We've been having a fair spat of spring-ish weather that has me just beginning to crave fresh greens again after a winter of cooked, cooked, cooked, and more cooked foods. My body has a strong opinion of when I should and shouldn't be eating raw foods. Heavy on the fresh salads all spring through summer but as fall approaches I start to get that (somewhat child-like) one-more-salad-and-I'll-barf attitude. It's usually a few of my favorite herbs that start the new year up again - as I walk about town I see the chickweed that has been flourishing in our crisp but mild winter weather, little dandelion crowns are just starting to appear here and there, and even the arugula and mustard greens in my abandoned garden bed are looking peppy and edible once again.
Sweet, mild, juicy chickweed (Stellaria media) is an easy herb to find all winter long in our region. It takes off in the cool crispness of fall and winter, growing in pillowy patches out of direct and prolonged sunlight. In the grass underneath lone-standing trees, against the North and East sides of buildings, anywhere regularly shaded with good air flow and clear ground. She is a lady who likes to preserve her complexion (and moisture) by keeping out of the sun.
Dandelion, sweet rascally dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The little baby crowns are just so damn cute. I love dandelion all year round (she is perhaps my best herb friend), but this is the time to harvest her if you want greens for eating fresh, as the young spring leaves are less bitter than any other time of year. You know where to find dandelion, she's never very far from us. Choose crowns that look appetizing, vibrant green, tender flesh, free of blemishes. Toothy and sassy.
Chickweed and dandelion are herbs with both medicinal and nutritional qualities, you could say the nutrition is the medicine and the medicine is the nutrition. They're gentle and safe for regular or prolonged consumption as food, but can also be made into stronger medicines through tincturing and other techniques. I'm only going to discuss their food uses and nutritional attributes here, but I encourage you to investigate further.
Energetically, dandies are cooling and drying; perhaps their most distinct and important characteristic is their bitterness. Bitter is not a well loved flavor in our modern culture but it is vital to our health - the bitter taste stimulates the production of bile thus jump starting our digestive processes leading to better digestion of foods and absorption of nutrients. Dandies are a good source of vitamins A, C, and B, and minerals like potassium, calcium, and iron.
Chickweed possesses moist cooling energetics and is renowned for it's vulnerary (wound healing) action inside and out. The saponins in chickweed contribute to her emulsifying action, which improves nutrient absorption and waste elimination by making cell walls and membranes more permeable. She promotes movement and flow. She is a good source of iron, magnesium, silicon, zinc, calcium, chlorophyll, potassium and perhaps surprisingly protein.
Both plants can be eaten fresh in salads (I usually toss them with a mix of greens) or cooked. Chickweed has an almost alfalfa sprout like texture - so put it in a sandwich or pita, or wherever else you eat sprouts (pho, maybe?!). Adding them to smoothies seems like an obvious choice. You can spread greens over a cooked pizza or puree them in a pesto like fashion to enjoy with pasta.
If you're like me, you might prefer to ease into salad territory by first adding fresh greens to warm or cooked foods. For example! I LOVE to mix these fresh greens with an equal portion of rice and beans, then top it with salsa and a fried egg. For my work week lunches I'll whip up a large batch of wild rice and cooked veggies (kale, sweet potato, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, etc) and also include fresh or wilted dandies and chickweed. Dandelion greens are just DIVINE wilted in hot ramen broth (this is a great way to serve the more bitter fall and winter greens), and why not go for a savory steel cut oatmeal with wilted greens, goat cheese, and egg?
If you'd like to go out and forage for these herbs I highly recommend getting your hands on a local field guide or wildcrafting handbook so you can make a positive ID. These two have a few easy to learn characteristics that make them great for beginning foragers. Susun Weed's Healing Wise is a great place to start, and has so much information about these and several other common and friendly herbs. Happy herbing!
*Nutritional info reference: Healing Wise by Susun Weed
** This article also appeared in POSEURS Issue #11, February 2015