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Monday, February 18, 2013

California Gourmet: Native Plants for Salads and Cooked Greens

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) add color and succulence to a spring salad

California native plants make wonderful additions to the home garden.  They add color and fragrance.  They provide habitat for birds, insects and other creatures.  And they can supply us with food.  Beginning in late winter, California native plants provide a range of leafy greens that can be used raw or cooked.   You might want to consider planting some for their food value alone.

Growing your own food has lots to recommend it.  It’s fun and good exercise for the whole family.  You can pick foods at the ‘peak of freshness’ and control their growing conditions (for example, use of pesticides).   And you can grow the foods you like – including heirloom varieties that are particularly flavorful.   California native plants have flavors that are uniquely their own.  Use them in cooking and your friends and family will marvel!

California native plants produce a wide variety of edible products including fruits, seeds, edible roots and leafy greens.   It’s extremely important to know which plants are edible – and which will make you sick or even worse.   One advantage of growing native food plants is that you know you are using an edible plant rather than a toxic look-alike.   

It’s also important to know which parts are edible, when to pick and how to prepare them.    That’s where Mother Nature’s California Gourmet series comes in.  Our first postings covered picking and cooking with elderberries (August 2012).  We’ll continue to discuss native edibles as food plants ripen in Mother Nature’s Backyard.

Miner's Lettuce leaves are sometimes ready to pick in January
 or February
Some of the earliest native spring greens are provided by plants usually thought of as annual wildflowers.   Our Plant of the Month (February 2013), Miner’s Lettuce, is one such plant.  Many – but not all – of the spring annual greens  have mild flavors.   These include Miner’s Lettuce, the various Sun-cups (Camissonia species), Seep Monkeyflower and the native Clovers (Trifolium species).  For a complete list of edible native greens plants see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/gourmet-greenslist.   You might also want to read our January 2013 posting on ‘Growing Annual Wildflowers’.

Annual greens should be harvested before the plant begins to flower.   Many plants change dramatically when they reach the flowering stage,  producing chemicals to deter insects and others from eating them.  This often translates into bitter-tasting greens.    So pick greens before flowering and wash them as you would any leafy green vegetable.  Then use them raw in salads, sandwiches, tacos, etc.   You can use the mild native greens in any recipe that calls for uncooked spinach or lettuce.   Taste them before you use them.  If they are too mild for your taste, pair them with more flavorful greens or seasonings. We’ll suggest some recipes next month (March 2013).

Some native greens, particularly the later-blooming annuals (like Red Maids - Calandrinia ciliata) and the perennials are a bit more flavorful.  Many people describe them as piquant,  in the same way that arugula is tart/sour/spicy.   There’s a good reason why native greens like the Docks (Rumex species), native Oxalis, native Limonium, Heucheras (alum roots) and other leafy greens have strong flavors.  Most produce oxalic acid – the same chemical that makes rhubarb taste like rhubarb.   Some of the stonger-tasting native greens owe their unique flavor to another group of chemicals – the tannins.  Plants that make these two types of chemicals taste better – and are better for you – if cooked before they are eaten.  

When using the stronger-flavored greens, taste a bit of the leaf before using.  If it’s quite tart or bitter you may want to cook it in several changes of water before using in a recipe.  This will do two things: 1) break down some the bitter chemicals (through cooking/heat) and 2) remove some of the water-soluble chemicals in the change of water.   Once again, it’s important to pick young leaves and stems prior to flowering as levels of these chemicals are lower in the young greens.   If the leaves are milder tasting you can just steam, sauté, microwave or bake the greens and use in recipes featuring cooked greens.

If you have gout, rheumatoid arthritis or are prone to kidney stones you should take care to not consume much of the oxalic acid-containing greens (as well as cooked rhubarb and uncooked spinach, beet greens, chard and other foods high in oxalic acid).      Oxalic acid breaks down during cooking, so it doesn’t cause a problem for many of us.    But if you have gout, arthritis or have had kidney stones (or these conditions run in your family) heed this caution and limit your intake. 

 It’s always prudent to eat a balanced diet and not eat too much of a single type of food.   This is true for common garden fruits and vegetables as well as the natives.  When trying a new food, start out by eating a small amount to see if it agrees with you.     That’s just being sensible when eating something new.

We’ll post some great recipes for raw and cooked greens next month (March 2013).  To learn more about California native edible greens see: 

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