Category Archives: urban foraging

Dandy Tempura

In case you haven’t noticed, dandelions have bigger brains than people. Seriously. And they get smarter each time you whack them. Mow a lawn of dandelions repeatedly and what happens? The dandelions learn to flower ever closer to the ground until those yellow Cheshire cat faces are grinning at you from beneath the grass. They know exactly how far down the cutting blade can reach, and that’s where they proliferate once again.

The other day, after harvesting a few batches of dandelion petals for Dandy Bread, I actually mowed my lawn, surprising myself even more than my neighbors. It’s been a week and the yard is already replenished with dandelions. No biggie. I picked a bunch of blooms for tempura.

Got a problem with tempura? I didn’t think so. Here at FOTL we may periodically throw a tizzy about health and nutrition and generally staving off rot, but you won’t hear a lot of griping about FAT. It’s the stuff for which our ancestors put their lives on the line. Need some fat to survive the winter? Roger that, let’s tool up and take down one of them #$*%&@ woolly mammoths again. Tucking into a bag of pork rinds doesn’t carry quite the same cachet.

Yeah but making you own tempura and making it well is almost as cool as hurling a prehistoric projectile at an oversized elephant having a bad hair day. And while I’ve tried a bunch of tempura recipes over the years with wildly varying results, this time I think I figured out the secret. Whatever you do, make it more watery than you deem appropriate. I used a recipe found here, then tweaked it.

3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 cup ice-cold water, plus extra
1 tbsp rice wine
1 egg

In a bowl mix the flour and corn starch. In a second larger bowl, beat an egg until frothy, then add the ice water and beat some more. Stir in the rice wine. Now add the dry ingredients and mix quickly, not worrying about the lumps. Don’t over-mix! If the batter oozes off a spoon, it’s too thick. Add more ice water until the batter is watery. It’ll seem way too watery if you’re used to making, say, Beer-Batter Fish and Chips, but trust me.

Now proceed over to the stove with your bowl o’ batter and a plate of dandy flowerheads. Your vegetable oil should be good and hot by now. Flick in a drop of water to see if it pops and sizzles. Using your hands, dip a dandy in the seemingly too thin gruel. The batter will run off the dandy in sheets but the flower will still be thinly coated and looking rather sad and soggy. Gently drop the dandy into the oil, petals facing down, and PRESTO! The flower opens up as if the sun has just come out. (This miracle of kitchen chemistry won’t happen if the batter is too thick and heavy.) It’s really quite amazing to see the dandy regain its form, albeit with a beautifully thin veneer of crispy tempura as its new skin.

Dandy Tempura has an unusual mouth feel. If the batter is right, the outer crust should be crispy, yet being a flower, the overall texture is squishy. I mix the dandies in with other more traditional fare: sweet potato, bell pepper, onion, and zucchini, to name a few.

Now go pick a mess of ridiculously nutritious dandelions and start frying. That’ll teach those PhD weeds!

Chickweed, Round 2

My first round with wild chickweed was the eye-opening Chickweed Chimichurri over Tuna Poke. For that I used a handful common chickweed (Stellaria media) foraged from a neglected rock garden down the block. Round 2 was a different species, mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), which I found growing adjacent to a neglected plot in a local p-patch.

The operative word here is neglected. Urban foragers should seek out these forgotten places: abandoned lots, pocket parks, de-facto green spaces. They’re abundant with weeds, p-patches in particular, since the soil is usually of good quality. This p-patch in particular was bursting with red deadnettle (pictured above), dandelions, cat’s ears, mint, and chickweed.

Mouse-ear chickweed, unlike common chickweed, is covered in tiny hairs. It’s recommended to cook it first before eating, so I boiled mine for a few minutes, drained it, and then added it to the food processor with raw garlic, red pepper, a few heaping tablespoons of yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, and a little bit of hot pepper, then whirred it into a creamy sauce—basically a chimichurri blended with yogurt.

Next I slathered a fillet of Alaskan rockfish with it and fired up the grill. The color isn’t as striking as the chimichurri—alas, it’s more of a puke green—but the taste was distinctive, green, garlicky, somewhat reminiscent of stinging nettle pesto but lighter because of the lemon and yogurt. I’ll definitely be making this sauce again, perhaps with a little less garlic.

Lunch the following day? Leftover Rockfish Sammy with Chickweed Sauce.

Chickweed Chimichurri…or Bust!

