Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Milkweed

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a food source that gives several edible parts during different times of the year. Last year, we made an effort to try almost all of them. Milkweed grows in open fields and meadows, roadsides, along forest edges and near river bottoms. It is found in eastern North America, except for the deep south. It will grow in dense colonies, sometimes filling a field with green stalks. Milkweed is commonly known as a food source for the Monarch Butterfly caterpillar.

Common milkweed is a tall perennial herb that rarely branches, an important identifying characteristic to differentiate milkweed from dogbane, a poisonous look alike. The leaves grow in opposite pairs along the stalk with short stems. They are elongated ovals, veined and thick. The stalk and undersides of the leaves are covered with fine hairs that can be viewed under magnification, another important characteristic. The flower bud clusters appear in spring, looking a bit like bunches of broccoli. Once the flowers open, they can range from white to pink or purple, many times a combination of colors. From each flower cluster, only 1-4 pods will eventually appear in mid-summer. The pod are teardrop shaped, green, and usually bumpy or covered in soft green spikes. The pods will grow to 5 inches long when mature and contain seeds and silk that helps the seeds "fly" to their next destination. All parts of the plant will exude a white, milky latex sap if broken.

We had read about a bitterness associated with the plant and the sap, and possible poisonous characteristics of the sap. We also read some strongly worded arguments about the non-bitterness of milkweed. Most people who have actually gone out and really tried milkweed seem to agree that it is not bitter, and does not need to be boiled in 3 changes of water to make it safe to eat. We decided to go a safe middle route, and boiled our milkweed once for about 8 minutes. All parts we tried after a initial boiling-the shoots, flower buds, and pods-were very tasty and not bitter at all. I will admit that once we used the boiled parts in a recipe and the milkweed was cooked again, it tasted even better. Milkweed is a wonderful addition to recipes as a vegetable, it's flavor resembles green beans.

In the spring, we went to open areas that we knew had milkweed growing in them last year. Sometimes you can find the dead, dry stalks from last year. The shoots are best picked when they are 6-12 inches tall. At that stage their leaves are still partially closed along the stems. They are tender and can be gathered without a knife by pinching the stalks off. We boiled them and ate most of them plain with a pat of butter and a shake of salt. These are great spring vegetables.

Next come the flower bud clusters. We picked them when the clusters were still fairly tight, the stems of the flowers will elongate and the cluster will become much looser and floppier right before the flowers open. At this stage, the flower bud clusters look like broccoli. We boiled them about 2 minutes and tasted them with butter and a bit of salt. Again, they tasted a bit like green beans, only with a more velvety texture. After an initial quick boil, we keep some in the fridge to add to stir-fry vegetables. Then we cooked them in a quiche and in soups, and they tasted even better. We also made a caper-like condiment with the brined and pickled buds. We did not taste the open flowers yet, although they are edible.


The pods came very early last year with all of the rain in the spring and high heat last summer. Pods on different plants are all in different stages of readiness, so we went out for multiple harvests. The pods we gathered to eat are actually immature, the insides were completely white and the outside green shell was still tender. We picked pods between 1-3 inches long. Robert boiled them for 5 minutes, and some were popping open. We tried them plain, but the flavor was greatly improved when we then chopped and stir-fried them with soy sauce. I also took the boiled pods, split them along their seam, removed the white pre-silk, and stuffed them with a cream cheese, jalapeno and red onion mixture and baked them topped with breadcrumbs. I stuffed some other pods with buttered basmati rice mixed with the cooked pre-silk, and baked those in a yellow pepper sauce. The pods make another fantastic wild vegetable.


For a video about foraging milkweed with Blanche Derby that Robert filmed this past weekend, click here.


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