Monday, April 20, 2009

Foraging For Wild Greens

This is my 100th post, and while I had planned to write a long, personal story and recipe to note the event, I'll keep it for later because I want you to go out into the fields this week and look for these greens -- if you're lucky enough to live where they grow. In the Northeast U.S., they are perfect for picking for only a few more days. Right now they're so tender, you could eat them raw.

This lovely bouquet of wild greens belongs to a member of the cruciferae, or mustard family, the same family as broccoli rape and arugula and many other vegetables. In fact they taste a lot like broccoli rape. They're also known as winter cress, but the botanic name is barbarea vulgaris or barbarea verna. If you wait much longer, they'll be in flower and too bitter to eat.

Here's a photo I took in Italy last June of a field of wild mustard greens in full bloom.

In his book "Stalking the Wild Asparagus," Euell Gibbons noted how the first sign of spring would be not the robins on the lawn, but the Italians who would swarm out from town to gather winter cress from fields and ditches. Here are a few lines from the book, originally published in 1962:

"The suburban dweller seldom bothers to identify the plant which the immigrants are so eagerly collecting. Such knowledge is strictly for squares. He is satisfied to refer to it merely as "some weed the Italians eat." We have come to a poor pass when we think that allowing ourselves to be bilked because of our own ignorance contributes to our status. And still we think we have a mission to teach the rest of the world "the American way." Heaven forbid this kind of thinking. We do have some things to teach, but we also have many things to learn from other cultures. Unless we realize that cultural exchange is a two-way street, we shall fail, and much of the ancient and precious wisdom now residing in the simple peoples of the world will be lost."

Ponder that thought for a while.

My husband discovered a field not far from our home where these greens are as prolific as weeds. We set out on Saturday for our foraging expedition and came home loaded with bags and bags of them. There's nothing like getting something for free. Especially when it's nutritious, healthy and abundantly growing in fallow fields.

A pretty ladybug found its way into this bag along with the mustard greens.

We were overflowing with mustard greens. We gave some to friends, others I blanched and put in the freezer. Some we ate very simply by boiling, then draining and tossing them in some olive oil, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. On Sunday I went a little fancier, adapting a recipe that Mark Bittman posted in the New York Times last week. The recipe uses broccoli rape (sometimes spelled broccoli rabe) instead of the wild greens and it could be adapted for many different vegetables. But the wild mustard greens really made it special. We were licking the bowl to extract every ounce of goodness.

Spaghetti with Mustard Greens, Garlic and Bread Crumbs

For two people:

1/3 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup bread crumbs, preferably homemade
a couple of shakes of red pepper flakes, or to taste
wild mustard greens, a couple of large handfuls, or about 1/2 pound
salt, freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Put 1/8 cup of olive oil into a large skillet over medium-low heat. When oil is warm, cook garlic just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add bread crumbs and red pepper flakes and cook until bread crumbs are golden. This will take about five minutes or so. Remove and set aside.
2. Cook mustard greens in boiling water until soft, about five minutes. Drain well.
Bittman tells you to cook the pasta in the same water, but I would not recommend doing this with the wild greens, since the bitterness remains in the water.
3. Boil the pasta in salted water in another pot.
4. Meanwhile, add the remaining 1/8 cup of olive oil to a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the mustard greens and toss well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and bread crumb mixture and mix well.
5. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a little of the water. Toss pasta in the skillet with the mustard greens. If necessary, add a little of the pasta water. Adjust seasonings and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.


  1. How interesting! I lived around these mustard greens all my youth and never ate it!
    Great recipe, I love greens!

  2. Thanks for the great weeknight pasta idea.
    Would you believe another blogger told me about fiddleheads (I thought they were so exotic) and then my husband said we have Ostrich ferns on the side of our house! So I will be making something w/ fiddleheads soon!

  3. 100 posts? Already?! Here is to hundreds more!
    Now, this is my kind of recipe. I love wild weed greens.

