Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eat Your Weeds! (Carefully)

In addition to the many weeds that I just have to get rid of are several that are edible, or at least have some edible parts. Borage is no longer considered to safe to eat (except for the flowers), but there are still several more in the garden that have a well-deserved place on the table. I'll concentrate here on the ones that are coming up now; not all of them are actually in my garden but as the farthest from home I wandered to take the photos was 15 minutes, they very well could be!

In the US at least, the business of eating wild plants is associated mostly with "granola tree huggers," "Euell Gibbons wannabees" and people into the "herbal lifestyle" and hillbillies; the majority don't have a clue. I like to think that that's changing slowly, but most Americans I know have maybe tried dandeliion greens and, finding them so bitter as to be unpalatable, prefer the supermarket. They don't know what they're missing.

Although your average Istanbullian is not as likely to be acquainted with edible wild greens as people in the villages, a visit to almost any local neighborhood market will yield at least a few. Today in our local market there was a woman selling Sickle weed (Falcaria vulgaris), Mallow (Malva sylvestris), Nettles (Urtica dioica), Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) and Prickly Goldenfleece (Urospermum picroides). The last three are common in my garden, the first grows abundantly just five minutes from the house. There was also a wonderful old woman from Trabzon selling piles of Trachystemon orientalis (the blue-flowered beauty pictured above), known rather mysteriously in English as "Abraham-Isaac-Jacob." Though it's common around Istanbul it's not well known here; the reason it is for sale in my neighborhood is that there are many immigrants from the Black Sea. It's not really a weed; I'm planting a border of it!

So let's look at some of the seasonal edibles, in no particular order!

Sickleweed (Falcaria vulgaris, Turkish: Kazayağı) is a spreading plant in the celery family, it grows through late winter and into early spring, then goes to seed and disappears when the weather warms up. It has an intense fragrance reminiscent of parsley, celery leaves and carrots all at once. It's mostly used to flavor salads but can be used in soups and sauces as well. Like parsley, it is also said to freshen the breath.

Be especially careful when collecting sickleweed however, because the untrained eye can confuse it with the the plant this photo: poison hemlock (Conium maculatum, Turkish: baldıran), especially when it's going to bloom and the leaves become narrower. You know it from your history books as the plant that was used to execute Socrates, and even a little of it can have exactly the same effect on you. Just a month ago, I was up at a friend's parcel of land near Polonezköy. Another visitor and I collected sickleweed. The next weekend another friend decided to collect some himself. He made a pasta sauce with it. Three people had just one spoon of it; half an hour later two of them were in the emergency ward unable to walk and having trouble breathing. This is not a plant to mess with; the poison can even be absorbed through the skin. Make sure you know what you have before you eat anything you collect from the wild.

Prickly goldenfleece (Urospermum picroides, Turkish sütotu, zoho, Greek Ζοχός, Αγριοζοχός, Ζοχές) is especially popular in Greece, where it is a permanent fixture in winter vegetable markets. Here I have only seen it once in a neighborhood street market. It is an easily recognizable roadside weed with curly leaves that appear spiny at first glance but it is not really. It often takes on a pinkish and bluish-green hue during the winter. Cut the entire heat with a sharp knife but leave the root; it will regenerate and flower, ensuring that there will be more next year. It has many uses, from böreks to fricasees, but my favorite way of eating it is simply to shock boil it, then drizzle it with olive oil and lemon juice and a little salt. There is a Sonchus species (wild lettuce) that can be confused with this plant. Its leaves look a bit like a dandelion on steroids, and it has similar but smaller yellow flowers on a branched inflorescence up to a meter or mor tall. It's more tender and less flavorful, but it has its devotees.

The next one vies with wild asparagus as my all-time favorite wild green: Mediterranean mustard (Hirschfeldia incana, Greek: Βρούβες). Strangely enough I have not found Turks using this one, though a close relative (mentioned below) is popular here. I'm sure it is used farther south. Actually the Greek term (vrouves) is a catch-all for several different species of plants, also mustards. The leaves are edible and sometimes used, but the real treat is the emerging flower heads. Break them off where they are still tender, as you would when picking asparagus. The heads can then be steamed or shock boiled just like broccoli; shock boiling them lets them keep their color better. This plant is now escaped and common in California; if you have it around, definitely give it a try! Also, the emerging flowerheads of kale and arugula are very similar, and also delicious.

Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum. Turkish: Turpotu; Greek: Ραπανόχορτο).

Although botanically a radish, the root is not edible; it is mainly the leaves and flower scapes that are used. It is fairly easy to confuse with wild mustard above, especially as its emerging flower heads are similar, but the leaves are more angular and slightly hairy. It usually blooms later than wild mustard but sometimes they overlap. The flower scapes of wild mustard are sweet with a hint of mustard while those of wild radish are hot and pungent as a radish that has sat in the ground too long; but both the leaves and scapes get milder when cooked. These are also eaten as a boiled salad with olive oil and lemon. The leaves are common in markets this time of year and are very popular among Turks from the Aegean area but old Istanbullians as well.

I'm adding the next two only for interest because one of them I haven't tried yet, and the other one I simply don't like!

The first is wild arum (Several species, Turkish: Nivik, Yılanyastığı). Like all members of the Arum family, which includes Philodendron, Dieffenbachia (Dumbcane), Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Taro and others, the tissues of this plant contain calcium oxylate crystals which, if eaten raw, cause immediate irritation and swelling of the mucous membranes of the mouth. I nibbled a Jack-in-the-Pulpit root once out of curiosity as a kid and I can attest to the truth of this. Major ow, for several hours. In some parts of Turkey this plant, which is considered to be extremely healthy, is eaten only after being left in a flour and water solution in a sealed container for a day to "ferment." Actually, like taro, boiling is enough to eliminate the calcium oxylate. It may also be dried. I have a garden full of it and should probably get around to trying it. But I'm scared to. :)

The other is Black Lovage (Smyrnium olustratum, Turkish: yabankerevizi.) This plant, pretty much every part of which is edible, grows in dense stands all over Istanbul and the Prince's Islands. Known in Turkish as wild celery, it is used by Gypsies as greenery, tied up around the bundles of narcissus they sell on the streets in the spring. Many people think it's poisonous, perhaps the idea that such a big and plentiful plant could be edible as well seems too good to be true. (It is, in my estimation...) But the reason may also be that the other common name, baldıran, is the same as the word for poison hemlock. (I almost hesitate to mention it on the off chance that someone might get it mixed up!) The flowers have an odd, bittersweet aroma the is not quite bad, not quite pleasant, but very, very distinct. I have a jungle of it in the lower part of the garden. The only place where it is truly popular is Bodrum, where the thick stems are boiled and then served with an oil, lemon and garlic sauce, or breaded and fried. I truly wish I liked it, but have tried it several times, both raw and simmered, and the only description I can think of for its aroma and flavor is "sub-nauseous." And this from a guy who loves durian...

Last but not least, probably the best known of the wild greens, at least in Greece and western Turkey, is wild chicory (Cichorium intybus, Turkish: Hindiba, Radika; Greek: Ραδίκια). Chicory comes up almost as soon as the rains begin in the autumn and continue through the winter. It is easily recognizable by its branched stems of sky-blue daisy-like flowers, but by the time you see those, it's too late. Still, if you learn to recognize them dry, it will help you find the plant in the winter because they stay around. Chicory is a bit bitter, but not nearly as bitter as dandelion, with which it may be confused, because though the leaves in this photo are quite rounded and even, the fall and winter leaves can be slightly jagged or heavily toothed.

In another month or so, a whole new crop of wild greens will be available, and more after that; I'll mention them as they appear.

Bu yazıyı Türkçeye çevirmiyorum çünkü Türkler için otlar yemek zaten son derece normal birşey! Bir de hem tanıma/toplama hem de pişirme konusunda o kadar çok kaynak var. Yine de mevsimde çıkan kazayağı ile az miktarları bile ölüme neden olabilen baldıranın arasındaki benzerliğini dikkatinize çekmek istiyorum. Doğa berekettir fakat İngilizce bir deyim vurguladığı gibi, "biraz bilgi, tehlikeli birşeydir."


