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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.”)
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.
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.)
This is a light, nourishing soup.
(Makes 4 bowls)
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.
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)
Nutritionist and TV personality, Julie Daniluk is the award-winning, bestselling author of Meals That Heal Inflammation, Slimming Meals That Heal, and Hot Detox.
This is a refreshingly light, bright soup that has a hint of fragrant curry. (Serves 4 to 6.)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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