Saturday, 24 March 2012

If you go down to the woods today...

Well okay, it's hardly a picnic, but with everything springing back to life after winter there is a lot of free food to be had out there right now.

We went out looking for edible greens earlier this week and brought home this lovely lot - all from within a short walk of home; a mix of stinging nettles, garlic mustard, goosegrass, chickweed, hogweed, dead nettles and ground elder! I'm pretty proud of how my foraging is coming along!

Everyone who was ever a child recognises stinging nettles, the most commonly-used wild green.

Dead nettles look very similar but don't sting - they look sort of softer and less hairy, are generally smaller, and have either white or purple flowers. The leaves are best picked, I'm told, while the plant is flowering.

Goosegrass is that fuzzy stuff you used to stick all over classmates' backs in the playground, otherwise known as cleavers, and abundant around here.

Chickweed is a very common garden weed with teardrop-shaped leaves, pretty little white flowers and a low branching habit, which I am always pulling out of my pots!

Garlic mustard grows tall upright stems in the summer, but now you can already spot its first clumps of leaves appearing. Crush a leaf and it will smell subtly of garlic.

Hogweed is lauded by some as the tastiest wild green. Its large leaves are quite distinctive, and its furled new shoots are apparently delightful lightly steamed and served simply, like asparagus. Must put this on my to-try list...

While many gardeners are plenty familiar with ground elder, you do need to be sure it's ground elder, as water hemlock can look fairly similar (though it only grows in wet places) and that's not a mistake anyone wants to make! Pick the leaves before the plant flowers. (And do, of course, be sure you know what you're doing picking any wild food - not all weeds are edible and some will give you a nasty stomach upset or even kill you. If you're not already familiar with these plants, this page may not be good enough for identification purposes! Try to forage away from roads where plants might be polluted, and be careful where people walk their dogs. Eww.)

So, what to do with a bagful of greens? Like spinach and other leafy veg - kale, chard, collards - all these leaves are pretty versatile and can go in virtually anything you like. Pastas, risottos, pies, stews, egg dishes, cheese dishes, sides, soups, salads (well, don't try eating nettles raw...)

But being the sort of person for whom one challenge at a time is just not enough, I decided to attempt my first-ever souffle. Frugal meets fancy. And here it is!

It sunk a little while I was getting my camera out - it was higher than that when it first came out the oven, honest! It was light and tasty. You could serve it just with toast and/or salad, or with salty meats like sausages or bacon. We had it with sausages and a simple tomato sauce, which was lovely. For a posh starter, make it in ramekins and reduce the cooking time to 10-13 minutes.

Wild Greens Souffle
(serves 4)
  • Butter a one litre souffle dish thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 200C, and in it place a large roasting dish with an inch or so of water.
  • Wash 150-250g foraged greens, and place in a large saucepan with an inch of water and a pinch of salt. Steam until all the greens are well wilted, stirring occasionally to turn things over. Drain them and squeeze out as much water as you can, then chop them quite finely.
  • Melt 25g butter in a pan, and stir in 2 tbsps plain flour to make a roux. Cook, stirring, for a minute or two, then gradually add 150ml milk, whisking all the time, until you get a smooth sauce, and simmer gently for a couple of minutes.
  • Remove from the heat and stir in 80g mature cheddar. Then add the chopped greens, 2 or 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard, a pinch of cayenne pepper and a generous grating of nutmeg, and season well. Stir in 2 large egg yolks.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk 4 large egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks.
  • Fold the egg whites into the cheese and greens mixture, gently and a little at a time. When it's all well combined, spoon into the buttered dish.
  • Place in the preheated roasting dish and water, and bake for 20-25 minutes until the souffle is golden brown and nicely risen.
  • Handle gently and serve immediately!


Whole Lotta Lottie said...

Nome, if only I'd known hogweed is edible. I've just finished digging up loads of it from my allotment - I put it all in the compost. Would've had several kilos of it.

Nome said...

Doh! Had a similar experience myself with chickweed - I could have eaten loads over the years! But as they say, a day without learning is a day wasted - at least you know for next time!

(Just look out for giant hogweed - very large and less common - which ISN'T edible and causes a skin rash on contact.)

Thanks for coming by! :)

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