Foraging for Bitter Greens

When I first met my in-laws almost 20 years ago, I thought it was a bit odd that they ate so much food that they “found” outside. I had never really been part of a foraging family…no matter how much other people confused my family with the Euell Gibbons “nuts-and-berries” crowd, in general we either grew it or bought it.

Back then my father-in-law was the main forager. And over the years he has taught me how to find and eat things I would never have imagined were edible, not to mention absolutely delicious. But now he’s a bit too unable to bend over to get to the good stuff on the ground.

So the other day I was getting the mail and I noticed one of his favorite foods, “bitter greens,” growing in the mulch by the driveway. Hmmmm, I thought. When you start to look for something, suddenly you can find it almost anywhere. Bitter greens are a weed that grows where weeds like to grow—on recently exposed land or in garden beds. (Our best harvest ever was the year we built the house and there was lots of mud.)

Easter morning, I went out and picked some bitter greens to add to my kale and collards. I looked the plant up just to make sure I wasn’t about to poison my family. There it was in my 1974 edition of Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier. It’s officially called wintercress—and sometimes called “scurvy cress” because it’s high in vitamin C. It’s from the mustard family. But I’ve always known it as bitter greens.

The best way to eat it is cooked with a little olive oil and garlic. You can also eat it raw in salads []. Or add a can of beans to the cooked greens (along with a little Romano cheese), and you have a full meal: beans and greens. Very yummy.

I’m sure that for some families, saving money is a big part of the reason they forage. After all, it’s free (and highly nutritious) food growing right in your backyard. But there is also an element of connection to the past and family tradition involved. So, now that I’ve been part of my husband’s family for almost two decades, it’s my tradition, too. And I can teach my daughters how to forage. And it’s our family connection to their Papa, whom they love and know, and his Papa, whom we never knew.

That’s pretty powerful, good stuff for just a weed.

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6 Responses to Foraging for Bitter Greens

  1. Laura B. April 7, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    I crave greens in spring. It’s a tradition for Native Americans, the PA Germans (dandelion salad) & others to gather edible spring greens to help detox, & purge the liver of it’s winter “sludge” & fats.
    I recognize this “weed” , & will try it as soon as I locate some, along w/ some dandelion.
    Thanks Maria!

  2. Donna in Delaware April 7, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    I too crave bitter bitter greens in spring. I look for dandelion greens in organic markets every spring. I’ve been eating a good bunch every week. Bitter herbs are very cleansing. I knew a man when I was growing up, who would go out and forage to make his famous dandelion wine and tonics every spring and have lots to last him through the year. You are lucky Maria. Italians are famous for foraging in the spring. I use to see them collecting near the roadsides when I lived in NY. It’s a tradition with Europeans, especially those that live in the countryside. I’m afraid to do it though, because of soil contaminants, especially by the roads, and in open fields, I’m not so sure because I don’t want to encroach on someone’s land. Anyway, it’s a good thing to do. If you can’t find what you’re looking for or find anything at all, at least you will be getting some exercise and fresh air after being cooped up all winter.

  3. Amanda April 7, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    Sooo glad you posted a pic. I have this on the border of my garden! We just finished a big bowl of dandelion macaroni salad and I’m going to cook up some bitter greens tomorrow. Just don’t tell my husband–as long as he doesn’t know they’re weeds, he loves them!

  4. Esther April 7, 2010 at 9:12 pm #

    Looks familiar to me, will have to check it out and compare it to the picture. My Dad, (rest his soul) would bring home dandelion greens and also mushrooms. Sad never paid attention to th mushrooms he’d pick and eat. I even may have eaten them also and live to tell about it.

  5. june April 8, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    I don’t have this but I do have plenty of Garlic mustard greensgrowing wild. Can I eat this?

  6. Susan April 12, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    Talk to us about fiddlehead ferns!

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