Wild seasonings, long used by country folk, are becoming increasingly popular with city dwellers. Their freshness in spring, ready availability and flavor make them appealing.Your nose and taste buds help you identify them, so there is little danger of picking the wrong plant.
Garlic mustard is unique among wild seasonings with its dual garlic odor and mustard taste. Use the leaves in soups, stews and stuffing, or use the finely cut up leaves as part of a mixed salad. Look for this abundant species in wooded floodplains. It is recognizable by its heart-shaped triangular leaves, and terminal clusters of four-petaled white flowers. Verify your find by crushing and smelling a leaf.
Greenbrier, a pesky woodland vine that tears clothes and skin, is edible in late spring. Cut up, the young soft and tender shoots impart a special flavor in salads. It also makes a pleasant nibble while you're on a stroll through the woods.
Sweet cicely, a denizen of moist, rich woods, is readily recognized by its fern-like leaves, borne in trees, each divided into three segments. The fleshy roots and seeds have a pleasing anise-licorice flavor. In Europe, the seeds are widely used to flavor beverages, baked goods and foods. It is thought to enhance the flavor of other herbs with which it is blended. A distinctive odor quickly distinguishes sweet cicely from other members of the parsley family. Gather the roots (the seeds come in early summer), cut them up, dry them, and use them as desired.
Look for the low-growing wild ginger in rich, mature woods. You recognize it by its large, heart-shaped, woolly leaves and the thick, white rootstock on or near the surface. The ginger odor of the fleshy root will confirm its identity. Also look for the small maroon-brown flower that appear about mid-May-Wash and dry roots, slice, and dry for 2 to 3 hours in oven at 200 degrees. Grate it for use as a spice in Chinese cookery or in powdered form as a flavor for salads and pickles. It also may be used to make candied ginger and ginger tea.
One welcome byproduct of yearly spring floods are the seeds and bulbs of many mountain plants carried down the Potomac and deposite in sandy or silty floodplains where they take hold. Colonies of wild leek occur in such places, especially above Cabin John Bridge (1-495). You recognize these leeks by their two-inch-wide leaves, 8 to 10 inches long, which appear early in spring. The mild oniony flavor of the scallion-like bulb makes excellent soup, especially when combined with a consomme. You can also pickle leeks or use them in any way you use spring onions. Mountain folk, who refer to the leek as ramp, prize it highly and hold annual ramp festivals at Richwood, and other West Virginia towns.
Watercress, found locally in spring-fed brooks, impacts a pleasant, peppery flavor to salads and other dishes. Also cook it as a healthful potherb, boiling leaves and stems 3 to 5 minutes. It is very rich in minerals and vitamins. Recognize it by its tiny white flowers, much divided leaves and white, thread-like roots. Do not pick it from polluted waters.
My favorite soup recipe: 1 diced potato, 4 cups watercress, 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons margarine, 1/2 teaspoon garlic, 1/4 cup cream. Boil the cress, potato and garlic with a cup of water until tender. Add other ingredients and simmer several minutes.
You'll find cress at Clean Drinking Manor Spring at end of Susanna Lane off Jones Mill Rd. and at River Road Spring, off River Road half a mile past Seven Locks Road.
The day lily, which bears lots of peanut-like tubers, is found all through our area in sandy or silty soils. Its lily-like leaves are V-shaped in cross-section, arising from the ground before the flower stalks appear in early summer. These "peanuts" are easily removed from the roots. Wash them, boil in salted water or fry in oil. The taste is between corn and chestnut. Eat them with other mixed nuts or use them for stuffing or in stews.
Peppergrass is well-known to country folk who use it as a seasoning. You identify it by the narrow, toothed or lobed leaves, cress-flavor, and by the spike of tiny white flowers, soon replaced by round flat seedpods, notched at the tips. The dense spike of seeds make an excellent seasoner for salads and soups. They are also used with vinegar as a base for a tasty meat dressing.
A sauce recipe: 2 cups seeds. 1 tablespoon vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup water. Blend ingredients at high speed in your blender until it is a smooth paste. Strain through a fine sieve to remove husks, and refrigerate. You can also collect, dry and store seeds for later use.
Shepherd's purse, related to peppergrass, bears a rosette of deeply lobed basal leaves, and much smaller leaves that embrace the flower stalk. The white flowers change to tiny, heart-shaped, flat seedpods, with notch at tip. Use seeds in the same way as peppergrass.
Sheep sorrel or sour grass prefers a poor, acid soil where there's little vegetation. It bears pale green, arrowhead-shaped leaves, each with two lower lobes or "ears" pointing outward. The leaves have a pleasant sour, acidy flavor. It is gathered in spring for use in mixed salad or for making sorrel soup, known in Europe as schav. Sorrel soup recipe: 2 tablespoons butter, 2 cups sorrel, 4 cups chicken broth. Boil and simmer 3 minutes. Pour over 2 eaten egg yolks, stirring several minutes. Add croutons or diced potatoes.
Wild garlic, also known as wild onion, grows luxuriantly in rich, wooded floodplains. It produces a large bulb that is used in cookery as a seasoning. Dig the bulbs with stems, tie into bunches and dry in a ventilated room. Bulbs are best in spring before flowers and bulblets appear. The telltale garlic odor gives this plant away. Meadow garlic, with solid stalk is the mild species, while hollow-stalked field garlic is stronger-flavored. Use in same way as store-bought garlic. Pickled onion recipe: 3 cups bulbs, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, water to cover. Bring to boil, drain off water and put bulbs in jar. Now combine pickling spice 2 1/2 cups vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar. Bring to boil and boil 10 minutes. Pour over onions and seal.
Sassafrass is best known as a healthful tea, less known as a seasoning and thickener. You identify it by the tree's checkered bark, and 3-lobbed or boat-shaped leaves. During May it bears fragrant, yellow-green flowers. Use the young unfolding leaves in gumbo soup. Just add three tablespoons of dried, shredded leaves to a medium-sized pot of soup, especially vegetable soup. It serves as a noncaloric thickener and adds its own special flavor.
If you like rhubarb sauce as a complement to a meat dish, try the "wild rhubarb" or Japanese knotweed, which is fast becoming a pest in the area. You'll find it in open places, recently disturbed by man. It grows in dense clumps, up to 5 feet high. The thick stalks are hollow. Look for round pointed leaves, swollen stem joints, with a papery membrane at each joint. Cut top 12 to 18 inches of new shoots. Gather them by the bushel at this time. Wash and strip fully developed leaves, and cut stems into 1/2 inch segments, handling six or more stems at a time. Add a cup of sugar and 2 quarts of cut stems, plus 1/4 cup of water. Boil 10 minutes. Freeze or refrigerate.
This sauce has the tartness of rhubarb and can be also when making jam and pie. There are huge clumps along Rock Creek wherever rock has been dumped to protect the banks: also on MacArthur Boulevard opposite Walhonding Drive. A clump was noted at the roadside on Canal Road at Chain Bridge, within a few feet of the west side of the bridge.
Our area has many species of smart-weed, also known as knotweed. They grow from a few inches to 5 feet tall. Most have long, narrow lance-shaped leaves, each with a papery sheath at the base. Flowers are tiny, white or pink. A chew of a leaf will tell you quickly if you have the right plant, and how peppery it is. Some species are quite mild; others "hot." You can dry and store leaves and use them as a pepper substitute.
Wood sorrel is a dainty little plant with clover-like leaves, each with three leaflets, notched at the tip. Yellow, five-petaled flowers appear in early summer. The entire plant has a pleasant, acidy taste. It is used in small quantities, cut up in salads. It is unwise to eat a large amount, as it can cause illness.