Somer, Semih, Ahmet Ors, Turgut Kut and Tijen İnaltong, Yurdumun Yenilebilir Otları (My Country's Edible Herbs), Mutfak Dostlari Derneği, Metro Group, Istanbul, 2003.

Papoulias, Thanasis, Τα Άγρια Φαγώσιμα Χόρτα του Βουνού και του Κάμπου (Edible Wild Herbs of the Mountains and Plains), Psychalou Publications, Athens 1999.


Mary said...

Greetings from Greece!
Very interesting post, I really like the edible weeds (wild greens) and try to learn how to collect them (from my mother).

I don't know all the greens in your photos.
Urospermum picroides is my best I think, I also know the Hirschfeldia incana but I don't know how to collect it until now and.
Also I am not sure about your photo of Cichorium intybus, the leaves seems different to me. Are you sure it's Cichorium intybus? It's like the "roka" (Eruca sativa)I have in my container garden this moment.

I will try to post some photos from here

Mary from http://www.citygarden.eu (sorry I have no blogger account to leave a comment with other way)

Sarah said...

when you mentioned sickeweed I immediately thought that it might cause some confusion, but sure enough you mentioned it in the next sentence. I hope your friends are feeling better! From the same family fennel also grows wild here (foeniculum). I stuff the Malva leaves, like I would grape leaves and it comes out quite nice. Nettles are all the rage here, the upscale restaurant, Catit served cream of nettle soup which was very tasty. what do you do with the goldenfleece. Although I heard it was edible, I tasted it once and it was very bitter. Do you have a recipe for that and mustard leaves (its the season). Paula wolfert has a few weed recipes in her eastern mediterranean cooking book, recommened!
happy weeding!

Sazji said...

I love Zohes, but it's not for everyone. Though arguably radikia (Chicory) is more bitter. I like a bit of bitter, it grows on you.

As for the Cichorium - yes, it is but it's a second-year plant. It's amazingly variable; I used to confuse it with dandelions sometimes but when it comes up from a big root like that, the leaves tend to be more upright and entire. That is one plant! Hirschfeldia is one of many things they call "vrouves" in Greek; pretty much the same treatment for all of them. One of my favorites is what I ate as "Andidia" (Αντιδια) in Naxos; much thinner and with a pronounced bitter edge but a great flavor and such a brilliant color! My mystery one is one called "karfa" (κάρφα) that is popular on Naxos. I'd love to know what the species is.

Fennel grows here though here it's not very far up. (We had snow today...!!) Mallow is coming along, even blooming in a few places. I've never been wild about it; I think it's the fuzzy texture. But ladies from the village on the hillsides (unfortunately often by big highways) collecting malva (ebegümeci) is a common sight here.

Sazji said...

Oh - as for the hemlock soup - yes they are fine but they are very very lucky they only had one spoon of it. One of them made herself throw up as soon as she felt her fingers going numb and was okay.

Mary said...

I didn't knew it this about the second year of chicorium, I think I have many things to learn about this plant, it's full of surprises

Antidia is a common plant we sow and you can find it easily in markets here

As for the mysterious "karfa" I make a search and found that they call it as "κάρφα" or "κάλφα" or "skalfa" or"skarfa" in Aegean. It's one of the plants Dioscouridis had wrote in his book the 1st century.
Also I found a latin in other page but I am not absolutely sure because I don't know the plant. I found it as "Opopanax hispidum".



I hope you can find more info about this plant

Mary from http://www.citygarden.eu

Sazji said...

Να το πουλάκι μου! :) I had only seen a flower head of it but never saw the whole plant. I had no idea it was so tall. I had it in an omelette in Naxos; it was delicious but hard to do taxonomy in that form! If it grows in Bulgaria, it must be around here too in the right habitats.

Sarah said...

