Monthly Archives: March 2012

Spring greens: peppergrass

Peppergrass with flat spicy seeds

Peppergrass (Lepidium Fremontii and other species) appears in spring in the desert and summer in higher elevations along paths and roadsides.  The tiny flat seeds are spicy and really wake up your tongue.  The easiest way to use them is to pick the seeds off the stem and include them in a salad dressing or just sprinkle them over your salad greens.  Another easy preparation, one that is fun to do with children, is to use them as a flavoring on pita chips.  Cut pita bread into triangles and carefully separate the two layers.  Arrange the triangles on a cookie sheet and brush the rough sides with olive oil.  Then sprinkle on the peppergrass seeds along with one or two other herbs. Toast in a 200 degree oven for a few minutes until crisp.  Watch closely so they do not burn.

 On another matter, I spent the afternoon doing a post-cookbook-writing spring cleaning of my refrigerator. I found some jars of reddish mystery sauces, obviously a holdover from a recipe testing session. Out they went. An exciting discovery was a whole quart of homemade prickly pear syrup, a smaller jar of saguaro syrup, and a jar of Summer Jam made from prickly pear, plums and peaches, the recipe for which appears in Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Less exciting was a small container of thoroughly desiccated pickled ginger that I bought to test a Ginger Carrot Soup recipe from Lambert’s of Taos.  That recipe, delicious by the way, appears in The New Southwest Cookbook, which came out seven years ago. That ginger had been lurking back there way too long.

 My mother was still alive when I was testing recipes for my first book American Indian Cooking (formerly American Indian Food and Lore) in the early 1970s.  She asked me once why my refrigerator was always so full – not chiding me, just curious.  When all the wild foods I use have to share space with the mayo and the pickles, the shelves just fill up. Thus the impetus for the clean-up this afternoon.

If you are looking for recipes for other wild greens or the cactus products that will be ready to pick now that spring is nearly here, check out my new book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  I tell you how to pick them and how to turn them into tasty dishes.

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Spring greens: Lamb’s quarter

Lambsquarter

I’m rushing to get ready for a demonstration in the culinary tent at Tucson Festival of Books tomorrow, but noticed this lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium berlandieri or fremontii) growing like crazy in my yard.  This is one of the tastiest of the spring greens.  It shows up in March and April in desert areas, but I’ve seen it as late as July in Prescott which is a mile high.  It is sometimes called goosefoot because the shape of the leaves (closeup at the bottom) looks the the footprint a goose might make in a muddy barnyard. 

Because of its abundance and mild flavor, lamb’s-quarter is one of the most popular wild foods gathered not just in the West but also throughout the country.  When gathering, cloose plants less than one foot tall or use the new shoots of older plants.  The stems can be tough, so discard them after you have picked off the succulent leaves. Steam the leaves by placing them in a pot with a tightly fitting lid, add a tablespoon or two of water and cook over low heat for about five minutes.  A little butter and maybe a dash of chile is all the seasoning it needs. 

Lamb’s-quarter is loaded with nutrition — a cup of cooked greens provides about as much calcium as a cup of cow’s milk and more vitamin A than a serving of spinach.  You can use it in any recipes where you would use spinach, or check out the recipes for greens in my book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.

Can you see the goosefoot?

Spring Greens: Monkey Flower

Young Monkey Flower

Joined my pal Linda McKittrick last week to hunt for wild spring greens that like to grow in damp places. We headed out to Sabino Creek that flows through Sabino Canyon with snowmelt from Mt. Lemmon. Who knew looking for plants could be so treacherous?  In crossing the creek I slipped on a rock and ended up butt-first  in the creek.  Fortunately I was carrying my fanny pack with my camera and cell phone on my belly, so it sat above the shallow (cold!) creek water. In hindsight I’m sorry Linda was more concerned with my condition that snapping a picture of the moment.

With the warm spring, I expected the greens to be more advanced for this time of year, but they were just popping up.  There was one gorgeous exception — a cascade of monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) down the side of a small rock dam (see photo at bottom of post).  The plant above is small, but a normal sized plant would have leaves about the size of a quarter, round or slightly overal, with toothed edges and sometimes a slightly hairy surface.  There is a problem in learning to identify this plant because you could look for the little yellow flower, that resembles a tiny yellow snapdragon, but by that time the plant will be much too bitter to eat.  Even young monkey flower leaves are a bit bitter.  Mix them in a salad with milder flavored wild or domestic greens

Monkey flower cascading down the dam

Carolyn Niethammer is the author of Cooking the Wild Southwest which contains recipes for 23 easily recognized desert plants, including about a dozen for wild greens. Buy it from B&N here.