Chickweed Chimichurri. Sounds like an Arizona ghost town. In fact, it’s a zesty sauce, and last week it seemed like everywhere I turned I was hearing oohs and aahs about this magnificent harbinger of summer. Chalk that up to the viral times we live in. My tweet pal Patricia Eddy of Cook Local blogged about Chickweed Chimichurri and then set the recipe loose on Twitter. Next thing you know half of Seattle is discovering the little-known delights of wild chickweed, yet another nutritious weed thriving on the margins of polite society. A farm called Nash’s Organic Produce in Dungeness, WA, even sells it.

Well I had to have some. I’d seen chickweed plenty of times in more rural locales. It’s a member of the pink family, and though the tiny white flowers are hardly noticeable, they have elegantly cleft petals that are characteristic of the group. Several weeds in different genera go by the name chickweed (there’s common chickweed, mouse-ear chickweed, star chickweed, and so on), and they all share similar traits: opposite leaves, tiny flowers, et-cetera. What I hadn’t realized was they’re edible, even choice, if you use them right. And a chimichurri sause is using them right.

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), chimichurri hails from Argentina, where it was invented by an Irishman named Jimmy McCurry who was fighting for Argentinean independence in the 19th century; the sauce’s name is reputedly a bastardization of his name. Go figure. Anyway, the traditional way to prepare it is with parsley, vinegar, garlic, oil, and hot pepper.

This past week I kept an eye out for chickweed all over the neighborhood—walking to the coffee shop or the bus stop, taking the kids to the park, wherever. If it was invading local farmers’ fields (and being harvested and sold by the more industrious), then it probably had a foothold in the city, I reasoned, and sure enough, right across the street from my friend Kristin’s house I found a lush patch of it growing from an untended rock garden next to the sidewalk. This was common chickweed (Stellaria media). I picked several handfuls and was off to the chimichurri races.

My recipe is based on Patricia’s, which is based on Nash’s, which is based on…oh never mind. You get the idea. Chickweed replaces the parsley and lemon juice replaces the vinegar. My tweak was to add sweet red pepper and shallot.

Tuna Poke with Chickweed Chimichurri


1 packed cup chickweed, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp shallot, fine dice
3 tbsp sweet red pepper, fine dice
1 tbsp hot pepper, de-seeded, fine dice
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt

Tuna Poke and Sushi Rice

1 lb sushi-grade tuna, cut into small (1/2 inch) cubes
2 cups sushi rice
rice vinegar to taste

Makes 4 servings.

Mix chimichurri ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate for an hour or so. Meanwhile make seasoned (i.e. add rice vinegar) sushi rice and cut up a bunch of sushi-grade tuna. Serve a dollop of the raw tuna over a bowl of rice; garnish with the chimichurri. The acidity of the chimichurri immediately begins to act on the tuna, changing the flavor in subtle ways as you eat.

Now, about the taste. A dish like this would seem to cry out for cilantro, but please resist. We all know what that tastes like. The greens in this case are far removed from parsley, cilantro, and other standard ceviche offerings. In a word, they’re wild. The bright green flavor, somewhat tempered by the other ingredients, gives this Tuna Poke a new twist. Enjoy it on its own merits or as a change of pace, preferably outside on a sunny day with a bottle of rosé wine.

A Dandy Time in the Neighborhood

Picking dandelions early Saturday morning in your front yard is the sort of civic activity that gets you noticed. Joggers huff and puff down the sidewalk and momentarily crane sweaty necks to see what you’re up to. Neighbors walking dogs stop to talk in a disguised attempt to figure out what the hell you’re doing now, all the while wondering, Is he finally getting ready to mow his freakin’ junkshow of a lawn? Baby-strollers hurry past—that’s where those crazy people live…

Actually, in all honesty my neighbor Mike, a scientist getting ready to head off to the Arctic for three weeks to continue studying our doom, wandered over with Daisy (the poodle) to see what my daughter was shrieking about. (She’d found a slug.) Mike even plucked a dandy for me and gave it an expert twist to release the golden petals. He’s fairly forgiving of our lack of lawnmowing. Looking at our neighbor’s lawn and then ours, he said, “I always figured that was the fairway and this was the rough.” Rough is right. When I suggested there was something disturbing about the mania for weeding one of the most nutritious plants on the planet, he warily agreed (he’s a climate scientist after all!). People are crazy.

Then I paused for a while to watch a spotted towhee singing in the top of our hawthhorn tree. He’s a randy towhee for sure, and I hope he sticks around to raise a brood.

Anyway, the correct way to harvest dandelion petals is to pick them in the morning while they’re still closed and twist the petals away from the rest of the green flower head. A robust crop of flowers can give you a couple cups’ worth of petals in no time. Just watch out for any unwanted hitchhikers.

