How to Use Wild-harvested Herbs in Everyday Cooking
Finally, spring has sprung! First up in gardens, lawns and fields are some of most nutritious, mineral-dense plants mother nature has to offer. For the cost of only a few minutes of your time, you can pop outside and harvest enough herbs to create a delicious pasta filling, spring salad or potent herbal vinegar. And it couldn’t be easier to up your nutrition game by adding handfuls of these greens to smoothies, soups, and sandwiches … even burgers, meatballs and meatloaves. The sky’s the limit!
The terms “foraging” and “wildcrafting” can sound intimidating and inaccessible; really, though, anyone can do it. All you’ll need is a safe place to harvest (a yard, park or field that you’re sure hasn’t been treated with pesticides or fungicides), clean garden gloves, sharp scissors, and a basket or non-plastic bag to hold your bounty. If in doubt about plant identification, verify with a trusted online source or use one of the excellent herb books available at Community Pharmacy. Here are five of our favorite herbs to enjoy in the coming weeks:
Early Spring Herbs
NETTLE (Urtica dioica) Full of magnesium, iron, calcium and protein, nettle is many herbalists’ go-to plant for overall building and strengthening. Deeply nourishing, it supports the healthy functioning of kidneys, liver, urinary and digestive tracts. Use the top several inches of young plants. Harvest carefully, as the plant’s stingers can irritate the skin for several hours. To remove the sting from fresh nettle before eating, simply place the nettle in boiling water for a couple of minutes before adding it to your recipe.
CHICKWEED (Stellaria media) Growing fast and lush in the cold, damp spring, chickweed can be found in low-growing mounds in most gardens and yards. The oval leaves with pointed tips appear in opposite pairs on thin stems that are easily broken. You can identify chickweed by breaking the stem, where inside you’ll find an inner thread that stretches when gently pulled. Look closely and you’ll also find that stems also have a single row of hairs. Nourishing chickweed contains mucilage and saponins which assist in the absorption of nutrients, especially minerals. It is a rich source of calcium, as well as chlorophyll, carotenes, essential fatty acids and protein. Delicious in salads, sandwiches and smoothies.
CLEAVERS (Galium aparine) Supportive of the urinary tract, nervous system, immune system, blood and lymphatic system, cleavers (commonly known as bedstraw) have a velcro-like quality that causes them to stick to most anything they touch. High in vitamin C and rich in minerals, it’s a weed you may grow to love. Use the stems, leaves and flowering tops, and make sure to finely chop or puree to eliminate the rough texture of the leaves. A perfect addition to juices and smoothies.
DANDELION LEAF AND ROOT (Taraxacum officinale) What wild edible is more misunderstood? The abundant dandelion is an herbal superstar. It’s flowers, leaves and roots are all edible, and all possess different healing properties. Dandelion leaves are deeply lobed, with triangular teeth pointing towards the base of the leaf. Turn the leaf over and run your finger along the main vein; true dandelion is smooth with no hairs on the veins (unlike some look-alike cousins). The leaves boast abundant quantities of Vitamins A, B and C, potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorous, and other minerals. The bitterness of dandelion leaves stimulates saliva production and improves digestion. Importantly, they act as a powerful, potassium-sparing diuretic. The roots are supportive of liver, gallbladder and kidneys, and are best harvested either before the flower stalk has emerged, or after the flower has gone to seed and the plant begins dying away. It’s at this time that the plant’s energy is being channeled back down into its root. Add a few leaves to smoothies and salads, or mix a handful into your favorite recipe, anywhere greens are called for.
VIOLET (Viola odorata) A prolific groundcover in our state, sweet-smelling violets are nutritional powerhouses, with early spring leaves containing high quantities of Vitamins C and A. Add a handful of leaves and flowers to your salad or smoothie, and make a lovely tea by steeping a few teaspoons of chopped leaves and flowers in eight ounces of water. Violet flowers can be frozen in icecube trays to add a festive touch to springtime cocktails and mocktails.
Wild-harvested Herb Recipes
Springtime Herbal Vinegar
Vinegar does a great job of extracting the vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, essential oils, and some alkaloids from plants, and its acidic nature assists in the uptake of calcium and iron into our cells.
To make an herbal vinegar: Rinse and thoroughly dry edible wild herbs of your choice. Finely chop plants and pack tightly into a pint jar. Fill completely with raw apple cider vinegar (available at Community Pharmacy and Community Wellness Shop). Put a piece of parchment paper between the jar and lid to keep the lid from rusting. Let the mix stand in a cool, shaded spot in the kitchen for a month. Strain your vinegar through a fine mesh strainer, pushing down on the plant material to release as much of the vinegar as possible. Pour your finished product into a dark bottle. Be sure to label and date.
Note: Community Pharmacy and Community Wellness Shop carry a wide selection of dried herbs, which can be used as additions to your fresh herbal vinegar, or instead of fresh herbs if the season or your schedule don’t allow for fresh plant harvesting.
How to Use: Enjoy your vinegar in all manner of salads and marinades. Drizzle on noodles, stir-fries, cooked beans and cooked greens (the acidic punch balances and brings out the flavor). Even combine with olive oil for dipping crusty bread!
Wild Herb Pesto and Pistou
Traditional Italian pesto uses basil, olive oil, garlic, salt, pine nuts and parmesan. French Pistou is similar, minus the nuts and cheese. But you can have fun shaking up the recipe any number of ways, by replacing some or all of the basil with other greens, and even swapping the type of nut you use (pistachio, walnut and macademia nuts are all delicious). You’ll not only increase the nutritional bang by adding wildcrafted herbs, but you’ll and bring wonderful new flavors to the table.
Basic Pesto/Pistou Recipe
- 1 – 2 garlic cloves
- 2 c fresh herbs, tightly packed (traditionally, basil is used)
- 2 T nuts (for pesto; omit for pistou)
- Salt & freshly ground pepper
- 1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 c freshly grated Parmesan (omit for pistou)
Use a food processor to grind all but the cheese until smooth and creamy. Add cheese last, pulsing until well combined.
Amy Baker is a gardener, teacher, wildcrafter, herb enthusiast and an award-winning writer. She has studied herbal medicine with various teachers in Chicago and Madison, and earned her certification as a Culinary Nutrition Expert and Instructor through the Academy of Culinary Nutrition. Amy has enjoyed creating plant medicines, natural beauty and cleaning products, and all manner of tasty, nutritious, healing recipes for decades.