Here at the end of February California's Central Valley is exploding with wonderful food. It's greens time!
|Late Winter, California Delta. Note the leafless grapevines, and the thick patch of greens.|
Many of California's great greens are non-native invasive plants like thistle, mallow, dandelions, and the ubiquitous mustard and radishes, though a couple of natives can be found, as well (miners' lettuce being the most common).
|A couple of different greens here: milk thistle, wild radish and mustard.|
Most of the broad-leaved plants in your local empty lot are edible, though "edible" depends on a number of factors, taste not the least among them. Here are some tips for collecting greens:
First, identify your plants. Yes, Google is good for that as a start, but there are a couple of decent books out there, too -- most notably Charlotte Bringle Clark's "Edible and Useful Plants of California". Around Sacramento, the only dangerous things you might confuse for greens (that I know of) are hemlock and nightshade, so definitely learn how to identify them.
Second, know your picking spots. While many forage plants are left alone, greens often get sprayed as vile pests. If the flora has unnatural colors, or the habitat has unnaturally geometric patterns (say, a straight line of wilted plants), you can be pretty sure that they've been sprayed. Also, the closest edges of roads tend to get pollution and spraying, and are often yellowed or brown, and stunted.
|Mustard plant, right up against the road... probably not a plant to forage. (Photo credit to my five year old daughter.)|
Now that you've gone around your neighborhood and noticed all the mustard, what next? Taste it. Many plants have different flavors, depending on their location, soil, Sun, and air. I have found mustard plants that would challenge even horseradish for wonderful pungency, and others that tasted a little bit blander than grass. Also, don't pick old plants. An old "green" is one that has flowered at some point in its life, and size doesn't determine age. If the plants are just about to flower, you've hit the greens jackpot. Pick those tops (Hank calls 'em wild broccoli raab) as well as the leaves. Make sure that what you are picking is worth picking by eating a bit of it. (If you are worried about a little dirt, then why are you out here picking wild stuff?!!) If it's good, load up.
When picking, don't pick the parts you'll just cut off later, anyway. Pick the leaf up to the point where the stem starts to get tough.
I've found that about 3/4th's-ful of a paper bag is good for our family of four. Remember, greens often cook down - lose volume - and that they wilt quickly. Cook them the same day and freeze them if you must, or eat them then and there or within the next couple of days.
Greens are found in various plant families. In California's Central Valley, the most common are probably wild mustard (Brassica campestris) and radish and wild radish (Raphanus sativa, R. raphanistrum), both in the family Brassicaceae, a very edible family. Size varies greatly, but the best foraging plants will be 18" to three feet tall, with big, broad leaves.
Cook wild greens like you would domestic greens, and realize that if you bought dandelions or mustard, you probably could have picked their equivalents for free. Traditionally, greens are boiled with a ham hock or smoked neck bones, although if you want a vegetarian version, use vegetable bouillon and smoked salt. Saute' an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic in butter or oil for a few minutes, then add the washed and cut greens, stirring them all together. Add a cup or so of stock or water, add the bones if using them, (If you like spice, add red pepper flakes now, too) and cook, covered, for 15-20 minutes.
A tip for quicker preparation: If you picked them without the tough stems, you've won half the battle. When washing them, grab a few leaves at a time, run them in water, then roll them up lengthwise and squeeze the water out of them. Keep them rolled and cut them in 1/2" strips starting from the top.