Opopanax also grows in Northern Israel but is very rare, I never heard about eating it.Another plant that is used more for its medicinal properties is Pituranthos, of the same family.

Cichorium is very popular amoung the Arabs and Bedouins. I have trouble identifying it when it is edible because I only know it's Cichorium when it is in its inedible flowering stage. Arabs fry it in olive oil and serve it with fried garlic. Does Cyclamen grow in Turkey? I know that some like to stuff the leaves, although I am pretty sure it is a protected plant in these parts.

Sazji said...

Yes, there are several species of Cyclamen in Turkey - C. hederifolium, coum, pseudoibericum, cilicium, graecum, intiminatum, mirabile, persicum and trochopteranthemum. I guess if one would be stuffed, it wuold be C. persicum as the rest have fairly small leaves. They would make beautiful dolma! (Gee, we should be having this discussion on eGullet but they deleted my post because it would take discussion away from eGullet...) ;)

Sarah said...

I am new to Egullet and after answering all the "what's this green?" questions in the Middle Eastern forum, I realized there are few who understand weeds so I am not sure what discussion could have been generated.
I have to thank you because today I went hiking with my family and finally was able to recognize the young chicory.
As for the goldenfleece, I am not sure it's the exact same kind you are referring to but it is bitter! When you make borek with it, do you mix it with something else?
Aside from that we saw sage, thyme, fennel, mustard and the last of the arum, all in full bloom. When turkey is blooming everything will be yellow here.

Sazji said...

Goldenfleece is a bit bitter when it's fresh. When you boil it (I do a shock boil - get the water boiling hard then toss it in - it loses a lot of its bitterness. It takes a while to soften up (and I'm not one of those who believes greens should be complete mush!). Then just olive oil, lemon and a bit of salt. If it's intolerably bitter, maybe it's something else. In böreks Ι like to sautee a little onion, then mix it with the boiled goldenfleece, and add cheese if you want. I mix yogurt and oil and spread a light bit of this between the phyllo. (Turkish phyllo for böreks is quite different from the Greeks stuff; it's a bit thicker and moister).

Sarah said...

I took pictures of what I thought was goldenfleece and now I am sitting with my dog eared flora Palestina trying to figure them out. I believe that the bitter green I was eating is a sonchus species, all those yellow flowers look so similar! Perhaps I will post the pictures on my blog.

Sazji said...

Could be! The most common Sonchus species here is variable, it can be a bit like dandelions which some love but I find unpalatable even after the recommended 2 or 3 water changes. I guess it's a matter of season too. Can you take a picture of it?

stevil said...

Greetings from Norway!

I arrived here by a devious route. I’m very interested in perennial vegetables. There aren’t many that are cultivated (Artichoke, Cardoon, Rhubarb, Jerusalem Artichoke and Asparagus are probably best known), but the majority of the wild edibles are perennials. I’ve been reading the literature which has been written in recent years on traditional wild edibles in Mediterranean countries and many new edibles not found in large international data bases (such as pfaf.org) and books on edible plants have been discovered. Well, I was reading a couple of Turkish studies by a Dr. Ertug who documented use of wild edibles in Bodrum and Central Anatolia. Googling one of the new (to me) perennial edibles mentioned by Ertug brought me to your really interesting blog!

Falcaria vulgaris and Urospermum picroides are both perennials which I’ve come across in the literature. Trachystemon orientalis is also perennial – how is that one used?

I would be very interested in seed of any of these. Any chance? I have an extensive seed list and I would be willing to send you several packets for each I get from you (or I can pay if you prefer) - http://members.gardenweb.com/members/exch/stevil

Hirschfeldia incana – I would also be interested to try this one…

Otherwise, I have the same experience with Smyrnium as you…I’ll have to try it like the Bodrumians with oil, lemon and garlic sauce (all will disguise the strong taste to a certain extent – did you try to prepare it like this?)

Sonchus oleraceus is one of my favourites – I don’t find it bitter, but some of the other species are and I’ve heard others report it as unpleasantly bitter – I suspect it may be bitter in warmer temperatures.