Ever wonder what your neighbours are cooking? Karen Stephenson's neighbours in York Region, north of Toronto, don't have to wonder. They know exactly what she's cooking up.
Yes, this lady eats weeds. She forages for them. She cooks with them. And she's been on TV, radio and local newspapers, educating anybody willing to listen about the culinary, nutritional and environmental benefits of eating weeds.
As a child, Karen used to eat clovers as a side-effect of her quest for the elusive four-leaf clover. And she really enjoyed them. In what would appear to foreshadow her calling, she tells of how she would head off on her bike with a friend or two and be gone for hours.
"Back in those days we never went out with a backpack, only with the water bottle that came with the bike. When we got hungry we'd eat dandelions, clovers, plantain, and who knows what else!"
But that was child's play. As an adult, she was more "sensible" - until about eight years ago, when she was staring at a goldenrod and trying to find something good about it, some use for it. Now her repertoire also includes:
- Wild Toothwort
- Highbush Cranberries
- Stinging Nettle
- Chicken Weed
- Lambs Quarters
- And many more local species that grow wild in the fields and on the edges of wooded areas.
Why do you need a recipe to enjoy these natural delicacies? I've tried adding dandelion leaves to my salad. Trust me, some things just don't work as well raw.
Learning about edible wild food
Few plants symbolize weeds better than dandelions, yet they are the only weeds I had ever heard of people using for culinary purposes - dandelion wine, an exotic way of metaphorically turning lemons into lemonade. Apart from that example, few people have heard of cooking with weeds.
However, there are at least some people curious enough to learn; Karen's educational nature walks as far afield as Windsor and Thunder Bay are always booked in advance. Toronto Life included her walks in its "Best of the City" list three years ago, around the same time as she set up her edible wild food website. She was also instrumental in setting up Nature Ontario's foraging guide.
She reminds people not to over harvest certain rare plants, such as fiddleheads. She gives step-by-step instructions to avoid consuming plants that might be harmful to you. And she provides recipes.
If foraging seems like an eccentric skill to teach, Karen is not the only eccentric in Canada. A quick Google search reveals a plethora of websites and organizations helping people learn foraging. Surprisingly, there are even tips on urban foraging.
I double dare you.
Karen's commitment to foraging is rooted in a belief that mankind should live in closer harmony with nature, that we should be eating more natural foods that don't need to be shipped. "The best way to fight back against big agri-business taking over the food chain is to find natural food close to home," she says. Foraging is sustainable, healthy, and reduces all sorts of environmental stresses, including:
- the need for agricultural land
- pollution from transportation
- pesticides and herbicides
- excess packaging
Plus, it's free.
If we all became foragers, we might have a problem. We would quickly deplete our food supply. Perhaps the best known form of foraging is for wild mushrooms. Like all good things, when something becomes trendy, big money follows and we are warned of "over-zealous corporate foragers who have depleted stocks of wild mushrooms in the past." As Sammy Glover notes in Treehugger,
"We only have to look at deforestation around the world, or the consequences of overfishing, to understand that gathering resources from the wild can have disastrous consequences."
The human side of foraging
On a small scale, foraging for food is a great way to reduce one's footprint on the environment, and enough people are eager to hear what Karen has to say. So what do her neighbours think of all this?
Next-door neighbour Olga Vorgic says:
"I used to chuckle watching Karen come out of her car carrying what I thought was nothing more than a bunch of weeds. When she offered some of her baked goods for me to try I was blown away with what she did with them. I thought plantain chips were my favourite until she gave me pine cookies. Now we leave our window open in hopes of getting a whiff of what she's cooking next!"
Another neighbour, Julian Johnson says:
"I love having Karen as a neighbour because I never know what she'll offer me next to taste. I love being one of her taste-testers. Recently she made firballs and wow - were they ever incredible. When she asked if I was willing to try a firball I had to hesitate - until she explained she used fir not fur!"
As for Karen, she notices that "there is a difference in how I interact with people." Indeed, it would appear that cooking with weeds can only have a positive effect on one's love life. The weed lady recently tied the knot.
If you want a piece of the action, below is an example of an edible wild food recipe, reproduced with permission, and selected with the exotic in mind. There are many more examples on Karen's website.
The final piece of advice? Get along with your neighbours: "Rummaging around for edible blossoms in your neighbour's flower garden doesn't count as foraging."
Buffalo Style Milkweed Pods Recipe
- 1 and 1/2 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) (Or any other bread crumbs)
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 tbsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. of each: paprika, oregano, cayenne and turmeric
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup almond milk
- 1/2 cup water
- Hot wing sauce of your choice
- Preheat oven to 350°F
Mix dry ingredients together. Mix egg, almond milk and water together then blend in dry ingredients. Mix well.
Dip milkweed pods into batter and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Place in oven and cook for 15-20 minutes.
When crisp take out and place in a bowl. Add in your favourite wing sauce (enough to evenly coat) and mix. Place milkweed pods back on the baking sheet and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
Photo above: Karen Stephenson teaches her grandson, Dominic, how to forage for weeds.
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