Saturday, May 11, 2013

Wild Edible Recipes - Chickweed & Garlic Mustard

by Tom DiGangi Jr.

As Laura enjoys that second cup of coffee, marveling at the price point for colonial homes in Merida, Mexico while watching House Hunters International, I am stuck figuring out how to cook all those damn weeds with health benefits she keeps leaving on the chopping block.

I doubt cooking is magic or art as some would suggest. Rather, it is craft, based on science and education. You learn how to manipulate stuff that already tastes good into new stuff that hopefully tastes better by applying heat or salt or combining it with other stuff that also tastes good. The chances of success in producing a meal increase dramatically if the cook actually knows a little bit about the stuff to be cooked. At least on Chopped, there are instructions on the packages of the unknown products so the contestant chefs don’t accidentally kill someone by preparing the unknown foods the wrong way – think rhubarb, which has toxic leaves, but edible stalks. Laura’s wild harvests are accompanied by no such guidance.

This leads to a question: What do I know about cooking broad leaf plantain, garlic mustard, lesser celandine or chickweed? The answer: Absolutely, nothing. But, I am willing to experiment. This is science, right? So, I taste, trusting Laura’s has no plans for my early demise.

Garlic mustard, it turns out, tastes not surprisingly like bitter, mustardy garlic, but in leaf form. Chickweed has no distinct flavor, but has a spinach-like texture to its leaf. Here is how I used them to make dinner for two, inspired by the egg and pancetta goodness of carbonara.

Chickweed & Garlic Mustard “Carbonara”


½ oz dried porcini mushrooms (reconstituted by soaking in ½ C hot water)
4 oz crimini or button mushrooms, cut into thick slices
1 small yellow onion (sliced)
1 ½ C garlic mustard leaves
1 ½ C chickweed tips (not the tougher lower stalks)
1 slice pancetta (about ¼ inch thick), cut into sticks
3 T white wine
3 T extra virgin olive oil
½ lb of fusillli pasta
2 egg yolks
½ C grated parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste


Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.

Reconstitute the dried porcini in ½ cup of hot water by soaking for at least 15 minutes, drain and reserve the soaking water for later use in the recipe. Roughly chop the reconstituted porcini.

Using 2 tablespoons of the oil, render the pancetta in a large sauté pan, along with the onions. As they begin to brown, add the crimini mushrooms, and continue browning until the pancetta has begun to crisp.  Add the chopped porcini, the reserved soaking water, white wine, chickweed and garlic mustard, and cook together for a few more minutes.

Drop the fusilli into the pot of boiling, well-salted water and cook until al dente.  Remove the pasta from the water and add to the sauce in the sauté pan, with a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. Stir and turn off the heat.

Finish by dressing the pasta with the parmigiano cheese, the remaining oil, the egg yolks, and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine. The residual heat of the pasta will cook the yolks while maintaining a creamy texture.  Serve immediately, with the same white wine used to make the sauce.

Chickweed & Garlic Mustard Pesto


1/2 Cup Garlic mustard leaves, washed and removed from stem
1 Cup Chickweed leaves, flowers and stems, washed and chopped
1/4 Cup Pistachio nuts
1/4 Cup Extra virgin olive oil
2 T. Grated parmigiano cheese
1 T. Lemon juice
1 t. salt


Combine all dry ingredients plus lemon juice in a food processor, and grind. Drizzle in olive oil slowly, pausing to scrape down the sides, until the ingredients form a thick paste. Store in refrigerator. Mix with pasta, warm potatoes, or grain dishes for a healthy meal. Add to soup as a bright flavor booster. Top off cheese and crackers with a small amount. Try it out and have fun!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Eat Your Weeds In Early Spring

"Weed" - such a mean word, rife with anger and judgement, with a healthy dose of disgust. "I have to weed! Look at all these damn weeds! My lawn looks like crap because of all the WEEEEEEEEEDS!!!" But what makes a plant a weed, as opposed to a flower, vegetable, or natural remedy? Only you, my friend, only you. Wouldn't you enjoy gardening a bit more if you could look at the view out of your kitchen window and think "Ah, look at that lovely expanse of medicinal and edible wild plants that I didn't have to do any work to sow or produce! Good thing that I am under no obligation to do anything about removing them due to their many health benefits. I think I'll have another cup of coffee and watch 'Househunters International' for the 450th time." Well, you're in luck. I'm going to spend the next few months exploring the many uses of these volunteer plants so you can consider them a crop, and save yourself the time and trouble of eliminating them with chemicals. Let's get started learning about zone 6 spring time edibles. Our next post will have a few fun recipes created by the husband and designated garden chef, Tom DiGangi!

Garlic Mustard - alliaria petiolata 
garlic mustard wild edible plant
spring garlic mustard before sending up flower stalks

We have lots of this growing in the moist shady areas around the edges of our yard. This biennial will be 2-3 feet tall if left to flower and produce seed. At this stage in spring, it's a low growing clump of triangular to heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges that smell like garlic when crushed. Like most wild greens and herbs, the leaves are mildest and most edible when young, before the plant bolts and produces flowers. We use this like a strong flavored cooked green, although it's also tender enough to be eaten raw and fresh in salads. Make sure you check out Tom's garlic mustard recipes in our next post!

