For many locals, November is the toughest month. The long days of summer are over. Rush hour inches along in darkness. The rainy season kicks in.
For the forager, the shift can be profound as well. At the shore, those extreme daytime low tides—the boon of clam diggers—are replaced by nighttime lows (that are not all that low). As the rain gathers force, most of the wild mushrooms in the forest decay back into the ground. Bright days turn dreary, and the vibrant colors of spring and summer turn to the earthy shades of autumn.
But here on the temperate West Coast, where snow at sea level is a not-so-annual curiosity, there are still splashes of color and life even as the leaves fall from the trees. Many of the weeds—those hardy nonnatives circling the globe—get a second chance. Fall in our neck of the woods, it turns out, is not too late to find a shot of fresh green, if you know where to look.
Check your yard for the new leafy growth of dandelions, for instance, or one of my all-time favorites, bittercress, which isn’t bitter but rather spicy (it’s in the mustard family, after all) and seems to be available in Seattle almost year around.
And if you want to get serious about your…ahem…wild fall greens, go in search of watercress. Like so many of our edible weeds, watercress is recognized as a “superfood.” Hyperbole aside, it really is loaded with vitamins and nutrients, and, more to the point (at least in this column), it’s loaded with flavor. I once watched Holly Smith, the chef/owner of Cafe Juanita, nearly pass out after eating a fresh stalk of wild watercress. The weeds had just been delivered by Foraged and Found Edibles, and she couldn’t resist sampling some right out of the bag before the sous-chef whisked it away for that night’s service. “Oh my god,” she swooned, catching herself on a barstool. Fresh, wild and local greens will do that to you in the dark months.
You can find small bundles of farmed watercress in grocery stores most of the year, but the wild variety is much more robust and flavorful. It has a crunch that you just can’t get out of the domesticated stuff. Distinct peppery notes add life to a salad, and it’s especially delicious when wilted in a stir-fry, risotto or other hot dish.
As implied by the name, this wonderful weed needs a water source. A roadside ditch is often the preferred haunt, but I’d avoid such habitats unless the road happens to be of the lonely, winding country sort and the ditch isn’t sprayed with herbicides. The best places to forage for watercress are small, slow-moving creeks and springs higher in the watershed—that is, in the foothills or mountains above housing developments and livestock.You want the water to be pure and unadulterated. Watercress grows close to the surface from a network of submerged roots, with oval-shaped leaflets. Note that late in the season, as pictured above, these leaflets can become long and pointy. Make sure to know exactly what watercress looks like because deadly water hemlock can be found in similar habitats.
Watercress can stand up to the cold. One time, while digging truffles on a friend’s Christmas tree farm in the Cascade foothills, I spotted a nice patch of watercress that was still going strong in a purling brook despite a rime of ice forming around the edges of the pools. “No wonder I see the elk here every day,” my friend said, marveling. Indeed. We’re not the only critters that appreciate a bite of fresh greenery in the dead of winter.
Purée of Parsnip & Watercress Soup
2–3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium parsnip, chopped
1 potato, chopped
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 large bunch watercress, stemmed
salt and white pepper, to taste
Photo by Langdon Cook
» In a soup pot, sauté onions in butter over medium heat until slightly caramelized. Add garlic and celery and cook another few minutes until tender, then add chopped parsnip and potato, and cook several more minutes.
» Stir in stock and simmer for 15 or more minutes until parsnip and potato are tender.
» Add the watercress, allowing it to wilt. Use an immersion blender to purée the soup. Adjust seasonings.
Follow Langdon Cook’s further adventures at fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com