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Field of Greens

  • March 30, 2012
Readers of this blog (or fellow foragers) may recognize the wild greens growing in the field above. I’ve written about them (with recipes) here and here. It’s something any self-respecting Italian knows about. My parents taught us to forage for them when we were kids, and they have a flavor similar to broccoli rape. But they’re even better — and they’re free for the taking!!
Typically, these greens grow sparsely in fields and along roadsides and it takes a while to find enough to make a meal. But there’s a bonanza growing in a field near me,  as my late husband discovered a few years ago at this time of year. They’re ready for the picking right now — a couple of weeks earlier than usual — so I hightailed it out there and came home with three bags full to put in the freezer.  Here’s what they look like close up:
 Search the fields and along roads near where you live for these greens called Winter Cress, also referred to as wild mustard greens. Pick the ones that have tight buds, not the ones with the yellow flowers. When they’re in full bloom, they provide beautiful landscapes (especially in Italy and along the Southern California coastline), but they’re bitter and tough once the flowers emerge.


You can saute them in a little olive oil to retain all the nutrients, or you can blanch them first, then drain them, and proceed to saute them in a little olive oil, garlic and red pepper. The blanching takes away some of the bitter flavor but still leaves a lot of vitamins. In order to store them in the freezer, blanching is necessary. I boil water in a couple of giant canning pots, and I place a huge bunch into each pot, stirring it around for a couple of minutes. Drain the greens into a colander, then quickly transfer the greens to a bowl of cold water to bring down the temperature. Squeeze the greens to remove excess water, making little bunches to put into plastic bags. Repeat the process, refreshing the boiling after using it twice, otherwise you won’t get the harshest bitterness out of the greens. (Trust me, they’ll still have some bitterness even with the blanching.)
Place the greens in plastic freezer bags, in portions of two, four or whatever you like. Then store in the deep freeze and you’ll have them all winter long.
I still had a few bags from last spring, so I defrosted them and made this for dinner a few nights ago – beans and greens – perfect for any day, but especially for a Friday during Lent. Take note of the fork in the dish – it’s more than 40 years old and is the work of my grandfather. I have a couple of them that he “shaped” at my house when he would come to visit. He had a penchant for bending the tines of forks, maybe to get more in his mouth. But you know what? I have found them to be extremely useful in smashing beans and other foods, and stirring items in a saute pan. Go Grandpop!

Here’s the recipe:

Beans And Greens

printable recipe here

1 can cannellini beans- about a 13-ounce can (or whatever kind of beans you like)
1 bunch of wild greens
1/4 cup minced onion or shallot
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
salt, to taste
a few shakes of red pepper
water, as needed

If the greens have been frozen, thaw them. If they’re fresh, blanch for a couple of minutes and drain. Or use them without blanching if you like your greens really bitter. Then pour some of the olive oil in a pan and saute the onions until limp. Add the garlic and soften them too. Toss in the beans and smash them partially with a fork. Add the greens to the beans, the salt, the red pepper and a little water to help everything blend together. Taste for seasoning, then cook for a few minutes to meld the flavors together. Serve with crusty bread. Wine optional.

Foraging For Wild Greens

  • April 20, 2009

This is my 100th post, and while I had planned to write a long, personal story and recipe to note the event, I’ll keep it for later because I want you to go out into the fields this week and look for these greens — if you’re lucky enough to live where they grow. In the Northeast U.S., they are perfect for picking for only a few more days. Right now they’re so tender, you could eat them raw.

This lovely bouquet of wild greens belongs to a member of the cruciferae, or mustard family, the same family as broccoli rape and arugula and many other vegetables. In fact they taste a lot like broccoli rape. They’re also known as winter cress, but the botanic name is barbarea vulgaris or barbarea verna. If you wait much longer, they’ll be in flower and too bitter to eat.


Here’s a photo I took in Italy last June of a field of wild mustard greens in full bloom.

In his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons noted how the first sign of spring would be not the robins on the lawn, but the Italians who would swarm out from town to gather winter cress from fields and ditches. Here are a few lines from the book, originally published in 1962:

“The suburban dweller seldom bothers to identify the plant which the immigrants are so eagerly collecting. Such knowledge is strictly for squares. He is satisfied to refer to it merely as “some weed the Italians eat.” We have come to a poor pass when we think that allowing ourselves to be bilked because of our own ignorance contributes to our status. And still we think we have a mission to teach the rest of the world “the American way.” Heaven forbid this kind of thinking. We do have some things to teach, but we also have many things to learn from other cultures. Unless we realize that cultural exchange is a two-way street, we shall fail, and much of the ancient and precious wisdom now residing in the simple peoples of the world will be lost.”

Ponder that thought for a while.

My husband discovered a field not far from our home where these greens are as prolific as weeds. We set out on Saturday for our foraging expedition and came home loaded with bags and bags of them. There’s nothing like getting something for free. Especially when it’s nutritious, healthy and abundantly growing in fallow fields.

A pretty ladybug found its way into this bag along with the mustard greens.

We were overflowing with mustard greens. We gave some to friends, others I blanched and put in the freezer. Some we ate very simply by boiling, then draining and tossing them in some olive oil, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. On Sunday I went a little fancier, adapting a recipe that Mark Bittman posted in the New York Times last week. The recipe uses broccoli rape (sometimes spelled broccoli rabe) instead of the wild greens and it could be adapted for many different vegetables. But the wild mustard greens really made it special. We were licking the bowl to extract every ounce of goodness.

Spaghetti with Mustard Greens, Garlic and Bread Crumbs

For two people:

1/3 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup bread crumbs, preferably homemade
a couple of shakes of red pepper flakes, or to taste
wild mustard greens, a couple of large handfuls, or about 1/2 pound
salt, freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Put 1/8 cup of olive oil into a large skillet over medium-low heat. When oil is warm, cook garlic just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add bread crumbs and red pepper flakes and cook until bread crumbs are golden. This will take about five minutes or so. Remove and set aside.
2. Cook mustard greens in boiling water until soft, about five minutes. Drain well.
Bittman tells you to cook the pasta in the same water, but I would not recommend doing this with the wild greens, since the bitterness remains in the water.
3. Boil the pasta in salted water in another pot.
4. Meanwhile, add the remaining 1/8 cup of olive oil to a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the mustard greens and toss well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and bread crumb mixture and mix well.
5. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a little of the water. Toss pasta in the skillet with the mustard greens. If necessary, add a little of the pasta water. Adjust seasonings and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.