Chow Town

Backyard blossoming: A new view of weeds as food

As a child I looked in wonder at the bouncy gold pom-poms floating above the grass blades in the backyard.

Then I marveled at those white puffs floating in the breeze with a single gust of wind. And I picked stems with gorgeous purple flowers by the handful to give to my favorite neighbor.

My mom quipped that those floating white puffs were dandelions gone to seed, and with every breath I was spreading weeds all over the yard.

My neighbor politely smiled and said, “These aren’t flowers — they’re weeds.” I was completely deflated.

Little did I know those purple flowers, or henbit, tasted nutty when raw and were best balanced with something creamy like avocado. Or the delicate petals of dandelions, before they turn into white puffs, make an excellent tempura-battered appetizer.

I learned on a recent foraging field trip, led by author and forager Tama Matsuoka Wong at Prairie Birthday Farm in Clay County, that these common things are great if I just look around. Wong was in Kansas City promoting her new book “Foraged Flavor.”

Wong loves weeds. She found a patch of chickweed, very common in the Midwest, shaded under a tree and exclaimed how lucky we are to have such great chickweed.

See, chickweed is tender and best when it is part sheltered. The chefs Wong works with in New York City can’t get enough. Wong has three recipes using chickweed in her book, but it is as simple as using the harvested tops as microgreens. Don’t worry about removing the delicate white flowers, they add texture.

I returned home from foraging and found a single dandelion protruding through the blanket of ivy that covers my mostly shaded front yard. But I didn’t see it as a dandelion. I saw a burst of delicate petals with a mild, floral flavor that — when taken by the stem, its petals dipped in a batter of egg, cold water and flour, and fried — makes for an excellent snack.

Wong’s book includes pictures with detailed explanations and drawings to help correctly identify edible wild plants. It also has tips for being in the field, in the kitchen and how to forage sustainably, as well as more than 80 recipes.

Before setting out, remember these basic foraging tips from Wong:

• Pick at each plant’s peak.

• Harvest for texture — the greens should always feel tender.

• Take whatever is in abundance.

• For every name like deadnettle there’s a beautiful Japanese meaning such as “dancing lady hat.”

Raised by generations of cooks, farmers and green thumbs, Andrea Shores is an enthusiastic eater and curious cook. She loves sharing her passion for local food by telling farmers' and food purveyors' stories.