The call of the wild

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The im­pe­tus be­hind for­ag­ing is part epi­curean (think stuffed nas­tur­tium flow­ers, net­tle risotto and wa­ter­cress or dan­de­lion pesto) and part en­vi­ron­men­tal. There’s some­thing in­cred­i­bly pleas­ing about the idea of get­ting some­thing for noth­ing, es­pe­cially when it tastes good, is good for your health, doesn’t in­volve an in­dus­trial food chain and (pro­vided you aren’t tres­pass­ing) is en­tirely le­gal.

Weeds tend to be in­cred­i­bly hardy – that’s why they can sur­vive ev­ery­where — and the char­ac­ter­is­tics that make them pro­lific are also why they tend to be nu­tri­ent-dense and flavour­ful. Many re­quire very lit­tle wa­ter, which is why you can of­ten find edi­ble del­i­ca­cies grow­ing in the cracks of walls and pave­ments.

When it comes to any kind of for­ag­ing ex­pe­di­tion it’s key to make sure you aren’t for­ag­ing from pol­luted places or those that could have been sprayed with her­bi­cide and that you can 100 per cent iden­tify what you’re pick­ing. As a mush­room ex­pert said to me not so long ago: “All mush­rooms are edi­ble, it’s just that some you will only eat once.”

In my own gar­den I think twice when I pick chervil and dou­ble-check that I have the right plant, as its looka­like cousin — the highly poi­sonous hem­lock — pops up ev­ery­where to con­fuse me.

On the other hand, I know I can safely en­joy eat­ing sting­ing net­tles. You might think that, with such a fe­ro­cious sting, net­tles would be poi­sonous but, with a lit­tle cook­ing, this quick-grow­ing prickly plant de­liv­ers a flavour­ful, ten­der tonic of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. In spring and au­tumn, I don a pair of rub­ber gloves to col­lect net­tles while the leaves are young and ten­der (like wa­ter­cress, they get bit­ter in mid-sum­mer). Cooked net­tles have a sweet, earthy taste and I use them as a sub­sti­tute for spinach in risotto, pasta and soup. Put them in a sieve and pour boil­ing wa­ter over them to fully wilt them, or blanch them and then squeeze out all the liq­uid be­fore puree­ing into pesto, may­on­naise and other sauces. You can do the same with young leaves of fat hen (chenopodium al­bum), dan­de­lion (tarax­acum), ox­alis/wood sor­rel (ox­alis stricta) and puha/milk this­tle (sonchus ol­er­aceus).

Learn­ing to iden­tify safe edi­ble weeds will hap­pen quickly with prac­tice. It’s a bit like telling ice­berg let­tuce from cos — you can do it with­out think­ing. And once you have learned to iden­tify them, you’ll start to see your favourite weeds ev­ery­where.


Ready in 10 mins Serves 8 10 hand­fuls wa­ter­cress, stems re­moved Flesh of 3 oranges, cut into seg­ments, pith re­moved 2 large, just-ripe av­o­ca­dos, cut into chunks Cashew mus­tard dress­ing 3 Tbsp al­mond or cashew but­ter 1 tsp seed mus­tard 2 tsp le­mon juice ½ tsp honey A pinch of salt 3-4 Tbsp wa­ter, to thin To make cashew mus­tard dress­ing, mix to­gether all in­gre­di­ents, adding enough wa­ter to form a smooth, creamy sauce. To make the salad, place wa­ter­cress, orange seg­ments and avo­cado chunks in a large bowl. Squeeze the juices from the orange shells over the salad and toss gen­tly to com­bine. Driz­zle with dress­ing and toss gen­tly. Di­vide be­tween 8 serv­ing plates and serve im­me­di­ately.

Annabel says: In sum­mer, wa­ter­cress goes to seed and be­comes coarse and very, very hot, so spring and au­tumn, when it flushes ver­dantly green and ten­der, are the best times to use it. If you can’t get wa­ter­cress you can use any ten­der fresh salad greens for this salad.


Ready in 15 mins + drain­ing Makes about 1½ cups 2 cups nat­u­ral Greek-style yo­ghurt 1 packed cup soft wild herbs, such as net­tles, wa­ter­cress, fat hen or dan­de­lion tips, stems re­moved (use rub­ber gloves to pick net­tles) 12 large mint leaves 1 fat clove gar­lic, crushed ½ tsp finely chopped fen­nel seeds ½ tsp salt A pinch of white pep­per Crack­ers or veg­etable cru­dites, to serve Line a large sieve with a pa­per towel or clean Jiffy cloth and place over a bowl. Pour yo­ghurt into lined sieve and place in fridge overnight to drain. Dis­card liq­uid (or use for bak­ing as with but­ter­milk). Place wild herbs and mint in a large bowl and cover with boil­ing wa­ter, press­ing the leaves into the wa­ter to en­sure they are fully im­mersed (this re­moves the sting from the net­tles). Leave to cool for 5-10 min­utes then drain and squeeze with your hands to re­move all ex­cess mois­ture. Place in a food pro­ces­sor with gar­lic, fen­nel seeds, salt and pep­per and puree un­til smooth. Add drained, thick­ened yo­ghurt and whizz to com­bine. Trans­fer to a serv­ing bowl and chill un­til ready to serve. It will keep for 2-3 days in a cov­ered con­tainer in the fridge.

Annabel says: This pretty, pale green dip is ter­rific with crack­ers or veg­etable bites or used in cu­cum­ber sand­wiches in place of but­ter.


Ready in 20 mins Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main 300-350g free-range chicken liv­ers Salt and ground black pep­per, to taste 2 Tbsp neu­tral oil 4 rash­ers streaky ba­con, cut into 2cm pieces 2 tsp but­ter 3 hand­fuls wa­ter­cress, baby spinach or rocket leaves, stems re­moved Flesh of 2 oranges, cut into seg­ments, pith re­moved 2 Tbsp toasted hazel­nuts, skins rubbed off and nuts coarsely chopped 1 Tbsp le­mon juice A driz­zle of pomegranate mo­lasses Devein and trim the chicken liv­ers, cut­ting any large pieces in half. Sea­son with salt and pep­per. Heat oil in a large, heavy-based fry­ing pan and fry ba­con pieces un­til they start to crisp. Lift out of pan and set aside to cool. Add but­ter to same pan and, when it turns nut-brown, add the sea­soned chicken liv­ers. Cook over high heat, turn­ing once, un­til browned but still lightly pink in the cen­tre (about 2 min­utes on one side and 1 minute on the other). Lift out of pan and set aside with the ba­con. Ar­range spinach, rocket or wa­ter­cress on a serv­ing plat­ter with oranges and chopped hazel­nuts. Add warm ba­con and chicken liv­ers and toss gen­tly. Driz­zle with le­mon juice and pomegranate mo­lasses, sea­son to taste with salt and pep­per and serve im­me­di­ately.

Annabel says: To toast and skin the hazel­nuts for this recipe, place them on a bak­ing tray and bake at 180C for 10 min­utes. Al­low them to cool, then place them in a clean tea towel and rub to loosen the skins. Toasted nuts will keep in a sealed jar for weeks and are a yummy snack as well as be­ing use­ful ad­di­tions to muesli, muffins or cakes.




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