As the earth warms, new plants emerge, whetting our appetite for the fresh green taste of spring. Folk wisdom has long held that these wild edibles invigorate, restore and tonify the body, especially after a long winter of eating stored roots and heavier foods. There is no disputing the nutritional benefit of greens like dandelion, watercress and lamb's quarters, which contain much more protein, iron and vitamins than their domestic counterparts. Some are invasive non-natives, so eating them is actually performing a welcome service to the land.
In addition to the plants pictured above, plentiful and easily identified options include violets—both the greens and the flowers—wild watercress and the young leaves of curly dock and burdock. (If you don't have a good field guide or reliable foraging mentor, google images is a good place to start identification.)
Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) thrives in colder temperatures. Its large-leaved, deeply lobed rosettes pop up in early spring and are already blooming bright yellow by now. The leaves are best while young and tender, when they have a peppery bite similar to arugula. As they get older and tougher, they can still be eaten cooked. By the time the stalks appear, the leaves are too bitter to eat, but the flower buds and blooms are quite good. I've got a bunch steeping in a quart of cider vinegar and spices at the moment.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was a favorite ornamental plant of the Victorian era, but unfortunately it has spread aggressively and chokes out waterways. Despite its noduled and hollow-stalked bamboo-like appearance, it's actually related to sorrel and rhubarb, and has a similar mouth-puckering astringency that works in both sweet and savory preparations. Use shoots that are 8 inches or less.
FUSILLI WITH KNOTWEED SAUCE
Makes 2 hearty portions
8 cups roughly chopped tender Japanese knotweed shoots, washed and trimmed of leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup organic heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 pound brown rice fusilli, or the pasta of your choice
Bring 2 large pots of water to the boil and salt them well. Into the first, add the knotweed. Cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. (Test with a fork; do not undercook.) Drain and transfer to the bowl of a food processor.
At this point, you can put the pasta into the second pot.
Add butter and cream to the knotweed and process until completely smooth and the right consistency for a pasta sauce. If there are a lot of fine strings that annoy you, push puree through a fine mesh strainer. Taste and season with salt.
Transfer knotweed sauce to a large skillet and keep on very low heat. When the pasta is done, drain well, reserving a little of the water in case you need to thin the sauce, and rinse (or follow package instructions). Add it to the skillet and toss to coat well with the sauce.
Divide between two bowls and garnish with a generous sprinkling of grated parmesan.