I couldn’t believe I was selling chickweed. One spring a young friend, foraging for a world-famous chef, was hot on the trail of this common nuisance, and I assured him our farm could supply it. Should we take money for something we normally fed to the compost pile or the chickens? Because it took a long time to find and harvest his five pounds, I did charge for it, but I felt a little funny.
The next time it was purslane he was after, and I handled that differently. “See that greenhouse?” I asked. Two beds inside were carpeted with purslane, a succulent weed of warm-weather gardens. “Harvest it and it’s yours.” Not since Tom Sawyer and his fence has a job been pawned off with more glee.
It’s easy to chuckle about the way wild ingredients turn up on the fanciest menus, especially when they are volunteers in beds designated for more improved crops, bred over many generations for attributes like size, vigor, keeping ability, tenderness and a sweet, mild flavor. But lately this culinary atavism is driven as much by science as by mystique. We now know that much nutritional potency has been lost in the development of modern vegetables and fruits, and there’s a trend in plant breeding to correct this lack.
Does this mean that we should all pull out our lovely tomatoes so that the purslane might better thrive? Should our tables offer up nothing but superfoods like dandelions, nettles and shepherd’s purse? From an ecological standpoint that would be dubious, because most of these common weeds are European invaders that crowd out natives, just like the early settlers who brought them over on their ships.
Jo Robinson has a broader approach in her new book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.” Crop by crop, she advises the reader what produce to look for with vitamins and antioxidants in mind — in general, types and varieties that retain more of an original wild plant’s essence, as indicated by stronger flavors and more intense coloration. (This even applies to beer!) So it’s green, open-headed lettuces, deep yellow corn and blue potatoes if you want to eat well. She gives good advice on cooking and storing for better nutrition as well. Because recent studies have taught us that we should be getting our beta carotene and other health-builders not from pills but from well-grown food, this book is just what gardeners and cooks need.
The creators of today’s foods were not idiots. It was necessary to improve certain promising primitive plants in order to increase volume — and get us to eat them — and that’s still true. I’m just talking about an important correction that breeders are starting to make. But meanwhile there are a number of back-to-basics crops that you can order seeds for right now for fall and winter harvest: arugula, tatsoi, claytonia, cresses, mustards, curly endives, mâche, Bull’s Blood beet greens and even plain old spinach. These will all serve you well until it’s spring dandelion time. And meanwhile, toss a little purslane into the salad.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Pepper plants should be staked while young to avoid flopping later. A thin, four- or five-foot wooden stake will do the job, pushed into the soil about four inches from the plant’s main stem. A small, metal cage sold for tomatoes will work, too. Pinch back stems on young plants to promote bushiness.
— Adrian Higgins