Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

At the height of summer, on long days of working and playing outside, nothing is better than a refreshing garden-fresh salad. The lemon cucumbers that have been ripening back-to-back on our vines are deserving of better than a humble supporting role. We’ve enjoyed plenty sliced with a pinch of salt.

As a basis of a more substantial dish, perfect for al fresco lunch, I mix the beautiful slices with corn, fresh herbs, feta, and succulent wild greens. Dressed only lightly with extra virgin olive oil, the flavors balance and compliment one another wonderfully– salt from the feta, sweetness from the corn, and light citrus from the purslane.

I’ve used mint and basil together since enjoying the best-ever caprese salad in a restaurant, and now my tomatoes are paired more often with mint than the latter. We also use the abundant herb in myriad savory dishes that I would have once thought strange, since mint always meant “sweet” to me– an association I suspect an unfortunately large population of Americans share. I only urge you to branch out! Zucchini and mint are a match made in heaven. And there’s always mint wine.

Here I use grapefruit mint, my favorite variety. It has the power and aroma to turn a cold glass of water into a refreshing summer mocktail with a simple muddled leaf.

As for the purslane and oxeye daisies: both are exceptionally common, easily identified wild plants, though of course I encourage research before foraging for food. Both are used medicinally and are delicious greens.

While the beautiful seas of daisies have dried on Northwest hillsides, lush basal leaves continue to sprout everywhere. (Check your garden!) Their flavor is pleasantly herbal and mild. Baby arugula would make a stronger-flavored domesticated stand-in, and wild amaranth leaves would be nice as well.

Purslane especially likes inhospitable cracks in the sidewalk and gravel driveways, so just look down. It’s an unassuming succulent with a cucumber-citrus flavor. More on this lovely wild snack from Grow a Good LifeAttainable Sustainable, and Little Big Harvest. Sliced lemon verbena or lemon mint might stand in adequately, though without the cool crispness than purslane offers.

Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

Quantities are notably omitted. Use a handful of each ingredient as you prefer.

Cucumbers, preferably lemon variety, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Steamed corn, cut from the cob

Feta cheese, crumbled

Purslane, tips and leaves

Oxeye daisy, basal leaves

Basil leaves, thinly sliced

Mint leaves, such varieties as grapefruit, apple, or spearmint, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil (very little)

Salt (very little)

Black pepper (very little)

For garnish: basil or mint sprigs, oxeye daisy flowers, borage flowers, or nasturtium.

Toss all ingredients together, then arrange in shallow salad bowls and add garnishes, all of which above are edible and delicious.

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Chinese Chicken Salad with Bitter Greens

In the summer heat, we opt for cold meals and barbecue as much as possible. This salad has been one of our go-to’s in rotation, ready to be grabbed out of the fridge and tossed with a bit of the delectable dressing. It’s a simple use for a small amount of leftover chicken, which in our house usually means white meat, since the dark gets eaten first.

It’s an old classic, but with a few twists to the dressing, it gains the umami and punch to stand up perfectly to bitter greens. Of course, for me, that means heading to the hillside for dandelion, plantain, and other wild greens. I still like to include napa cabbage for the refreshing crunch, although that could be sourced from other cabbages or thinly sliced kale. I mix it up.

This dressing is extremely versatile, and the salad can easily be assembled ahead for a nice picnic at the lake, or just to keep the kitchen cool on one of these blistering days.

Oh and one last thing: I don’t miss the chicken when I go without. I usually just throw in a few extra veggies.

Chinese Chicken Salad with Bitter Greens

Note: If preparing chicken for this salad, rather than simply using leftovers, I marinate the raw breasts or thighs in soy sauce and the ginger peel for one hour before grilling.

1/2 cup neutral oil, such as vegetable or avocado

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 T ginger, peeled and minced (see note above)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1-1/2 T cilantro minced, plus 1/2 cup loosely chopped

2 T sesame seeds, toasted and divided

2 T brown sugar

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded into bite-sized pieces (see note above)

1 small napa cabbage, sliced cross-wise 1/3-inch-wide strips

2 big handfuls of dandelion greens, tough ends removed, sliced into 1-inch-wide strips

3 radishes, slivered

1/2 cup snow peas, sliced into bite-sized pieces

1/3 cup scallions, sliced

1/3 cup chow mein

1/4 cup sliced almonds

At least an hour before the meal, combine the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, minced cilantro, 1 teaspoon of the sesame seeds, and the sugar in a small bowl and whisk briskly for 15 seconds. Set aside, stirring occasionally as you prepare the rest of the meal.

