Saturday, April 28, 2007

Triumph of the Chickweed

Chickweed, or stellaria media, normally is the bane of the vegetable garden. It grows in great creeping matts, insinuating itself into the beds, twining itself around the plants we are trying to grow for food.

This time of year, chickweed is just beginning to bloom and form seeds here in the District of Columbia. So by all means, get rid of it wherever you find it, right?

Well, not so fast. Yes, we are pulling it up everywhere we see it, or cutting it down with the mower. We definitely do not want it going to seed. But did you know that chickweed is edible?

Chickweed is high in vitamin C, also in magnesium, potassium and calcium. It's sold in tablet form as an herbal supplement. But that is hardly my point. What I'm trying to get at is, although I would not go around harvesting chickweed to serve for dinner, I am using great gobs of it for the lunch I am preparing for approximately 30 people attending Day 2 of our D.C. Schoolyard Greening teacher's clinic, taking place today at the Washington Youth Garden.

That's right, I am serving a weed for lunch.

I recently acquired a copy of The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, by Sandor Ellix Katz. He's the fellow that wrote the book about wild fermentation that I am so often quoting when making sauerkraut. The more recent volume is about various food movements, such as the raw milk movement, community supported agriculture, seed saving, to name a few.

Around page 34, Katz pauses to compose an ode to chickweed, which he apparently devours by the fistful when he's out in the garden. Sounds a bit primitive, I agree. But he also gives a perfectly reasonable recipe for turning said weed into a pesto.

So I thought, why not?

I gathered up a bag full of chickweed from the garden, making my vegetable beds very happy. I washed it a couple of times, picking out stray bits of this and that. I then committed a horrible sin: I ran several cups full of chickweed through the food processor.

Sorry, but I was in a hurry. I violated all my personal rules about making sauces and pestos in an actual mortar and pesto. So sue me.

I removed the chickweed and dropped about five cloves of garlic into the processor. Then perhaps 1 1/2 cups of walnuts. Then back in went the chickweed and maybe 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil drizzled in while the machine was running. Then I added, oh, about 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese and whipped that in. And maybe 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

So it has all the look and feel of a real pesto, this chickweed concoction. My wife wasn't so very enthusiastic about it. But for me it truely is a revelation.

But wait--we're not done. I had a container of Latin crema, or sour cream, in the fridge, so I added that, maybe 1/2 cup. Now the pesto rose to glorious heights. I will be mixing it with a pasta salad of penne, grilled chicken, red onion, artichoke hearts and capers.

Sounds pretty delicious and springlike, no?

The rest of the menu cosists of:

A whole wheat fussili pasta salad primavera with asparagus, carrots, peas and baby lettuces out of our garden.

A "Caesar" salad of lettuces that overwintered in the garden, with homemade croutons.

Frittata with collards and kale harvested from the garden, along with goat cheese and garlic chives.

We had originally hoped to make this meal around locally grown produce. Then we decided it was too early in the year to find local produce. But lookey here: Half of this meal is made with ingredients out of my own garden.

Who knew?


Christa said...

I had read recently that chickweed is edible, so it's neat to see someone actually trying it out. What did it taste like?

I know that purslane is an edible weed, too. I've seen various bloggers try it out in recipes. I haven't tried any, though. I think it's just challenging to get over the mental hurdle associated with eating weeds.

Great Big Veg Challenge said...

Looks good - just a bit industrial!

We are on chicory at the moment - thought you might like to know that the Daily Telegraph, one of Britain's biggest newspapers has done a big colour spread on our Great Big Veg Challenge. Lots of excitment for Freddie!

cookiecrumb said...

Who knew? Not I, so thanks for the guidance (and the recipe).
I'd like to address this to Christa: Just because it's called a "weed" doesn't mean it's poisonous or inedible. It only means gardeners don't want them messing with the rose bushes. Free food!

Ed Bruske said...

Thanks so much for visiting, everyone.

Christa, purslane is very edible but an acquired taste, I think. I like it best raw as it gets a bit slippery when cooked. Purslane is as much about texture--succulent--as it is about taste--a little soapy.

Charlotte, this must be a very proud moment for you. Your blog is a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed. Every parent wants to know how they can get their kids to eat good food, and many of these vegetables are too little explored by the average public.
Chickweed is much more benign. A bit grassy, but loaded with vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium. It's sold in pill form as a supplement in health food stores.

Cookiecrumb, just about anything tastes good with crema in it. So this pesto definitely had that fermented dairy tang to go along with the garlic and the parmesan. The chickweed is not the star attrection, but it definitely is a conversation starter.

Liz said...

We never get to eat any chickweed because it's a favorite of our ducks. But we eat more than our fair share of another "weed": lamb's quarters. It's in the spinach family and makes a lovely cooked green.

A weed is just a plant that's out of place. :)

Ed Bruske said...

Thanks for the tip on lamb's quarters, Liz. You prompted me to jump right over to Amazon and order a copy of a field guide to wild edibles. Maybe we will start one of those tours here in the District of Columbia where we walk people around and show them what they can eat growing right out of the cracks in the sidewalk.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

But what does it taste like? Or with all that garlic, didn't it matter. :)

Ed Bruske said...

Christine, I'm so glad you asked. You and my wife apparently are on the same wavelenght, because she thought the chickweed pesto was a bit too garlicky, but it did have a day to mellow in the refrigerator.

For all its vitamins an minerals, chickweed is pretty begign tasting, a little grassy, but none of the distinctive flavor of basil. Still, it does have that incredibly vibrant green color. The garlic and parmesan do give it a boost, and the addition of the Latin crema (you could use creme fraiche, or sour cream thinned with buttermilk)adds a nice fermented tanginess.

Diva said...

Ed, I am also guilty of making pesto out of anything!

one of ny chef friends here in Italy gave me a great sage pesto, with walnuts and lemon zest!
a keeper!

Ed Bruske said...

First, Diva, you have a wonderful blog. It's like being present at the creation--or food creation--to see all those terrific ingredients in their natural setting and served up in their proper season. Plus, I am just now finding out that you co-produce the Whole Hog blog with Kate Hill. Between the two of you, I feel like I have the waterfront covered.

I'm usually a purist when it comes to pesto. But I bent the rules for chickweed because I am fascinated by the food growing wild all around us, especially in the middle of the city. What I do think is important but rarely stressed with pesto is the way flavor oils are released when the pesto is made with an actual mortar and pestle, as opposed to an electric machine. There's no comparison, really. And I am intrigued by the idea of a sage pesto. With a nice, fat pork loin, perhaps, turned on a spit over grape vine embers?

Dream on...