wild food

(Dutch version here)

This winter I’ve been seed-swapping around a bit, and that means I’ve also obtained some things that were unknown to me, from all over the world… One of these things is something called ‘garden huckleberries’, a type of edible annual berry-bearing plants that seem to enjoy a naming confusion in both common english names and scientific name. The seeds, of which I only have a zwarte nachtschade1few, arrived from 2 different sources, as ‘Solanum burbankii’ and ‘Solanum melanocerasus’ (and the seeds do look a bit different as well), but if you look those up on google they seem to have a lot of synonyms too. S. burnakii is also known as S. retroflexum and wonderberry or sunberry, and S. melonanocerasum is sometimes seen as a subspecies of S. nigrum, the infamous black nightshade, a plant both resemble and are close related too.

But wait, we’re talking about edible berries here. Wasn’t the infamous black nightshade one of those legendary poisonous plants? That’s what everybody knows, right?

That’s what I have believed all of my life, and what a lot of people think. But is it true? Some people seem to doubt it. (read the linked article!!) And upon looking further it seems that both the (ripe) berries and the leaves of S. nigrum and its close relatives (sometimes lumped together as the ‘Solanum nigrum complex) are eaten by people in Asia, Africa and Nprth-America and even Europe. The ripe berries (unripe berries are considered poisonous) are eaten raw or processed as a fruit, and the leaves are eaten as spinach, sometimes explicitly after getting rid of the boiling water.

So there’s 2 possibilities about the edibility of this poisonous plant: 1. there are indeed very poisonous plants in the S. nigrum complex, and some of which are fine to eat, depending on the type, or 2. S. nigrum and its close relatives are all edible, but we think they are not. Most sources seem to think (2) but some people like Sam Thayer (who did a lot of research for his linked paper) seem to think that the plant isn’t that poisonous after all… After all it is a foodsource on all Northern continents in a lot of non-Western cultures..

It seems that people also confuse the black nightshade with the deathly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), which is one of the most deadly plants of Europe and surrounding areas. And coincidently, according to Thayer, people eat a lot of black nightshade all the time all over the world and do not die, but here in Europe we do not eat it at all, and regard it as poisonous, while the last 50 years no-one has died of poisoning with the plant, and most cases of earlier poisoning are likely to be Atropa-poisoning…

And yet, I’m still not going to eat wild black nightshade berries, but I’m going to give those garden varieties a try this year. Not that I expect too much of them, it seems that not everybody is that enthusiastic about the taste, but I’ll try a few plants of both ‘garden huckleberry’ varieties to see if the berries are indeed useful for desserts…

And no, I’m not ready to eat Solanum spinach at all… I’m okay with amaranth and pumpkin leaf and other versions of horta, but no nightshade please…

So here’s my question for the readers: Anyone here who knows more about the edible uses of S. nigrum plants, or who has seeds of edible strains used for spinach or with very tasty berries? Or anyone who knows of poisoning cases?


We are currently at my parents’  place for a couple of days with the children. It’s in their garden I grow most of my plants, So I can relax, and just try some experimental food stuff and do some works that need to be done in the garden  … Currently it’s a bit quiet here in terms of vegetables: pumpkins have been harvested, and a few things like the last beetroots (eh, some huge beets actually) are still there ready to be harvested. But not much exciting stuff going on at the moment…

The nocturnal frosts of last week killed off  a number of plants for this year, including the garden Nasturtiums, and the foliage of my oca’s, and I also noticed that the cold weather had done some damage to my Malva verticillata ‘ crispa ‘. I’ve noticed that this plant was totally gone last winter after a full week of temperatures below zero Celsius, and it had to come back from seed. So I tried to do something with the leaves before they were gone, but used them in for an afternoon soup. It was a recipe for a soup of Egyptian origin,  that I encountered as a child in ‘wild food’ by Roger Phillips, a fantastic book that I unfortunately do not have in my possession, but I did come across the recipe against when I was looking for recipes for Mallow on a Dutch site.

The original recipe is meant for Molokhia or Mulukhiyah, the leaves of the same plant of which jute is made (Corchorus ssp.), from the same family as our mallow species. It is apparently popular as a vegetable in (sub)tropical areas. This recipe can also be done with other plants of the family malvaceae, Roger Phillips used the common allow, and I have now tried with Malva ”crispa’. That curly mallow species (see photo) is a cultivar of an East Asian species, and also an old and not always that well-knoywn vegetable that grows quite well, and of which I still don’t know what what to do with. Except for letting it grown really big there’s not that much that I’ve ever done with it, except for some leaves in mixed salad or other leafy vegetable mixes then …

This mallow soup is very simple, but quite tasty. Mallow has a slightly slimy feel, but is otherwise a very tasty spinach-like leaf vegetable. I do not know whether an Egyptian would recognize his soup the way I made it, but I found it very tasty, and my family members who tasted it too last evening were also enthusiastic…

(My version was also somewhat ‘wilder’ than what I write down here, because due to a lack of garlic I did use some crow garlic (Allium vineale) bulbs.)

The recipe is simple, but fun to make:

Mallow Soup

A large bowl of mallow leaves, very finely chopped
Bouillon (water with broth cube for example)
garlic cloves
coriander and pepper
olive oil

Make a soup base with water and a broth cube. When it’s boiling add the very finely chopped leaves and boil through briefly. Turn the fire off then.

Crush the garlic with a garlic press and heat it with pepper and coriander powder in a small pan with a little olive oil until the color changes, and then add to the rest of the soup. Let the tastes mingle for a few minutes.

