most detoxifying items in the produce aisle. Eat it raw when you’re feeling bloated – it’s a natural diuretic. (Makes 8 servings)

  • 2 lbs fresh asparagus, ends trimmed, rinsed, patted dry
  • 3 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ tsp pink rock or grey sea salt, more to taste
  • 1 Tbsp organic lemon juice, more to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large glass baking dish, toss the asparagus with the coconut oil, garlic, and salt.
  2. Bake until the asparagus is tender-crisp, about 20 minutes. Stir gently at the 10-minute and 15-minute mark.
  3. Remove from the oven and toss with the lemon juice. Adjust the salt or lemon, if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Nutritionist and TV personality, Julie Daniluk is the award-winning, bestselling author of Meals That Heal Inflammation, Slimming Meals That Heal, and Hot Detox.


Cattail Shoot Soup ~ by Linda Gabris

This is a refreshingly light, bright soup that has a hint of fragrant curry.  (Serves 4 to 6.)

Cooked Cattails

Cooked Cattails

Ingredients:

  • About 8 to 10 cattail shoots cut into thin rings
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 minced onion
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 3 Tbsp finely diced celery
  • 1-½ Tbsp curry powder (I use my own homemade blend which is slightly pungent, but you can use your favourite curry powder to suit taste)
  • 3 Tbsp thickener (I use cattail pollen saved from the previous harvesting season but any starchy thickener will do)
  • 4 cups homemade vegetable broth (I make my own vegetable stock by saving scraps in my crisper until I have enough accumulated to simmer into a rich stock for soup but you can use store-bought vegetable, chicken or other stock of choice)

Heat the oil in soup pot, sauté onion, garlic, and celery until soft. Sprinkle with curry powder and thickener, cook until absorbed. Add stock and cook, stirring constantly, until bottom is loosened.  Add cattail shoots. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. A dab of plain yogurt can be added to the soup upon serving, if you wish.


Stinging Nettle and Chickpea Lasagna ~ by Linda Gabris

Yes, you can easily identify stinging nettles by their nasty little sting, but if you wear gloves you’ll have no problem picking them and filling your baskets. Aside from steeping the leaves into tea, stinging nettles are delicious cooked as a potherb, or you can use them in place of spinach as we have done in this savory meatless lasagna recipe. Grandma made her noodle dough out of stone-ground wheat but I have updated the recipe to use noodles made from kamut, an ancient grain that is closely related to durum wheat but is reputedly more nutritious than traditional wheat flours. (Serves 6)

Ingredients:

  • 6 to 8 cups fresh stinging nettles
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • 1 minced onion
  • 1 minced sweet red pepper
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 cups chopped cooked chickpeas
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese (or non-dairy substitute)
  • 2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese (or non-dairy substitute)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Italian dried herb mixture (or pinch each of dried oregano, basil, thyme, and parsley)
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese (or substitute)
  • 2 cups tomato sauce (or canned spaghetti sauce, in which case you can omit the herbs)
  • Kamut or spelt noodles (or sliced zucchini)

Steam nettles until tender. Drain, chop, and set aside. Heat the oil in skillet and sauté onion, pepper, and garlic until soft. Combine with nettles, chickpeas, ricotta, and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese. Add seasoning.
Put 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of lasagna-sized baking dish. Place a layer of noodles or zucchini on the sauce. Cover with a layer of nettle-chickpea mixture. Repeat two or three times in order to use all the mixture. Cover with remaining tomato sauce, sprinkle with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.
Bake in 350°F oven for 35 minutes.


Asparagus and Chicken Supper Wraps ~ by Linda Gabris

When I was a girl,  grandma and I would eagerly make our way to an old grown-in homestead every spring where asparagus flourished wild and free in the same spot that was once, years ago, the family garden! For those who are not lucky enough to have a hidden “wild” asparagus patch, spears purchased at the farmers’ market will certainly do.
(Serves 4.)

Ingredients:

  • 4 large tortilla wraps
  • ½ cup softened cream cheese
  • ½ cup minced chives or finely sliced green onions
  • 2 cooked skinless, boneless, organic chicken breasts
  • 8 steamed asparagus spears
  • ½ cup grated cheddar cheese

Mix cream cheese with chives, divide and spread evenly over tortilla wraps.
Slice chicken breasts into 4 thin strips. Place chicken and asparagus on wrap. Scatter cheese over top. Roll up jelly-roll fashion, tucking ends under and place seam down on baking sheet.
Bake in 350°F oven until rolls are crispy and golden, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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