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The backyard salad bowl



There is nothing sweeter than the feeling of total self-reliance. No dependency, no neediness, no clinging. And while complete self-reliance may now be something left to the Jeremiah Johnsons and Henry David Thoreaus of the past, there is one modern comfort you can safely leave behind, at least during the summer, when the Colorado sun shines down and bestows the foothills with its nurturing high-altitude glow -- the produce section of your supermarket.

Even the most well-groomed of suburban back yards can yield a veritable cornucopia of tasty wild plants that, blended in a block-party salad, will not only raise your level of self-reliance but impress the heck out of your Safeway-shopping neighbors.

Take mallow for example. This ugly, low-spreading herb can be found almost anywhere under 7,000 feet but mostly grows near human habitation. The resilient plant is everywhere and probably keeps coming back even after you've sprayed for weeds. The roundish leaves are wonderful in salads or eaten straight from the plant. Barely sweet and thickish, they taste like lettuce. In late spring and summer, mallow plants flower and produce small fruits, and both the flowers and fruits are also edible.

Probably also springing up in the midst of your landscaping right now are amaranth and lamb's quarters. These weeds of medium height resemble each other closely, with reddish stalks and tree-like growth. Amaranth, however, isn't fuzzy, and its seeds grow in conical clumps, while lamb's quarters has a more free-form style of expansion. Both plants have mild-tasting ovalish leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked in such dishes as soup, omelets and lasagna. The seeds can be ground into flour, and amaranth's seeds can be popped like popcorn.

If you're not feeling quite that daring, also common in our region are wild onions. The small vegetables, closely resembling scallions, begin to sprout about now and bloom in July and August. The flowers, usually pink but sometimes white, weigh down the shoots and droop toward the ground. The leaves are excellent chopped and mixed into everything from fresh salads to breads to chili.

Perhaps not appearing in your lawn but growing in local open spaces are other tasty edibles, such as cattails. The roots and young shoots of this water plant can be eaten, but the best-tasting parts of the plant are the inner core and pollen. Before mid-summer, the leaves can be peeled away to reach the succulent cucumber-esque center. Bend the stalk to shake the yellow, cornstarch-like pollen into a sack, and sift before mixing with flour to make delicious pancakes.

Another wild plant rich in novelty value is saltbrush. The triangle-leafed plant resembles amaranth, and the leaves can be eaten raw, especially the upper growth. It grows up to 4 feet tall in sunny areas from around May well into autumn. As the name implies, the herb is quite salty, making it wonderful for salad dressings, guacamole, tacos, veggie-burgers, etc. A can of Morton's in the backpack is cumbersome, so it's quite convenient that burnt, crushed saltbrush leaves can be used as a salt substitute. Mother Nature -- always thinking ahead.

Nutritionists have only recently gotten around to studying naturally-occurring regional flora, and they don't yet have enough data collected to assign vitamin and caloric values to most species. They may not fit into a diet exchange chart, but wild fruits, herbs and veggies are probably just as nutritious, if not more, than those at the market -- and they have the advantage of usually being pesticide free.

While humans have been munching on wild plants since we came down from the trees, civilized societies have gotten out of the habit of plant identification. And there are toxic species out in them thar hills, so don't mistake a tasty shrub for deadly hemlock or poison oak. Never eat anything you're not absolutely certain about. Be on the safe side, and study one of the many Rocky Mountain plant-identification books available. Two excellent ones are Best Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado by Cattail Bob Seebeck and Western Edible Wild Plants by H.D. Harrington.

Spend careful time learning to recognize edible plants, and soon enough you'll be impressing your supermarket-dependent friends with your mountain-man knowledge and gourmet style.

How self-reliant of you.


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