Sunday, April 12, 2015

Early Spring Harvest

It's April in northern Wisconsin. While the snow is gone, it's not nearly time to start planting things out in the garden yet (I'm in zone 3b, which is technically less amenable to gardening than Anchorage, Alaska. Snowstorms in April - or even May - are not uncommon here). But if you know what to look for, there are a few things out there ready to be eaten.

The first, and most surprising to me, is winter cress. I had never even heard of it until I read Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and now I see this "weed" growing everywhere in my yard! It loves recently disturbed ground, which means I've been weeding it out of my gardens for years. Here's a sample of what it looks like in the yard right now:
It's a perennial member of the mustard family, and apparently (according to Gibbons, anyway) long used by Italian housewives. He says that these plants "have an extraordinary ability to grow vigorously during any warm spell in winter and from them the forager can often gather fresh salad material or boiling greens in midwinter if the ground is free of snow. However, it is in late February and early March (make that late March and early April in Wisconsin) that winter cress becomes best and most abundant. It forms dense, bright green clusters before any other green thing shows." But, "in April (May here) the plant puts up a seed stalk which eventually reaches from one to two feet high and bears many bright yellow flowers, about a quarter inch across and evenly spaced along the stem. . . . To be edible, the leaves of winter cress must be gathered early, while the weather is still cold. Those who complain of the bitterness of this plant are usually those who gathered it too late in the season. When gathered early enough, winter cress is no more bitter than the best leaf lettuce, and far less so than endive or escarole. As soon as the frosty nights are past, this plant becomes too bitter to eat. Fortunately, by this time, one can select from a number of other wild salads and potherbs."

I assume by "other wild salads" he means spinach and such - which are much to small still to harvest without damaging the plant (and thus harm any future harvests). Here's what my spinach looks like right now:
(This is spinach that volunteered in my garden last fall, after I let another spinach plant go to seed in the heat of the summer (my Grandma Ada's old trick). As you can see, the outer leaves are brown from overwintering, but new leaves are forming in the center.) There are also some really tiny lettuce plants starting up, but definitely nothing harvestable yet.

Since this foraging trip was for the sake of gathering ingredients for soup, I also took the chance to weed out some stinging nettles growing nearby in the garden:
Of course, I was careful to wear gloves when I harvested these so I didn't get stung, but once boiled they are highly nutritious, and apparently work as a soup thickener as well, so I was happy to find them.

I would have loved to have added some chives to the soup, but they're still pretty puny, too:
Instead, I harvested some of my walking onion roots. In the summer and fall I usually harvest only the bulblets on the top (here's a picture from last summer in case you're not familiar with walking onions):
but this early in the season they're barely putting up greens, so I harvested to roots instead:
Paired with some potatoes, carrots, parsley, and garlic from last year, a few jars of chicken stock, salt, pepper, and an nice cheesy white sauce, and we had a nice, hearty pot of soup for lunch. A good start to a new year's harvesting!

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