Serve for example  with brown bread and mature cheese (like this traditional ‘oud Brugge’ cheese). (Probably not specifically Egyptian, but a very good combination…)



(Dutch version here)

Quickweed, Galant soldier, or Galinsoga is one of the most terrible weeds that make work in your garden a lot harder here in Belgium, and in big parts of the world.A very fast-growing annual that  disappears as soon as the first frost comes, but it does spread a lot of seeds and will be back as soon as the temperatures climb back at the end of spring.

Less known is that this same plant, under the name of ‘guasca’, is a very important kitchen ingredient in south-America for certain dishes, like the Columbian ‘ajiaco‘,a very heavy soup with chicken, 3 types of potatoes, and whole combs of sugar-maize that are cooked as a whole, for hours and hours until the small potatoes have dissolved. If you go looking on the internet for recipes you’ll find it described as very mysterious native stuff from Anti-Americanism Mountains, but in both Europe and N-America you have a big chance it’s growing in your garden, and that you’ve even been cursing it!

There are 2 species of Galinsoga in Flanders and in this part of Europe, (G. parviflora and G. quadriradiata), and identifying them is more for specialists. Both can be used in the kitchen, but be sure to use young plants, and don’t use too much stems. When they start to form seeds the edibility of the plants goes backwards..
My first try to make something like ajiaco (but with influence of our Flemish chicken waterzooi) did not have 3 species of Andes potatoes, but 2 varieties of waxy potatoes, one with a yellowish peel, one with a red peel. Also I didn’t use combs of maize but just a simple little can of sweetcorn-grains. Recipes say that it should be served with slices of avodaco, capers and sour cream, but I didn’t have sour cream so I made some guacamole.

The result was surprisingly good, and a very strong soup good for a whole meal. The guascas contribute a very interestingtaste that is (to me at last) quite new, and that reminds me of sunflower petals (am I the only one to ever nibble on those?) New combinations with it are waiting to be invented! But for those interested, here’s the first aijaco-recipe:

ajiaco-waterzooi with guascas (for 2 persons)

1 onion
1 shallot
1/2 chicken breast
2 red potatoes
2 yellowish potatoes
2 big handfulls of fresh guascas
2 cubes of chicken broth
1 tomato
a hanfull of fresh peas
1 small can of sweetcorn
pepper, salt, chilli pepper, oregano…
1 avocado
1 spoon of yoghurt

chop the onion and shallot in small strips, and sauté them in a little oil. Cut the chicken breast into small pieces and fry it with some of the chopped Galinsoga. Then add the potatoes, diced or sliced. (I vary the shape of the pieces per variety.)

Add a can of sweetcorn grains, peas and a diced tomato, and cook everything for at least an hour simmer (don’t forget to stir occasionally)  until the potatoes begin to dissolve and a thick sauce is formed. Add new water when it all is boiled away. Add the rest of the chopped quickweed 10 minutes before you serve it.
Meanwhile, make some guacamole with a soft and ripe avocado and a spoon of yoghurt, some lemon juice, salt and pepper, and pepper. Before serving add guacamole ass well as capers like you prefer it.

Serve with red wine.

A vegetarian / vegan version should also work very great here btw!

Ground-elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is olne of the most agressive weeds that one can have in a garden in this part of the world. A quasi-undestructable plant that made the hairs of quite a lot gardeners turn grey long before their time. But maybe the hate that some people direct towards the plant is quite exaggerated, in fact it’s not ugly at all, and a very interesting native ground-cover, which bears beautiful white flowers in the spring. The fact that not everyone hates the plant can be proven when we see that there are even garden varieties of this plant.

But ground-elder is quite useful too on other domains than aesthetics, and it actually has a long and interesting history. The Romans used it as a vegetable, and they imported it everywhere, to have a very easy source of food, and the plant is indeed a tasty and nutritious vegetable. Very young leaves can be eaten raw, but the older leaves are too tough, and taste too strong. They are better when cooked. After flowering time the leaves are too strong and they become inedible. The taste is somewhere in between parsnip, chervil and celery, a mix of other members of the umbilifer family.

It is also used in herbal medecine against rheumatism and painful joints, and this use dates back to the middle ages, when monks grew the plant specifically for that person.

If you still want to fight the plant, in spite of all it’s usefulness, then the best way is to exhaust it. Pulling and cutting away every part of it until all underground storage is lost and it doesn’t come back. You can use those leaves in the kitchen, and it’s possible that you start to miss it when the time is there that you’ve finally gotten rid of it…

This simple soup is one of my summer soups, and very similar to my basic recipe for nettle soup. It appears to be very popular, and it also is very easy to make, and quite cheap!

!!If you collect plants in the wild (even in your own garden), you should always be sure that you have the right species, so use a good flora or fieldguide. Never use anything unless you’re really sure!! The umbilifer family happens to include some quite poisonous plants that no-one wants to put on his plate, but (at least in this part of Europe) it has no real dangerous lookalike, with the same leaves and the triangular stem profile if you cut of the leaves.

Groun-elder soup

1 onion
1 potato
2 hands of ground-elder leaves
broth-cube and water

Cut the onion in little pieces, and heat it with a little bit of oil. cut the potato in small pieces, wash and  and slice the ground-elder, and add it to the onions. Let it boil with a tiny bit of water, until everything is soft. Then add more water and a broth cube, and go through it with an immersion blender until there are no pieces left. Let it boil again so the tastes can mingle some more.

serve hot!