It’s peak dandelion petal time in Seattle. This is the time of year I make Dandy Bread, a favorite of the kids. After reading Molly (Orangette) Wizenberg’s wonderful new book, A Homemade Life, I took her advice and bought a simple oven thermometer that hangs from the rack. Loe and behold: Our oven was off by a cool 25 degrees! But I don’t think this is why my recipe posted last year (based on a Peter Gail recipe) seems to be a little too moist, so I’ve edited the original to a “scant 1 1/2 cups milk.” In other words, not quite a cup and a half. Otherwise it’s still easy and delicious, and a great way to make use of those nutrient-packed dandelion heads blooming all over town like an army of self-satisfied Cheshire cats.

Eat Your Yard

Urban foragers need not worry about pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty contaminants if they simply harvest the bounty of their own yards—provided, of course, they themselves don’t apply such nasty contaminants. Today’s salad consists of bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), all picked in a matter of minutes just a few feet from the back door. Oh, and a few salmonberry blossoms to make it purty.

Sure, I could have gone to the hippie mart and picked up some expensive organic greens with French-sounding names. But why burn oil and greenbacks when I can get an equally delicious salad with far greater nutritional value for free right in my own backyard?

Cat’s-ear should be familiar to those of you who don’t insist on a grassy lawn (and probably those who do, much to their chagrin)—it’s the indestructible weed with a seemingly mile-deep taproot that looks a lot like a dandelion but shoots up a thin stalk with a less robust yellow flowerhead. The leaves are dandelion-like except for a profusion of tiny hairs. And it’s quite the succubus, sucking the surrounding lawn dry of water and nutrients. Cat’s-ear is just as nutritious as dandelions, less bitter, and has a longer season. You can harvest leaves in winter in our climate.

Bittercress is another common weed, with many different varieties at the species level. I’m pretty sure ours is Cardamine hirsuta, a European invader. The common name is a misnomer, however, that dates back to Linnaeus. Bittercress is hardly bitter—it’s crunchy and sweet, making it an excellent addition to salads.

Dandelions I’ve already covered in previous posts.

Now one thing: I don’t want to oversell this here salad. Wild greens, like meat, are gamier than what you’re probably used to. The flavor is delicious to some, a little peculiar to others. Try mixing in a few wild plants with a regular domestic green salad you’re first time out of the chute, then work up to an all-wild salad. This isn’t meant to be some sort of exercise in penance.

To my readers in the Puget Sound region, I highly recommend the 2nd edition of Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Wild Plants of Greater Seattle (although it’s most useful if you have some basic plant knowledge). For the rest of you, a little surfing around the web should help you locate similar guides with a regional emphasis. For the last several years I’ve been trying to improve my botanical skills. The best approach is to learn the families and genera; identifying plants to a species level can be quite difficult, and nearly impossible with field guides that cover the entire continent. You’re much better off studying the basics and then working with a local guide.

If you really want to go crazy in the PNW plant kingdom, pick up the bible: Hitchcock & Cronquist, a cool $60 ($48 at the ‘zon); this is the key to pretty much everything that grows around here, but you need to know your taxonomy.

Happy botanizing!

Wilted Dandy Salad

Over the weekend Marty and I took a stroll down to Lake Washington through our neighborhood park. Dandelions were everywhere, big clumps of them, most without buds—in other words, salad greens prime for the picking. If your palate is sensitive to bitter tastes, it’s essential to find dandelions that haven’t budded. We brought home a tote bag’s worth.

I’m not a big fan of warm salads. The other night we had dinner at a new restaurant in Seattle, and though my main was good, I thought the salad of warm spring greens (foisted on me by my dinner companions) was sacrilege. I want my tender young lettuces upright and crisp, not soggy and slumped over.

But there is one warm salad I’ll walk miles for. We’ve been making a version of it with spinach for many years now, thanks to a recipe shanghaied from our friend Kathy. Our stash of dandelions seemed like an obvious fit on this occasion.

Kathy’s Wilted Salad

6 cups dandelion greens (or spinach)
2 cups basil leaves
3-4 oz prosciutto, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Mix the greens in a large salad bowl. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add pinenuts and garlic, stirring occasionally. When pinenuts start to brown, add prosciutto and cook one more minute. Pour contents of skillet over salad greens and toss with parm. Season if necessary.

No Joke Halibut with Braised Dandy Greens & Cannellini

Halibut with Braised Greens
In like a lion and out like a lamb? Not likely. Look, I know Mother Nature is pissed about all the insults we’ve heaped on her, but snow in Seattle on April 1 is not my idea of a funny ha-ha April Fool’s joke. Mostly it’s been icy rain today, but for a few minutes everything slowed down like a phonograph on half-speed and the flakes started accumulating on my shoulders—while I was gathering dandelion leaves no less!

