Sporadic rain has nurtured the fields into a thriving salad bar. By waning sunlight with my daughter in the carrier on my back yesterday evening, we gathered an impromptu dinner of curly dock, young mustard, mallow, and brown field and meadow mushrooms.
All three of the greens are widely known as prolific and problematic weeds. Dock and mallow inject enormous, strong taproots into the earth, securing them against the most zealous tugging should one want to remove them, as most people do. Most of the livestock ignore both plants. Luckily for us, they are delicious when young.
Dock, when young and “stretchy” (the leaf actually stretches if you look closely and pull), is sour at first bite, then savory. It can be eaten as a salad green, but I prefer it wilted as spinach. The sourness gives a lovely flavor of lemon. We cooked it very briefly with garlic and olive oil, steamed by the water still clinging to the leaves after rinsing, then mounded the greens over fried polenta and topped them with the mushrooms, which were sliced and sauteed in butter.
Mallow may be cooked likewise when older and tough. Hank Shaw has some good info on mallow as it’s used around the world, referencing the great Mediterranean chef Paula Wolfert. But when very young, up to the size of a quarter or even half-dollar, the leaves are smooth and very tender. The flavor is savory and fresh, without the excessive “greenness” or bitterness of many wild greens.
For salad we tossed the mallow with young mustard leaves, which are mild and delicious young greens, and dressed it lightly with chutney vinaigrette. I make variations of chutney dressing often; at its simplest, it is 1 part chutney to 1 part red wine vinegar to 2 parts neutral oil. My apple chutney contains the components I would normally add to a plain vinaigrette: mustard, onion, salt, pepper and other spices and seasonings. Any chutney is wonderful in this manner, so if yours omits these ingredients, adjust as desired. The result should be tangy and sweet, which is a perfect accent for the gentle sour and bitter flavors of the rest of the dish. The salad was our toddler’s favorite part.
A note on the safety of foraging: This is not a guide for identification of wild greens or mushrooms. No matter what you forage, never consume something unless you 100 percent certain of its identification, which includes familiarizing yourself with hazardous lookalikes. I prefer using at least two field guides and cross-referencing when identifying, as well as reading regularly to maintain a comfort level with the sorts of plants and fungi I live among or pursue.
I also believe that nature need not be feared, just as we need not fear all things with which we are unfamiliar. David Arora, author of the fantastic mushroom reference guides Mushrooms Demystified and All That The Rain Promises and More, writes an insightful chapter in the latter about unnecessary perpetuated fears of fungi, or mycophobia. He also notes in the former publication , and I will emphasize, that “poisonings” are often the result of overindulgence. Even domesticated plants contain compounds that can cause problems when consumed in excess.
Curly dock, as an example, contains calcium oxalate, which can lead to kidney stones if ingested in tremendous quantities on a regular basis. The chemical is in spinach, too, and I don’t know anyone who thinks of spinach as dangerous.
Don’t fear the plant. Just don’t eat a pound of it in one sitting. As I find myself saying often in myriad contexts, Anything in moderation.