For someone who cooks, eats, reads and writes about food everyday (and travels halfway around the world to learn about it), I am so often humbled by how much I have still to grasp. Especially so, when the answers are growing quietly wild in my back garden. This particular lesson came courtesy of forager/great cook/country dweller/all-round amazing woman/mother of three, Liz.
Liz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wild botanics, a resourceful approach to cooking and a calmly infectious excitement for the natural world. You hardly need to meet Liz to realise this. Her kitchen is a ramshackle cluster of all of these elements combined. Shelves of well-used cookbooks support stacks of pickles and preserves, dried herbs and foraged seeds, and bottles of herb-infused oils and syrups.
She brings out nettle and Seville orange marmalade (the nettle balances out the citrus bitterness!), hawbury ketchup (made from hawthorn berries), honeysuckle syrups, pickled damsons, marigold oil, hogweed spice blends and rose dukkah. Dehydrated onions – the previously strained remains of her elderberry and cyder vinegar sauce – impart delicious flavour to stews and curries. Nothing goes to waste.
Liz is the one-woman team behind Forage Fine Foods, and I’ve come to her house to cook, eat, forage, chat and learn. We take a trip out to her garden. The fine spring weather has quickly turned to hailstones, so we make it short. This is what a 5-minute rummage will give you…!
There’s citrusy sorrel and fiery lady smock, mushroom-flavoured plantain and mustardy jack-by-the-hedge. There’s bitter dandelion and sweet-stemmed dock leaves, nettles, hogweed and ground elder, which tastes somewhere between parsley and celery. Why don’t we all do this? It’s all there, outside. Never mind if we don’t have a garden. There are parks and hedgerows, waiting to be picked!
Back in the kitchen, we find a recipe for a Persian bedouin-style stew of spiced lentils, spinach and coriander. We miss out the required greens, and use our wild herbs. I feel suddenly ridiculous at how limited I’ve been. As though I’ve been ignorantly clinging to parsley and mint, dill and coriander and basil (all great in their own right!) as if they’re the only herby greens worth using. I’ve been missing out on all these other flavours. Flavours that my tastebuds had forgotten about! As I said, Liz’s excitement is infectious.
Nigella seeds (also foraged) are crushed, onions are finely sliced and both are cooked slowly until softened. Lentils are folded in and warmed through, while we roughly chop the wild greens. Into the mix, goes hogweed, wild garlic, ground elder, dandelion leaves and cleaver. Lemon zest, a little stock, a splash of water and wilt. The smells are pretty sensational by this point.
We’ve reserved some nettles, which Liz wilts down in a separate pan with a splash of water. Nettles are best picked now, in early spring, while they’re still young and delicate. We stir the nettles in with the other greens, because it’s the liquid we want. It’s black and not altogether pleasant in smell, but squeeze in lemon juice, and the liquid turns to a yellow-pink. Add sugar and top up with fizzy water, and it’s seriously delicious. Welsh women used to do this, and call it nettle pop!
More hogweed and wild garlic is chopped and added to a pan with a big knob of butter. Both melt down really nicely, which make them perfect here. Liz adds lemon juice and pickled wild garlic flowers for extra sweetness. Season the lentils to taste, adding salt, pepper and lemon juice. Scoop into bowls, top with the hogweed garlic butter, and serve with cavolo nero flowers if you have any. A thrifty, tastebud-awakening lunch…
Serve with flatbreads, topped with olive oil and za’atar to mop up the juices. Liz has her own British za’atar made with bergamot, wild marjoram and foraged sumac (deliciously floral!). But more than anything, it’s the incredible mix of greens, combining mustard and citrus, bitter and sweet that really has me going. A whole load of flavours that I’m still trying to unpick. And what’s more, all of these greens are readily available FOR FREE outside our kitchens. It’s time we get out there, I think.
Bedouin stew with wild greens
Serves 2 to 3
1 pinch of nigella seeds
1 large onion
200g wild greens, such as wild garlic, hogweed, ground elder,
dandelion, dock, cleaver and nettle
½ a stock cube
for the wild garlic butter
1 big knob of unsalted butter
2 large handfuls of wild garlic and hogweed
Crush the nigella seeds, then heat in a splash of oil over a medium heat. Peel, finely slice and stir in the onion, then cook until softened. Stir in the lentils and warm through. Wash the wild greens thoroughly, then roughly chop and add to the pan with a few good gratings of lemon zest and the stock cube. Add a splash of water and allow to wilt down, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, make the wild garlic butter. Melt the butter in a small pan. Finely chop and add the wild garlic and hogweed, and cook until it all melts down into a deliciously fragrant mixture. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and season to taste.
Season the lentils to taste, adding squeezes of lemon juice until you’re happy. Spoon into bowls, top with the wild garlic butter, then serve with crusty bread or flatbreads if you like.
Till the next time…
I urge you to look up Liz’s website, Forage Fine Foods. She offers foraging workshops and sells incredible spice blends, sauces, syrups and loads more. Get out into the wild, and pick cleaver; that sticky spindly green that grows everywhere in winter and spring. Infuse in hot water for an energising tea.
And forage, forage, forage!