Cooking with Weeds


A “mess” is a breakfast dish of German origin that involves fried chunked potatoes, onions, and whatever else you have to throw in. It’s a Sunday morning tradition in our house. In this example, I throw in wild plants available free in my own backyard.

Field garlic. Photo by Wendy Applequist.

This is field garlic, which easily gets started if you let your lawn go in fall. Like onions, garlic, chives, green onions, etc., it’s a member of the large genus Allium. It’s built like a small green onion, with hollow cylindrical leaves. When these leaves are young and tender, they can be used like chives or green onions. Later in the year, the bulbs can be dug up and chopped like garlic.

All alliums are edible and have possible medicinal benefits. There aren’t any toxic plants in the world that look, smell, and taste like garlic. So if you’re not knowledgeable about plants, this is a good one to start with. Crush a leaf and sniff, and your nose will tell you if you’ve got it right.

Dandelions. Photo by Wendy Applequist.

Everyone knows what dandelions look like! The greens are very nutritious. Dandelions are a distant relative of lettuce. Like lettuce, when they flower and make seeds, the leaves can become tough and bitter. These are already a bit past their prime, so I crawled around the back yard collecting the youngest, tenderest leaves from every dandelion.

Missouri Botanical Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson shares some surprising uses for dandelion in this video.

A word about safe urban foraging: You can collect wild plants any place you would feel safe having a vegetable garden. If the lot next door used to be a gas station, or you think the dirt around your foundation contains a lot of old lead paint chips, you probably wouldn’t plant radishes there, so don’t collect wild plants there either. If you collect on land you don’t own, make sure you are confident that it hasn’t had recent chemical treatments. You wouldn’t want to eat plants that had been sprayed with herbicide yesterday and just hadn’t died yet!

Sauté the field garlic in oil. Photo by Wendy Applequist.

I omitted onion or garlic and used field garlic as the only allium in this mess. Since the plants were old enough to be a bit tough, I chopped it very fine and fried it in oil first, like I would do with garlic. At this stage you can also add spices like cayenne or a bit of chopped meat for flavor.

I scrubbed, chopped, and fried three small potatoes for two servings. Never peel potatoes—lots of the good stuff is in the skin! Cover the pan with something, stir often, and keep the heat relatively low to reduce burning on the bottom. (Usually I would use four large potatoes in a big skillet, and it would burn less.) After the potatoes are soft, add anything else that may take a while to cook. Here, we got rid of the tail end of a bag of frozen corn.

Add the dandelion greens. Photo by Wendy Applequist.

Next, add tender vegetables. This is a great way to use leftover collard greens or frozen spinach (just give it time to thaw). Here, my only greens are the dandelions. I rinsed them first and shook off excess water. A big double handful looks like a lot, but they wilt down to very little, and get easier to stir in as they soften.

A tasty “mess” ready to enjoy! Photo by Wendy Applequist.

After the greens were cooked, I added a small can of chopped tomatoes with chilis. Usually, I’d add one egg per person (clear the middle of the pan, break the egg into the space and scramble). Since I’m short on eggs, I finished with a bit of shredded cheese for extra protein and because it’s easier to get my husband to eat greens if they’re soaked in cheese!

Admittedly, not much of the caloric value of this mess came from my yard, but the two plants included gave extra flavor and vitamins to an otherwise simple dish. Happy eating!

Wendy Applequist
Associate Scientist, William L. Brown Center

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