Wild Garlic - allium viveale
a lovely wild garlic portrait by Tom DiGangi

Also called field garlic and wild onion, this bulbous perennial looks like small clumps of tall thin grass. When crushed, it gives off a strong garlic/onion odor. In May and June, it will flower and produce little
bulbs, which are also edible. We use the wild garlic grassy leaves just like you would use chives - to sprinkle on top of any finished meat, vegetable, or soup dish to add an extra burst of flavor and freshness.

Dandelion - taraxacum officinale
Do I even need to describe this one? Dandelion, the most hated of lawn invaders, produces yellow flowers, white puffy seed heads, and has a tap root that goes from here to China. All plant parts serve as food and are rich in vitamins A and C. Flowers can be battered and deep fried, leaves can be cooked or eaten raw, and the root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Since I married one of those Italian types, we've been eating dandelion in various formats for quite awhile, so I won't repeat the recipes here. Instead, check out the following old blog posts for some inventive dandelion applications created by Tom:

Chickweed - stellaria media
chickweed running up a raised bed

Also called starwort, starweed and satin flower. Chickweed has a variety of external and internal medicinal uses that I will get into later, since we're only talking about wild edibles in this post. This prostrate annual pops up every early spring and furiously takes over my sleeping vegetable garden. After years of cursing up and down about this thing, I finally determined what it was and learned about it's positive properties. I believe this year I finally made peace with this little creep(er), although I still wind up pulling up and composting more than I save. Chickweed is chock full of vitamins, and has a fresh grassy taste good for eating fresh in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all edible. I created a pesto using it along with garlic mustard, since its milder flavor tempers the stronger tones of the garlic mustard. I'm also going to dry some, and steep fresh parts in alcohol to make a tincture. Multiple generations can grow per year, so if you want to limit the amount of chickweed you are harvesting, get it out of the ground before the flowers produce seed.
chickweed running amok in my strawberry bed

Sunday, April 14, 2013


This SHOULD have been a post about springtime wild edibles in New Jersey. I had full intentions of traversing my weed filled lawn and surrounding wooded areas to harvest wild garlic, garlic mustard, chickweed, and dandelion. My finds would be thoroughly washed and prepped, and then dramatically handed to Tom so he could use his innate food nerd skills to whip them into something delicious. The result would be an informative blog post written by me, including Tom's experimental recipes. Instead, I spent a beautiful weather week cooped up in the house, bouncing between a demanding infant and a sick nine year old, hence the name of this post. If the above topics intrigue you, consider checking out some old blog posts of mine about why you should eat dandelions, and how you can eat them in soup and pasta. And you can find detailed info about these plants, as well as many others, from wild food expert Wildman Steve Brill.

Instead of providing you new and interesting information about eating your lawn, this post will mostly be a note to myself about all the work I need to do in the garden in the next few weeks. Down with runny noses and hacking coughs! Onward!

In zone 6, it's time to:
  • Direct sow carrots, beets, turnips and cilantro
  • Plant broccoli, kohlrabi, and cauliflower plants
  • Freshen up mulch in landscaped beds
In my veg/herb/medicinals garden, I need to:
  • Plant quinoa, calendula, carrots and cilantro seeds
  • Plant onion bulbs among potatoes
  • Layout new tomato/pepper beds and put out Wall-o-waters
  • Harvest and dry chickweed
  • Up pot seedlings
  • Lay out paths with cardboard and hay
  • Buy more lavender and perfume roses
  • Start basil seeds
In my landscape, I need to:
  • Transplant helleborus volunteers to the woods
  • Weed beds that need wood mulch
  • Build new front of house bed (?)
  • Consider weeding/mulching medicinal bed

Monday, April 8, 2013

My Seed Planting "Schedule"

In most areas of my life, there's usually a large difference between what I Should do and what I Actually do. For example, I Should just pay the stupid money and get the DVR box. Instead, what I Actually do is memorize the time and channel of my favorite shows and plant myself in front of the TV, like I'm from the 60's or something. I even have to watch commercials! The horror! And then when life gets in the way and I miss my favorite show, I loudly and adamantly complain about it, as if no solution exists.

My refusal to have DVR power doesn't really stem from my inherent cheapness. OK, it mostly stems from my inherent cheapness. But as I see it, it's also a Buddhist lesson in non-attachment. So I miss a program or two (or an entire series, or a complete pop culture revolution). It's just a freaking TV show, right? It's not really the end of the world. And if I catch it the following week, I can pretty much figure out what I missed. It's somewhat more important that I Actually take care of my kids, spend time with my husband, and enjoy life in the moment it's happening.

