One for the Herbivores

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Carnivorous environmentalists can help fight invasive species by dining on Asian carp, but there’s no reason herbivores can’t join in the fun: Writing for The Art of Eating (Spring 2010), Melissa Pasanen recounts her foraging excursions with Les Hook and Nova Kim, a pair of Vermont-based wild-foods experts who have made an ethos of eating interlopers.

“If you don’t like an invasive species, then use it out of existence instead of killing it or poisoning it,” Kim told Pasanen. “We shouldn’t be at war with plants.”

Lately Hook and Kim have been pushing “red asparagus” on their clients, including professional chefs and home cooks enrolled in a wild-foods subscription scheme. “It’s Japanese knotweed,” Pasanen explains, “an invasive species that threatens to choke out native plants along river and stream banks.” The plant, when it is young, sends up edible shoots that look like pink asparagus. The taste, unfortunately, is salvageable only when it is cloaked with sugar or fat. It’s “the bastard child of rhubarb and okra,” Pasanen writes.

There are plenty of tasty plants, however, from the hottentot fig, which is invasive in coastal California and makes for zesty pickles, to wild “weed” greens like lamb’s quarter, purslane, sorrel, and the humble dandelion. Even kudzu, “the vine that ate the South,” has starchy, tuberous roots, and its flowers can be made into a grapey jelly.

Before partaking of wild plants, would-be environmental avengers need to make an absolutely positive ID, so a good guide is critical. We’ve been impressed with Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer’s follow-up to his classic Forager’s Harvest. The guide to “identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants” was released in April from Forager’s Harvest Press.

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