Monday, October 4, 2010

Wild Artichokes - Weed to Dinner Table

I love foraging invasive species.

Non-native plants come with much less pressure to figure out whether you're sustainably harvesting the plants and maintaining a viable population.  For the invasives, you actively don't want to maintain a viable population. You can go bananas.

A great example of a tasty invasive species is the thistle or cardoon, Cynara cardunculus,  a wild relative of the artichoke.  This is a gorgeous, architectural plant that looks as if it's arrayed for battle in some futuristic universe – it's covered with grey-green spikes, and topped with a showy electric blue flower.

Almost every part of this plant is edible, so it needs the protection its spikes provide. I am told that the inner stems are like tender stalks of celery, but I was more focused on the unopened flower buds – which are very similar to artichokes with the addition of mean-looking thorns on the tip of each leaf.

You have to catch these early, before they've started to turn into flowers.  Cut them off at the base of the bud.  You may want to wear gloves, but honestly the thorns are easy to avoid if you just grip the stem.

You can steam them just like artichokes.  They're smaller than commercial artichokes, but there are so many of these around in marginal spaces – open fields, by the sides of roads, in empty lots – that it's easy to gather enough for a nice appetizer.  I would not recommend harvesting these artichokes from post-industrial lots or spaces which might have contaminated soil, because heavy metals can be taken up into the leaves of plants. 

My wild artichokes were harvested from an open field outside of the city, so I wasn't worried. We served them with a melted butter & garlic dipping sauce, and I was impressed. They were actually sweeter than the commercial artichokes I've had recently, and although much smaller, I was surprised by the amount of edible tender meat. 

Many thanks to Feral Kevin for teaching me about these delicious plants!  If you want to learn more about foraging, I recommend his foraging walks, which happen almost every weekend.  Here's a video he made about collecting and cooking wild artichokes.

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