Grill the chicken according to the note above, if desired.

Layer the remaining ingredients in a large serving bowl, sprinkling the sesame seeds over the top. To allow for crisp, enjoyable leftovers, allow each person to dress their own salad. Otherwise, toss well and serve.

Making Mustard From Wild Seed

When the mustard flowers were flush and the fields bright yellow, we spared several patches when mowing for the benefit of the bees and butterflies. Then as the petals dropped and the plants grew brown and brittle, I decided to collect their seed and make the beloved condiment. My husband suggested making mustard a while back, and my retort was that mustard seed is more expensive than Grey Poupon! Not so with the gregarious wild stuff, though, so for the significant input of time, we yielded a worthy product. This mustard has the sweet, smooth flavor of dijon with the mouthy crunch of wholegrain brown. DSC02263 DSC02268 I gathered the dried stalks and crushed them over a flour sack towel to extract the dark brown and black seeds. Then I threshed and winnowed– the traditional practice of popping the seeds from their hulls and tossing into the air to allow the breeze to carry off the lighter casings. DSC02274 I continued to sift out brown matter over time, and for several weeks the jarful of seed sat and eventually made the trip with us to our new home. Finally, last week, I pickled the seed in vinegar and wine, then ground them into the final product. Overall, this project was time-consuming but pleasant, and the results were better than expected. To highlight its flavor with a celebratory meal, we rubbed a pork shoulder with mustard, brown sugar, and seasonings, then smoked it all afternoon. It sealed the success on another wild food project. Homemade Mustard 1-1/2 cups mustard seed 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar 1 t salt 1 t sugar Combine all ingredients in a jar and soak for a week in a cool, dark place. Then grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, including as much liquid as desired for consistency. Then refrigerate.

Pickled Cat’s Ear Buds

The population of edible plants growing from our driveway down to the creek and up the hillside is astounding and exciting– beyond the salad greens we eat almost daily to include vegetables for roasting and stir-frying, fermenting and pickling.

I have been topping our daily wild salads with dandelion buds for months, split in half to reveal their bright petal heart. Munched just atop the green leafy halo, they are sweet and palatable straight from the plant.

But as dandelion season wanes and now with an overabundance of cat’s ear shooting skyward, I knew I wanted to utilize them in a way that would aptly tame their bitterness. So I pickled a jarful. Among them I added the last of the dandelion buds as well as clusters of sow thistle and spiny sow thistle buds, all significantly less bitter than cat’s ear.

When gathering, keep in mind that all secrete a staining white sap, but cat’s ear is worst of all and will leave skin and clothing marked brown indefinitely.

Cat’s ear is widely mistaken for dandelion because their leaf rosettes are rather similarly shaped and their bright-yellow blossoms are indistinguishable from a distance (to the unfamiliar). Dandelion flowers tend not to stand as tall, nor are its leaves markedly furry as are cat’s ear. Both, however, vary greatly in their leaf-shape and size. Cat’s ear buds lack dandelion’s ring of small leaves just above the top of the stem.

Cat’s ear leaves on the left; dandelion leaves on the right for comparison.

   

The good news is that both are edible and highly nutritious. Cat’s ear buds along with the top several inches of stem are fantastically delicious cooked as asparagus– we roast them briefly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Sow thistle and spiny sow thistle plants, for their due mention, are edible but unappetizing by appearance: one is armored with long spikes; the other is limp and milky. Their tiny drum-shaped buds, though, show the signs of palatability. They may be picked individually or in clusters.

Another important note for gathering edible wild buds: All of the above flowers open and then close into a bud form.  Only the pre-flowering stage is worth eating as the latter is turning to seed. Pick only tightly closed, blunt buds with no tip of yellow or browned petal clusters emerging at the end.

Pickled Wild Buds

This pickle yields a rainbow of flavors, from tangy to sweet to bitter at the end. The bitterness wanes over time, so if they are too bitter for your taste, let them brine for longer in the fridge. They are a nutritious snack and zippy addition to salads and sandwiches.

1-1/2 cups wild buds

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup water

2 T sugar or honey

1 T salt

10 whole black peppercorns

10 coriander seeds

1 dried hot chili, such as Thai chili — or — 1 t red chili flakes

3 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

1 bay leaf

Rinse the buds in a colander to remove brown sap stain and any bugs. Drain. Then place in a clean canning jar.