The whole Should/Actually process works the same for me in the word of gardening. I Should plant seeds in the garden according to this schedule (and so should you, zone 6'ers):
  • Mid-March: peas
  • Early April: radish, spinach, lettuces, onion, potatoes, cilantro
  • Mid-April: beets, kale, greens, carrots, parsnips, turnips, chamomile
  • Early May: basil
  • Mid-May: beans
I Actually am planting seeds in the garden according to this schedule:
  • Mid-March: peas
  • Sometime In April: everything else, on a day or series of days when the weather is nice/baby is sleeping/Sophia is being babysat/we don't have visitors/we aren't visiting anyone/important body parts are injury free.
So maybe I'm not the most detailed gardener around. And I'm sure I'd get better output if I would actually get a plan and stick to it with no exceptions (for those of you who love a plan, you can get your own customized seed starting/planting schedule here) . However, I feel I can take seed planting liberties for a few reasons. First, I generally do my spring gardening in well-draining raised beds with soil that's been amended. This soil heats up faster and is ready to work earlier than normal. Because the drainage is good, I don't worry about the seeds sitting around rotting if the soil is still a little too cold. I also don't worry about planting seeds too late. If I get a smaller harvest than I should, eh, no big deal. I can always let the crop bolt, produce flowers, go to seed, and then let the seeds naturally dry and fall where they want to. When the soil cools down again in September, the seeds wake up and produce the crop that I should have had in the spring. This happened to me last year with a delicious lettuce called mache. Not only did it produce plants in the fall, but somehow the seedlings overwintered and we are NOW eating fresh delicious salads from the lettuce bed (and pathways and other beds and everywhere else the seed went, as evidenced in this picture). My point is, don't get hung up on schedules. Just get out there and get dirty!

Specifically, my current outdoor seed planting accomplishments to date are:
  • Peas, Super Sugar Snap & Burpeanna Early: 3/22
  • Raised bed #1: Brassicas (Cabbage Family) 4/6
    • Turnip, Golden Ball
    • Kale, Dwarf Blue Curly & Lacinato
    • Radish, Watermelon, Salad Rose, Easter Egg II, French Breakfast
  • Raised bed #2: Chenopodiaceae (Beet family) 4/6
    • Beets, Chiogga, Touchstone Gold, Cylindra
    • Spinach, Avon Hybrid, Salad Select
    • Swiss Chard, Burpee's Rhubarb
  • Raised bed #4: Solanaceae (Potato and tomato family) 4/7
    • Potatoes, Red Norland & Kennebec
  • Underneath the grapevines: 4/6
    • Cilantro
    • Chamomile, German
    • Fennel, Bea
(grapevine beds on the left, four 10'x4' beds on the right, pizza box pathway down the middle. still looking for hay to cover the cardboard!)

Veggie garden to-do list:
  • Manure on asparagus bed
  • Plant onion bulbs asap
  • Plant lettuce and carrot family seeds at some point
  • Lay out garden paths with cardboard then cover with hay
  • Set up soaker hoses
That's all for now, but that's plenty. Quick, you have five minutes before the kids get home - go plant something!


The Big Bad Blog Beginning: Marketing Gone Awry

So awhile back, I was talking to my home business and web marketing diva. I know what you're thinking right now. You're thinking, "Big deal! Everybody has a home business and web marketing diva." Maybe so, but if you're not talking to Dina at, then you've got the wrong gal.

Since I have the right gal, Dina said, "You should start a blog to help promote your website."

"Really? How come?"

She then said something along the lines of "Hoogety boogety search engine optimization foogety moogety page hierarchy loogety toot toot meta-tags and strategic links...." and many other extremely smart things. Please keep in mind Dina has never actually said "hoogety boogety" to me in any context. What she did do was give me a brief explanation of web marketing that made complete sense, but the wisdom of which I would completely mangle upon retelling. The relevant gist was as follows - a blog, when properly done, can be a great tool to drive traffic to my website.

I mulled this over for quite some time. Could I write clear and informative articles about the decorative painting business? Er, sure, I think. New techniques, preferred paint and brush brands, offers of free templates.....Ooh, but how bout the funny fellow painter ladies I see at my teacher's studio? Or the nutjobs who I meet at craft shows?

And then I started thinking about other humorous stuff, like the time my mother swiped HER mother's mother's day gift from me and refused to give it back. And the stories from my grandfather about the 8-10 different ways he's accidentally electrocuted himself throughout the years, and yet still stands. Or about the time I spent half a day convinced that drunk people snuck into my yard during the night and dug up 48 newly planted impatiens (until I realized a deer ate them).

That's about the point that I realized that I actually want a blog to show the world how hilarious I am, and if I can throw some web marketing in there, so be it. I can make it work. For example, the two funniest things I do are 1.) garden organically 2.) allow people to speak to me. Since I paint flowers and creatures and landscapes, does it count as web marketing if I blog about growing flowers in a landscape while shouting obscenities at creatures? You betcha! And when my mother does something bizarre, should that go in there too? Absolutely. Ah, yes. Yet another blog is born.

So in the end, I will market my website the way I organic garden - seek out the advice of experts, change it all around, and find myself continually shocked when my system doesn't work. Effective? No. Funny? Oh yes indeed! Keep reading.....