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Weed It And Reap: A Meal With Nature's Outcasts

I am an April gardener, which is to say that in April, I really, really like gardening. I like digging into the dense, cold, soggy, barely thawed earth and turning up a fat pink worm. I like the way lettuce seedlings look when they're half an inch high. I like rain, within reason.

July is another story. On June 30 of every year, all the weeds in my garden synchronize their watches. Then they count backward from three and race to see who can propagate the fastest, grow the tallest, and drop seeds just when that other bane of gardeners, the mosquito, arrives in swarms. Around Bastille Day — zut alors! — I typically announce my independence from the garden and let it revert to jungle, every once in a while venturing under the weed canopy to pick some stressed-out chard. This we call "foraging."

In real life, foraging is the craft of finding wild edibles — oh, let's go ahead and call them weeds. Starting in the spring, there's a veritable parade of weeds to eat. If you ask true foragers, they'll reel off a list, hedging their enthusiasm with caveats: There's the pest Japanese knotweed (only good when young) and the toxic-'til-boiled pokeweed (only good when mature) and that infamous encroacher, garlic mustard (best picked before flowering).

They grow with pestilential persistence, so much so that some towns, like Baltimore, hold festivals where they practice eradication by eating.

Yes, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and you're probably walking on it every day.

Now, I don't have to tell you, I hope, that you shouldn't eat dandelions from your lawn if you treat your lawn with pesticides. Likewise, if you see sheep sorrel wanly venturing forth in an otherwise barren wasteland, it's probably acting as nature's chosen vehicle for purging out contaminants in the soil. Don't eat it unless you want to be nature's purging vehicle, too.

However, if you have a garden where you grow things to eat, and you can steer clear of the sometimes-toxic knotweed and pokeweed, the familiar plant pests you find there will be quite safe — after all, they've been fattened up on your good compost and diligent watering all season. Pale lambsquarters push up between every seedling. Curly dock hides its thick taproot under the asparagus. Every time you clear a space, arrowhead rosettes of sheep sorrel show up faster than the devil on a Saturday night.

What separates an edible weed from the store-bought greens we know and love? Often, it's taste — a taste that's just edgy enough for custom and the market to nudge it off the shelf. When you read books on wild edibles, you notice a certain amount of finesse in the descriptions. "Lemony" or "acidic" means high in oxalic acid, the compound that puts the sour in sorrel. (In fact, sorrel basically just means "sour," which is why there are a lot of weeds commonly called sorrel, many of them not even related.) Dandelion, chicory and milk thistle are "liver tonics," which the informed reader can interpret as "bitter." A remarkable number of plants are said to "resemble spinach," and the rest "taste like asparagus." You may have heard people say that alligator "tastes like chicken." So do rattlesnake and iguana. Asparagus, apparently, is the chicken of weeds.

Although free stuff described with euphemisms usually makes me nervous, I've eaten my share of weeds and liked them. The default way to eat a weed is in a salad, raw, surrounded and camouflaged by more familiar green faces. Purslane's fleshy succulent leaves make a crunchy foil for tomatoes and cucumbers. Wood sorrel, with its cute little trio of hearts, is like lemon zest in leaf form. Lambsquarters are inoffensive when raw, and dandelion leaves taste great with bacon (though that hardly counts, since what doesn't?).

But the plant that finally converted me to weed eating was the nettle. Friends rhapsodized about nettles, so I made up my mind I'd give them a try. We have a forest of stinging nettles behind our house, where they have waged war on my husband's shins summer after summer. Each year, I thought I'd try cooking them, only to get distracted by less intimidating and, well, nettlesome pursuits.

It took me half an hour to collect enough tender nettle tops to make a ravioli filling. Until the last five minutes, I foraged sting-free, gingerly picking my way over the rocky slope. I had frankly begun to suspect the nettle of being a hoax, when, zing — a tiny, burning arrow buried itself in my calf. I fled inside, a cloud of foul utterances coloring the air behind me.

The pain subsided soon enough, and was quickly replaced by much friendlier feelings. Once blanched, chopped and blended with some ricotta and Parmesan, the nettles were somehow both firm and tender. Bite after bite uncovered a deep, savory character that wasn't a bit sour, bitter or barbed.

So if you've had it with tomato blight, potato beetles and cabbage worms, don't sweat it. Thanks to weeds, you can feast on homegrown food without even going to the trouble of growing and caring for it. When it comes to weeds, everybody's got a green thumb. All you need is an open mind — and the appetite to go with it.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.