Going wild with weeds

Hunt and gather edibles growing around you.

Green nettle seed (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Green nettle seed
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Wild foods, once eaten from necessity, have become chic cuisine.
Dandelion greens and purslane feature on menus of high-end American restaurants, while in Jerusalem, chef and food historian Moshe Basson of the Eucalyptus restaurant cooks mallows and nettles to keep local traditions alive.
At this time of year in Israel, many species of wild edible plants are thriving in fields, gardens, abandoned lots, along sidewalks and even neglected public planters meant for flowers. If you know how to identify some of those plants, you can bring home valuable and nutritious free food and enjoy the sensation of reaping without having sown.
Mallow: Malva sylvestris, locally known as hubeza You still might see Moroccan grandmothers in empty lots, picking mallow leaves the size of soup plates.
Mallow, high in vitamin C, calcium and iron, kept families alive during the pre-independence siege of Jerusalem and Safed. The mothers would send agile youngsters out to the fields at sunrise to pick the leaves and the green fruit that resembles tiny wheels of cheese. Later the mallow would appear on the table, having been mixed with a precious egg and some bread crumbs to form patties. Some people still celebrate Independence Day with patties of mallow, although I’ve heard an older man say he can’t even look at mallow, as that’s all he ate for days at a time as a child, during the siege of Safed.
But mallow is too good to regard only as famine food.
You can pick a year’s supply to dry or freeze in 20 minutes, enjoying the mild winter sunshine while you’re at it. The flavor of mallow is almost neutral; neither tangy, bitter, pungent nor spicy. These days, mallow is most often cooked as soup, like spinach or chard, or stuffed with rice, like grape leaves. I also like to chop the fresh leaves and throw them into a stir-fry in the last few minutes of cooking. Raw baby mallow leaves add interest to a mixed salad.
Cooked mallow, especially the root, release a flavorless, light goop that’s soothing to the chest, bowels and kidneys. A strong tea of mallow leaves relieves a sore chest after hard coughing brought on by colds and flu. Raw mallow leaves blended with a little water make an excellent moisturizing facial mask for all skin types. Let it dry on the skin, then rinse off with warm water. But don’t let the family see you with the green mask on; they might get a fright.
Nettles: Urtica dioica, sirpadim In the dry days of winter, after rains have soaked the ground and enabled latent wild seeds to germinate, the sun returns to nourish sprouting wild greens. That’s when to go on safari – a nettles safari, around your neighborhood. Foraging nettles is like hunting lions, because this highly nutritious wild edible bites back. That is, the stems and leaves are covered in prickles that leave an uncomfortable sting on the skin. The trick is to take a pair of scissors and a bag on your nettles forage. Cut the stems, but keep the scissor blades closed on them. Drop the nettles head-first into the bag, and only then let them go. At home, protect your hands with latex gloves while you’re rinsing them. All the same, you must be resigned to enduring a few stings from contact with stray leaves.
Why bother with all that, you might ask. The answer is that nettles contain a spectacular amount of easily-metabolized iron, and their deep flavor is delicious.
The sting goes out of them when they’re cooked. Folk medicine claims that regularly eating cooked nettles or drinking an infusion of nettle leaves supports the kidneys and is an effective diuretic, so that nettles may give relief from arthritis, gout and other inflammatory conditions. Anemic people may consider adding nettles to their diet for an iron boost.
I love a late-winter dish of broccoli, leeks, rice and nettles, but often I just sauté fresh nettles with onions for an omelet. A handful of dried nettle leaves and roots goes into most of my soups, too. Nettles even have a cosmetic use: as a hair tonic.
Simmer a handful of leaves in water to cover for an hour; cool and strain the infusion.
Rubbed over the scalp and hair, it’s said to leave the hair shiny and strong.
Chickweed: Stellaria media, kochavit The Hebrew name kochavit refers to the “little stars” formed by white flowers of this creeping plant, whose five petals are so deeply divided that it looks like there are 10. A line of fine hairs runs around the stems of chickweed, another way to identify this delicious little salad vegetable. The flavor is light and somewhat salty.
My grandchildren love chickweed in salad and call it “flowers.” Chickweed’s flavor is so delicate that it’s best eaten well rinsed and raw. Herbalists claim that it lubricates the bowels and promotes digestion. I use it, fresh or dried, as tea, to heal eye infections. Chickweed is a winter plant that dies out as soon as hot weather returns, so now is the time to gather it.
Enjoy your wild harvest year around by drying the plants. Pick mallow that has no signs of insect infestation – tiny orange dots on the undersides of the leaves – rinse the dust off them and hang them in a shady place to dry by their stems. Young nettles can be dried and hung up the same way. Chickweed needs only to be rinsed and spread out on kitchen towels, then left in a draft-free place for a few days. It dries quickly. When herb leaves and stems are absolutely dry, store them in glass jars away from light and heat.
Ethical foraging Israelis are taught not to pick protected species from kindergarten age. But wild greens also need protection.
The sustainable way to harvest them is not to pick the very first one you see; it may be the only one.
When coming into a good patch of the plant you want, harvest no more than what you need. Pick only up to a third of the plants, leaving enough behind to seed and sow themselves again next year.
Sensible precautions Make sure that the area you’re picking in hasn’t been polluted by the attentions of cats and dogs.
Be absolutely sure of any plant’s edibility and identity. Every year, people wind up in the hospital after eating wild plants that “just look like salad vegetables,” but are toxic. Chickweed, for example, has a look-alike, a small but toxic euphorbia that often grows right alongside it. My rule is, if you’re not sure, don’t eat it. The easiest way to learn to recognize a plant is to take a photograph and compare it to other photos online. Read up on it, too. But the best way is to learn from an experienced forager, be it a Moroccan or Druse grandmother or a trusted professional foraging guide.
Leda Meredith, field guide and cookbook author, lives in Israel most of the year and offers tours of the Ramot Forest in English. Find her at www.ledameredith.com. Hebrew speakers may contact Uri Meir Chizik, field guide and nutritionist who leads foraging tours around the country. Find his tour schedule at http://www.mazon-izun.com.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to replace the advice of a medical practitioner, nor is the author an authorized herbalist.