Combine all other ingredients in a small saucepan and heat to a low simmer. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off immediately and cool to just-warm. Pour the contents over the buds and cool to room temperature. Seal with a lid (canning is not necessary). Place in the refrigerator for at least one week.

More wild food recipes for the weeds in your yard:

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Wild Greens with Polenta and Chutney Vinaigrette (And a Note on Foraging)

Sauteed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

Eating Mustard Flowers

Meadow and Brown Field Mushrooms

Firsts Among Fungi

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

The Nature of Perspective

We are blessed with the most kind, generous neighbors here. They’ve welcomed us in with offerings of all sorts– moral support, most invaluably– including history and context of the area and its people. Those we’ve met have driven by the place for decades, and all have deeply lamented the recent clear-cut of the long-preserved forest. Part of that forestland is ours.

It’s not contrived optimism to say that I see it differently. Of course I wish the forest were intact. I can imagine, partly by exploring neighboring woodlands, the old-growth trees and native fauna. I can envision the cool dampness, the moss and myriad mushrooms. I know that it was majestic.

But: I consider our perspective a unique boon in that what we see now is not only an incredible improvement on the gnarled hillside we met last summer; it’s an awakening. The emerging vegetation would not have been part of the forest floor. We get to enjoy a different, ever-expanding beauty.

The enmeshed branches of too-small cut timber are increasingly consumed by vine maples, wild cherry, and hazelnut trees. The deer trails through berry brambles– which will soon yield abundant delicious fruit– are lined with heady flowering clover and pineapple weed. The meadows are strewn with daisies, red clover, sky-blue forget-me-nots, and innumerable other wildflowers.

There are unfurling ferns, columbine, and more wild food than I could list, but much of which we’ve been collecting, eating, and cooking with daily. Most of the plants, in fact, are edible, from the wild strawberries to the thistles.

The ugly sporadic burn piles host the most coveted of fungi.

This story would be a different one if the forest were still here. It would be someone else’s story that we would continue; this one is all our own. Ours is a story of regrowth.

Firsts Among Fungi

My husband and I have spent enough time morel-hunting over the years to border on embarrassing considering we have never found a single one. That is until now, or rather, our last week at our new home. Best or most ironic of all: it was in our own backyard. We had purchased a bagful at the Eugene farmer’s market the morning before.

We actually found two, both in burn pits. I had the highest hopes for finding morels among the charred debris and across the snarled land that was logged last year, both inviting conditions for the delicious mushrooms. I’m hoping that there will be many more in two weeks as people have been reporting their finds all over the Willamette Valley and at higher elevations.

My husband fried them up– along with our market specimens– in a bit of butter, and the flavor was unparalleled.

My daughter also picked her first mushrooms on that trip: dozens of puffballs scattered across a sunny field. She’s been with me as I’ve collected meadow and brown field mushrooms plenty of times, but these little white delights were all hers. Like a true fungophile in the making, she drank in their mellow mushroomy scent.

On a short hike up the road we also came across gatherings of gregarious Agrocybe praecox, which are pretty and interesting, but whose edibility is, according to David Arora, “mediocre at best; disgusting at worst.” We took enough for identification but let the rest be.

All those hours in the woods and meadows of the Pacific Northwest are never wasted, even when the disappointment over an empty bag is at its worst. I’m notorious for traversing the most majestic of landscapes with my back hunched and my eyes trained intently on the ground. The forest floors have so much to offer– orchids, trillium, violets; beautiful but toxic salamanders; and on a good day, the most intriguing of wild mushrooms.

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Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

As the hillsides flare yellow with mustard flowers, we enjoy the delicious wild bounty of the season in numerous dishes. We saute the leaves with onions and dock. We eat the blossoms fresh and enjoy salad after salad of nutrient-rich wild greens.

Most delicious of all, though, we roast the flower heads with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Just as the buds are about to open or even after a blossom or two has unfurled, the flower heads resemble their near cousin, broccoli. The flavor is like other brassicas with a bit of extra spice, though roasting coaxes out a mellow savoriness. It’s a quick, easy, and spectacularly tasty dish.

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I collect the top several inches of tender stem, picking off the larger leaves to add to a salad or saute. I toss the buds with extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and fresh-ground black pepper and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet. They roast in a 450-degree oven for about five to seven minutes, until the leaves have crisped up and darkened a bit, and the stems are just barely tender.

Served with mashed potatoes, these give my very favorite standard veggies a run for their money.