Ooh, so now we’re onto the good stuff, the tender nibbles of early spring have given way to more robust vegetables – something you can make a proper meal out of!
On tonight’s menu: A coastal veg trio of steamed sea kale flower shoots, rock samphire and sea beet tops.
Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) shoots are a dream for someone who loves purple sprouting broccoli as much as I do. The flowering stems are tender and sweet, although as with most wild foods, they do have a stronger, more bitter flavour than their cultivated cousins.
Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is perfect as a vegetable at this time of year, with the fresh new growth crisp and not at all fibrous. It has a strong aromatic flavour and is another edible member of the carrot family. It is very different from Marsh Samphire which grows in salt marshes and estuarine mudflats.
Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima) is the wild ancestor of a range of modern beet cultivars (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) including beetroot, sugar beet, chard and mangelwurzels (great word!) which is an animal fodder crop. It makes a great vegetable when the leaves are treated in the same way as you would spinach or chard.
In other wild food adventures I have pickled some Three-Corner Leek and Ribwort Plantain flower buds. Pickling is a great way to preserve foraged goodies and also to completely change the way they can be used. I will most likely use these to add to salads for an extra kick of flavour.
Another of my favourite spring vegetables is Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) shoots. Known as warabi in Japanese it is a popular vegetable in East Asian countries. To make it palatable, it needs to be treated by being blanched in boiling water with bicarbonate of soda and then rinsed and soaked in a couple of changes of cold water with bicarbonate which removes the bitterness and toxins.
Although it doesn’t have much flavour, bracken has a great (to the Japanese palate anyway) slimy texture and is a good absorber of flavours from sauces and other ingedients. One of my favourite ways to serve it is simply cooked, sprinkled with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) with a bit of soy sauce poured over.
Another good Japanese vegetable for this time of year is Burdock (Arctium lappa) root. Known as gobō in Japanese, it has a sweet earthy and mild flavour. The roots should be dug in the first year of growth for this biennial plant as second year roots become very tough and fibrous. The most popular way to prepare gobō is as kinpira gobō, matchstick size pieces of burdock root and carrot are cooked together and flavoured with chilli, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
Finally, a couple of sweet additions to the foraging list. Japanese knotweed shoots are excellent for a very brief period when the young shoots first emerge. They can be cooked and taste very like rhubarb, albeit with a little less acidity. I’ve done crumble, cake and a fool with them this year, no pictures sadly 😦
As an invasive non-native species which spreads very easily and grows from very small vegetative fragments, you do need to be very careful how you pick it and what you do with the trimmings. I tend to thoroughly cook or burn any offcuts before disposing of them. Definitely don’t throw them on the compost!
The last one on the list is a bit of an experiment. I noticed that the pine flowers were laden with pollen and decided to try collecting some. I got quite a lot in a very short time, as you can tell from the videos below! Not sure what I’ll do with it at the moment, I’ve tried adding it to cake batter but the flavour is very delicate so it didn’t really come out. It does look pretty sprinkled on top or on porridge or yoghurt though. Any suggestions welcomed, I have a jarful in the cupboard!