Traveling through the Portland area with a forager puts a whole new spin on backseat driving.
“Hey! See all that lighter stuff? That’s chickweed,” says John Kallas, a font of knowledge on edible wild plants and the founder of Wild Food Adventures, a one-man Portland-based foraging expedition company. On a wet spring morning, he and I are headed to his friend’s farm, Sauvie Island Organics, endeavoring to gather enough wild edible weeds for an afternoon feast. As we merge onto U.S. 30, my guide presses his face against the window and says, “There’s licorice fern on that hill.” Suddenly, the roadside springs to life. A seasoned botanist with a PhD in nutrition, Kallas sees potential food sources nearly everywhere he looks.
“Wild gourmet garden vegetables” is what Kallas calls the plants we’re hunting—miner’s lettuce, chickweed, wild mustard and bittercress, among many others. They practically crawl to the backdoor in this cool, cloudy, damp clime. “People reject the acorns and dandelions in their yard,” he says, “but this food has got to be good if people lived off of it for hundreds of years. You just have to know what to do with it.” Despite our general suspicion of such plants, farmers markets and gourmet grocery stores have started to sell wild greens like dandelions, purslane and nettles—an indication that soon we may not think twice before adding them to our pastas and soups.
When we pull up to the fields that surround his friend’s farm, a cluster of pickers in yellow rain pants is already bent over the crops. “They’re really good with controlling weeds here, which is always disappointing to me,” Kallas says. He wears a brown brimmed hat and a down vest; despite the light rain, he sports sandals with black socks.
After we skirt cultivated beds of kale and spinach, Kallas leads me to our first destination, a mass of low-growing chickweed (Stellaria media). From his hip holster, he unsheathes his favorite foraging tool, a pair of sewing scissors “just like Mom’s,” and snips off the plants’ tips with their tiny, white-petaled flowers. Each pair of oval leaves on a filament stem is minuscule, and he collects fistfuls of them in one of the shoebox-sized plastic containers he’s brought along and filled with an inch of cold water to keep the plants hydrated.
Chickweed grows profusely in wide-open spaces, including our yards, but these greens are nothing like the stemmy weeds I routinely cull from my garden, I tell him. “That’s bad chickweed,” Kallas says. “The bigger the leaf, the better.” I pop one into my mouth. The taste is deliciously bright and fresh, almost nutty.
Nearby, the wild mustard (Brassica rapa) is even more copious, and the sun-yellow flowers that sit atop the foot-high stalks make the plants easy to spot. We not only pick the pale green leaves, but also snap off the buds, which look like tiny broccoli florets. “Just like asparagus: break it where it’s tender,” instructs Kallas. When I sample a bud, it reveals a distinct broccoliness with an aftertaste of mustard. We even steal some of the dainty flowers for a salad garnish. As we fill another bin, Kallas mists the harvest with a spray bottle to keep the leaves from wilting and tells me how much better this mustard tastes than the distantly related mustard greens available at the average grocery store.
Closer to the farmhouse, Kallas shows me some sheep sorrel he’s deemed too sparse to pick in any quantity, and a patch of henbit, a sweet-tasting plant with very hairy leaves. But we’re on the lookout for miner’s lettuce (Montia perfoliata), and he quickly spies a large cache growing in the moist soil. His Twistoflex watch glints in the sunlight as he grasps handfuls of the rounded, silken leaves and clips them off along with an inch of their slender stalks.
As for the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) that we spy sprouting nearby, the persistent sting that comes from their toothed, fibrous, heart-shaped leaves keeps many would-be foragers at bay. But it’s not as risky as it may seem to consume a plant that can raise a rash. “It needs to be boiled,” Kallas says as he plucks the tender tips from a half-dozen plants. “But it’s just like spinach.”
Kallas admits that one of his favorite foraging spots is his own small North Portland backyard, where he insists you can find wild greens that taste just as good as cultivated garden varieties. It’s also a prime habitat for what has become the most popular commercially sold edible weed: dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinalis).
“Most people think that you should only eat them in the spring before the flower buds appear,” he says. “But as long as there’s lots of cloud cover and rain, you can eat them year-round.” In back of the farmhouse, we pick from dense rosettes of young dandelion greens. When I pluck a jagged spear-shaped leaf to taste, I’m braced for a bitter hit, but I’m surprised by its subtle bitterness and deep vegetal flavors. “Out of 100, I’d give this a 12 for bitterness,” says Kallas, a self-described “supertaster.” I pop another leaf into my mouth and think about how fantastic these dandelions would be sautéed in olive oil with crushed garlic.
Kallas’s friends have invited us into their farmhouse kitchen to prepare our lunch. We spread out the day’s harvest, an astounding bounty. Still, Kallas promises more variety in later spring and summer, when there will be lemony sheep sorrel and sweet-and-sour purslane, as well as wild lettuce and lambsquarters—all mild-flavored greens.
In a big bowl of cool water, he gently swishes the greens, just like anybody would with lettuce from the grocery store, and dries them on a kitchen towel—a process that doesn’t take much longer than rooting around the kitchen cupboard for a salad spinner or ripping open a bag of prewashed arugula. Cooking with these plants is much like using store-bought greens—some require or withstand the heat of cooking, while others are better fresh.
Kallas often boils dandelion greens to mute their bitterness and bring out their more complex underlying flavors. As hearty as chard, they can also stand the high heat of a sauté. The same is true for nettles, which are more fibrous. We sauté the dandelion greens with garlic and anchovy and toss them with thick strands of bucatini pasta. After we boil the nettles to inoculate their sting, we sauté them in butter with shallots, finishing them with a dollop of crème fraîche. Then we spoon the creamy, aromatic mixture onto slices of buttered toast and top each with a poached egg—wild comfort food.
We save the best part of our meal for last. Kallas expertly blends our collection of greens into a balanced salad of mellow and strongly flavored varieties. He combines one-third each of chickweed, wild mustard and miner’s lettuce with a scattering of dandelion greens and mustard blossoms. Dressed with hazelnut vinaigrette, our wild salad is so fresh and succulent it makes prepackaged mesclun mixes seem dull. Kallas, a man who is accustomed to feasting on more exotic ingredients like cattails and sea vegetables, tastes the mix and nods in approval of our simple fare. “Salads are a great way to introduce people to wild foods. They’re not too weird,” he says, “but you can always get crazier.”