“Is Mom just pulling weeds or are we going to be eating that stuff?”
My daughters didn’t know I overheard them. They’ve been a bit suspicious ever since I took that class in Edible Wild Greens. So far, I’ve passed off wild mustard greens as spinach, and mallow, in a blended soup, as kale (which is also deemed suspect). I’m still working up to the filaree frittata.
My biggest disappointment has been the lack of miner’s lettuce on the hillside behind my house. But last week, I hiked up the fire road, and there beneath some old oaks where it’s damp and shady, right where it should be growing, I found huge colonies of the lovely round leaves with tiny white flowers growing right out of the centers. Thrilled with my discovery, I carefully picked a handful and brought them back to the kitchen. After washing them and putting them in the salad spinner, I realized I didn’t remember whether you’re supposed to eat the flowers and stems or just the leaves.
I couldn’t find my notes, and then I thought I better check in my book of poisonous plants to see if miner’s lettuce might have a toxic look-alike. Apparently it doesn’t.
The little booklet, “Poisonous Plants of Southern California” is one of the more worthwhile efforts of Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation and a bargain at $4. I don’t even remember where I got it (probably at a native plant sale) or why. Mostly, I suppose, as a curiosity, or to keep from planting poisonous flowers that the grandkids might sample. I’m still appalled that there’s no law requiring nurseries to label deadly poisonous ornamentals like oleander.
Now, I certainly never dreamt I would become a forager in my old age. But here I am, sort of a modern day hunter-gatherer, combing the hillsides for edible greens.
The book lists 84 flowers and plants (some wild, some domestic) with exceptionally good line drawings of each, and tells which parts are toxic and what symptoms they cause. Three mushrooms are included: death cap, green-spored and yellow-stainer. Death cap (and its relative, “destroying-angel”) being the most, well, deadly, causes dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, shock and death. Yikes! I draw the line at mushrooms. Way too scary.
To tell the truth, I was even a little leery about my lettuce find, so I figured I’d try it before serving it to my family. I’ve never forgotten a news item some years ago about a woman who unwittingly killed her children by feeding them boiled greens that included wild tobacco leaves (nicotiana is listed among the most deadly in the book). Anyway, I made myself a small salad and ate it in front of my daughter and told her if I started hallucinating or otherwise acting stranger than usual, to call the Poison Control System hotline (800.876.4766) and tell them I thought I was eating miner’s lettuce. Happily, we didn’t need to do that.
So on Easter Sunday, my daughter hiked up the road with me, and I showed her where the miner’s lettuce was growing, and we picked a bunch for our dinner salad. It had grown six inches in a week and there were huge patches of it all over the place. My daughter said it was nice to know it was there in case things got tough and we needed to live off the land. There’s nothing like a war to bring out the survivalist in us.
While we were up there, we were stunned by the abundance of wildflowers: lupine (which I learned from the book is poisonous, who knew?), poppies, Indian paintbrush, a bright blue cup-shaped flower, tall golden flowers with orange centers, at least four different yellows, violet puff balls on long stems, a tiny ground-hugging pink, and, yes, some deadly nightshade, its pink-edged white flowers tightly curled waiting for dusk to open.
We decided not to sample any flowers but I brought some back for my son to identify. He said he knows more about grasses, not so much about flowers. I told him I had a recipe for filaree frittata, and he said, what the heck is that? We all stared. Well, Mom, I know what filaree is, he said, but what’s a frittata? His sister told him it’s kind of like an omelet, but normal people would use spinach.
Our Easter dinner of ham, roast chicken, potato pancakes, beets, sauted spinach and mushrooms (store-bought, of course), fresh organic strawberries and my sister’s homemade brownies was easy to fix and a big hit.
And my foraged salad of miner’s lettuce, mandarin oranges and pine nuts with raspberry vinaigrette, after a few quizzical looks and tentative tastes, was also a hit. Well, maybe not as much as the brownies, but after all, the salad was almost free.
Next time, the filaree frittata.