Wild greens are so nutritious, they can make spinach look like iceberg lettuce. Of course, you might know them by a more common name: weeds.
Daphne Miller, a physician who works in San Francisco, first laid eyes on wild chicory during a visit to the island of Crete. Miller assumed the unruly vegetation piled on her friend's kitchen counter was destined for the garbage. To her surprise, it turned out to be dinner—and a delicious one, sautéed with olive oil and garlic and finished with a twist of lemon. "Children in other parts of the world eat wild greens the way kids here eat fries," says Miller, author ofThe Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World. "They're an essential part of the Mediterranean diet."
For many Americans, though, there's a stumbling block: our bias against plants we've been taught to regard as invasive weeds. Gardeners spend entire summers trying to eradicate dandelions, not sautéing them. But to James Duke, PhD, author ofThe Green Pharmacy,a perfectly manicured lawn is a wasted dining opportunity. "These are plants that our ancestors ate—that humans evolved to eat," he says.
Wild greens also rank among the world's most nutritionally potent superfoods. Of the leafy vegetables, purslane is the richest known source of omega-3 fatty acids. Dandelion greens are full of vitamin E and iron. And Miller postulates that the folate, antioxidants, and fiber in African wild greens may contribute to the low rates of colorectal cancer among West Africans, who develop the disease less than one-tenth as often as Americans. It scarcely matters which of the edible weeds you choose. "I call it the Lake Wobegon effect," says Duke. As Garrison Keillor says of his fictionalized town's inhabitants, "They're all above average."
Where to Get Them
If you think, "Why would I buy weeds when I can find them in the backyard?," a new book by John Kallas, PhD, Edible Wild Plants, is an excellent guide to identifying and cooking 17 of the most common wild greens. (However, it pays to be cautious. "Some wild greens have poisonous look-alikes," says Steve Brill, who leads foraging expeditions in the New York City area.) If you'd rather have someone else do the foraging for you, farmers' markets and upscale grocers are a good place to start.
How to Cook Them
Wild greens can range in flavor from mild (lamb's quarters) to pungent (wild mustard) or bitter (dandelions). You can soften intense flavors by cooking the greens with sweet vegetables, like carrots or beets, or adding soy sauce or ham. Still, some greens pose unique challenges. "You have to wonder who first decided to pick stinging nettles and put them in a pot," says cookbook author Jesse Ziff Cool. "But they make a great soup."
Here's a cook's guide to four common varieties:
Chickweed (far left): The tiny, delicately flavored leaves can be used as a substitute for sprouts.
Lamb's Quarters (A.K.A. Wild Spinach) (second from left): Try tossing it into a salad; the flavor is mild enough to use in place of domesticated spinach or lettuce.
Purslane (second from right): With a crunchy texture and hint of lemon flavor, it makes a delicious garnish for salads.
Dandelion Greens (far right): Look for baby greens in early spring, when they tend to be more tender and less bitter.