I guess this means we’ll have a long season for early spring greens. Phil the groundhog must be in exile.

Dandelion GreensIn any event, I got enough of the green stuff to offset the audacity of the white stuff. The dandelions poking through the pavers of my back terrace are just right for the plucking: big rosettes of leaves without buds (yet).

I braised a handful of the dandelion greens in white wine (1/4 cup) and chicken stock (1/2 cup) with some chopped garlic for 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile in a pot I combined a cup of cooked cannellini beans with half a diced tomato and its juice plus a half cup of chicken stock, then seasoned with a healthy sprig each of fresh thyme and oregano, along with salt and pepper; this I simmered for 15 minutes as well. The beans got ladled onto a warm plate and then topped with the greens; a pan-fried piece of halibut (not caught by me, alas) lorded it over the veggies, drizzled with a quick beurre blanc of butter, lemon, and wine made with the pan drippings.

Halibut with Braised GreensNot a bad lunch on a miserable day. The tang of the lemon married perfectly with the slightly bitter greens (think braised kale if you haven’t eaten dandelions before), while the flaky fish and creamy cannellini beans worked together with their textural counterpoints. This is an easy meal I’ll be eating again. By the way, the amounts above make enough for two; figure 1/3 lb of halibut fillet per person.

On a related note, while buying my fish at Mutual, I noticed they had monkfish for sale. I asked the manager about the provenance of the fish (since Seafood Watch says it’s one to avoid because of harmful bottom-trawling techniques), and he was able to confirm that it was hook-and-line caught. This is good news for lovers of the “poorman’s lobster,” such as myself and We Are Never Full. I think it’s important that all of us who love food (and the planet, by extension) should continue to ask these questions of our fishmongers and restaurateurs. We’re all in this together. Good on Mutual for doing the right thing.

Halibut with Braised Greens

Blackberry Cobbler

It’s blackberry time. Initially we were dismayed to discover the city had whacked a few of our favorite nearby berry-picking spots—probably with good reason, because if cockroaches or lichens don’t inherit the earth, Himalayan blackberries will—but it didn’t take long to locate new berry brakes. Foraging right out the back door in a major metropolitan area is one of those activities that reminds you nature bats last.

While the berries may be late, like everything else this summer, they aren’t lacking in robustness (can’t say the same about this year’s tomato crop). The first flush always has some of the biggest specimens on display, usually high and out of reach, though we still had plenty of plump, juicy monsters at kid level. I like to pick a percentage of less ripened berries as well, as you can see in the image at right; they hold their form nicely in a pie or cobbler and add a touch of color variation.

I’m always amazed that more urban dwellers aren’t doing this. The berries are there for the taking! Joggers, power-walkers, and bikers zipped right on by. A few curious pedestrians stopped to see what the fuss was, and even one brave father let his son pick a few berries next to us before hurrying him along the path. Note to parents: Kids love berries! They love to pick ’em themselves. They love blackberry cobbler too. And they don’t gripe about how much butter goes into a cobbler, not like their maladjusted elders…

Butter-Worshiper’s Blackberry Cobbler

Over the years we’ve tried any number of different cobbler recipes, and yet I always find myself returning to the sort of presentation you might find in a small-town diner. If you could care less how many grams of fat are in your dessert (it’s dessert for crissakes!), this is for you. (Codified by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything.)

4-5 cups blackberries
1 cup sugar
8 tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick), cold and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss berries with half the sugar and spread in greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining sugar in bowl. Mix in cold butter pieces with a pastry blender until well blended. By hand, beat in egg and vanilla.

3. Drop mixture on fruit by the spoonful; do not spread. Bake until topping is golden yellow, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Coming Soon: More berry action! Went to Indian Heaven Wilderness this weekend and made off like huckleberry bandits.

Dandy Burger

It’s game time. My boy is scheduled to take the mound today. I deliver the pep talk and then hand him a shot of nourishment. A sports drink? An energy bar? Nah. I hand him a hot Dandy Burger.

Yes, I’ve gone off the deep end. Just when you thought I was done with $&@%# dandelions…

What can I say? I had a fresh crop on the lawn.

This recipe comes from a member of the Forage Ahead Yahoo group. I adapted it slightly, adding more flour and onion plus an egg.

1 cup packed dandelion petals (no greens)
1 cup flour
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp each basil and oregano
1/8 tsp pepper

Mix all ingredients together. The batter will be wet and goopy. Form into patties and pan fry in oil or butter, turning until crisp on both sides. Makes 4-5 very nutritious veggie burgers.

The Mariners bullpen could use a few of these.