For most of human history, winter has been a time of nutrient depletion, if not starvation. After months of living on the likes of sugar and flour, and with hardly any fresh vegetables, it was common to forage for whatever non-poisonous, or even semi-poisonous, green leaves and shoots you could find beneath the melting snow. To this day, the idea of a "spring tonic" lingers in the remnants of rural America.
In Eating Wild Plants, radio personality Kim Williams writes, "Before the era of supermarkets and vitamins in bottles, the first wild greens of spring were not only a treat but a medicine. Sulphur and molasses was the tonic for some families, but for others it was a mess of dandelion greens or a salad of watercress or tea made from fresh strawberry leaves dug from under the snow."
Though we aren't wanting for nutrients in spring as we once were, this annual ritual remains a great way to re-calibrate your body to the landscape of home, and expose yourself to the elements. In addition to the parks, alleys, hills and flood plains around town, a wilderness can be found in one's own yard or garden. In early spring, long before you've turned the soil or decided what to plant, the weeds are often already out in force. Many of these invaders are edible, and can make just as potent a spring tonic as a wild plant.
Bitterness, the flavor of both medicine and poison, is well represented in the flavors of these wild plants, which tend to be more nutrient-dense than their domestic counterparts. If you aren't prepared to eat some bitterness, then your botany skills should be particularly on point. If you could find some wintergreen, sorrel, asparagus, or even the leathery, still-fragrant rose hips you'll have some sweet options.
First, get a good plant identification book. Learning the plants and ingesting their terroir can be a meaningful step toward fully inhabiting a place. Experts can bring home their miner's lettuce and watercress, but if you want to maximize the return on your time foraging, nettles and dandelions are so plentiful, nutritious and delicious, there's little need to seek further.
Nettles are only problematic in that they can hurt you in the field. But once they are cooked, their stingers wilt and become harmless. Scissors are essential, along with a bag to put them in, and gloves help. They can be well-camouflaged and harder to find, but they tend to grow near running water, not directly next to it.
Dandelions, meanwhile, are easy. They flourish pretty much everywhere, and don't punish the fingers. Just wash them and eat. These two plants go very well together in a pesto. The dandelion leaves can be left raw, but the nettles should be cooked.
If you can find one and not the other don't sweat it, just use what you have. By the same token, lambs quarter, mustard greens, chickweed, purslane, and just about any other edible weed or foraged plant can go in, too. Pesto proves a forgiving dish. Here's a quick recipe:
• 10 nettle shoots
• 2 c. dandelions, cleaned and chopped
• 1 tbsp. almond butter (or whole almonds)
• 3 tbsp. pumpkin seeds (or pine nuts or walnuts)
• 1 clove grated or pressed garlic (or more to taste)
• c. grated Parmesan cheese
• ½ tsp. lemon zest
• olive oil
• salt to season
Blanch the nettles in salted, boiling water for 90 seconds. Remove and plunge into an ice water bath. They are now safe to touch. Squeeze them into a ball and wring out all the water. Add the ball to a food processor and blend until coarsely chopped. Add the dandelions, garlic, and a tablespoon or two of oil, and process again. Add pumpkin seeds, almond butter, cheese, and more olive oil, and spin again. Add olive oil until it makes a smooth vortex. Wipe down the sides, season with salt, and serve. Pasta is an obvious vehicle for serving this pesto, but hardly the only one. Use it as a dip or a spread, or roll it in radicchio leaves. Freeze any excess pesto.