  4. The pasta looks so bright and colorful, perfect for Spring - yum!

  5. Wonderful and delicious! One of my goals is actually to grow some for myself because mustard greens I could eat every day. I loved that little excerpt from Gibbons--it is so darn true!

  6. Congrats on the 100 posts!!
    Mustard greens are so great to work with, they just need a bit more TLC, but they outcoming taste is phenomenal. Thanks for sharing this great recipe :)

  7. Lot's of great recipes and pictures on your blog. This meal looks really good.

  8. Congratulations on 100 posts...I wonder if those wild greens grow here in the San Diego climate...we pretty much can grow anything, and during spring wild mustard does grow...I gotta look into this!

  9. I need to be looking down instead of up! I wonder if I could find them in a field around here someplace. I love all greens, I just made a kale salad with parmesan, oil and lemon yesterday with dinner. Linda, I have to say I've enjoyed getting to know you and reading your wonderful blog. Congratulations on your 100th post, I can't wait for the next 100!
    xox, Marie

  10. This is my kind of pasta! Yum!
    Congrats on 100!

  11. Oh my word, I laughed so hard at this post! I thought it was only my crazy Italian family who ate these! My grandmother used to cook wild mustard greens even after they flowered, and not only are they bitter, but tough, too. But my grandparents loved them that way! My funniest memory of my Grandma was driving with my grandparents down from Los Angeles to visit my uncle who was in boot camp at Camp Pendleton. When she saw the rolling hills outside of San Clemente that were covered with wild mustard greens, she practically drove off the road! Everyone had to get our of the car, climb the hills along the highway and pick mustard greens. We picked enough greens to fill her trunk! She always carried cloth shopping bags in her car for just such an opportunity. I still miss the bitter flavor, we don't get them here in the Pacific Northwest.

  12. congrats on your 100th post.

    Those greens look delicious!

  13. Great post. I miss foraging around my grandparents' farms. I am getting a lot of greens from my CSA right now, and they're so good with pasta!

  14. Us Greeks & Italians love our wild greens...I'm going to go on a walkabout for some soon. Then hopegfully, I can make a pasta like yours!

  15. Congratulations on your 100th post, and such a beautiful one at that. I will be trying this pasta!

  16. My husband's family never ate mustard greens or dandelion greens -- I guess these greens did not grow wild in their area of Calabria.

    I love broccoli rabe so I'm sure I'd love them! I'm sure they'd be also lovely sauteed with garbanzo or cannellini beans, which is how I like to serve brocoli rabe.

    Congratulations on 100 posts Linda!

  17. HI Linda...Thanks for your nice comment on my & my daughter's Rome blog. It is nice to meet you this way and I am much enjoying exploring your blog. Clearly, we have similar tastes that extend beyond Giorgagel! I can't wait to try your recipes. This post on Italians foraging for wild greens brought back a flood of childhood memories of my Italian grand-mother taking me to Golden Gate Park and other San Francisco green spaces to hunt for various spring greens (watercress, mustard, etc). The mustard greens are all in bloom now here in Lazio, and your post has me wanting to follow in my grand-mother's footsteps and head out to those fields to do some foraging! I will look forward to reading future posts!

  18. I love the way you guys think over there Linda:) I took a walk the other day and "things" here in New England are popping up all over. I'll be posting on some wild greens soon too.

  19. Congrats on your 100th post. We have lots of mustard around here too, never thought to harvest it. I was taking pics of it the other day, very pretty. Great looking pasta!

  20. Linda, congratulations on your 100th post! We Italians do love our breadcrumbs. Same with the artichokes, I often see them packed with breadcrumbs, and love those, but am intrigued by your recipe that uses chunks of bread instead. Yum!

  21. Lovely post with great photos. Thanks. xxx Sally

  22. I tried this last week with some mustard greens that I bought from a local farmers market and it was delicious, I loved the heat of teh red pepper flakes with the slight bitterness of the mustard greens!