Spring is one of my favourite times of year, but when it comes to food from the garden, it can be one of those times when you're just waiting around with nothing much to harvest. This year I've been taking inspiration from Richard Mabey and his classic book 'Food For Free'. I've been looking towards the wild plants I have around the garden in order to start experimenting with them to help me fill the spring hungry gap.
Hedge garlic (also known as garlic mustard and jack by the hedge, pictured above) is an annual that self seeds readily. The leaves taste of garlic and it's very tasty in soups and casseroles or you can cut it finely and add it to salads for a garlicky kick. My favourite meal with this plant was a rabbit casserole cooked in a hunters oven all afternoon. Bit time consuming to prepare, but utterly gorgeous!
The common dandelion is related to the lettuce plant, but although I've known this for ages, this year is the first time I've actually been brave enough to try it - I can't help but remember the awful bitter taste of the flower stem sap on my fingers from when I was a kid and used to pick them on the way to school. The earliest, youngest leaves are best and will add a bitter edge to your salads - think of it a bit like a rocket - good to mix in with milder tasting leaves or vegetables.
Common sorrel (above) is a lovely perennial wild green with a lemon zesty flavour. This one is a long-term favourite for me when cooking out and about on walks or when I'm camping. You can usually find some along your way and it's good in so many different dishes. Try it in omlettes, flans and cut finely into green salads, potato salads, cous cous meals or anywhere else you fancy a lemony flavour. Can make a good home grown substitute for lemon juice in lots of meals.
Be careful though when identifying sorrel. It basically looks just like a dock plant but with arrow shaped leaves - note the little kick backs at the base of the leaves. Do not pick 'Lords and Ladies' (Arum maculatum) by mistake! These are poisonous and will give you a burning sensation on the tongue. Their leaves are smoother than sorrel and darker, but are also arrow shaped and are of a similar size, so it can be confusing. If in doubt it would be best to wait and see what the plant does later in the year - Lords and Ladies are a short lily and follow up their white flowers with spikes of red berries; sorrel flowers just like a dock plant - tall spires with decreasing leaf size running up the stem and little sprays of tiny red flowers and seeds.
A great salad base crop at this time of year (April) is hawthorn. The young fresh green leaves have a lovely mild taste and so long as you've got the patience to pick enough, are really tasty in green salads or sandwiches.
Likewise chickweed (above) is a pretty mild tasting plant, so makes a good mixer to go in your green salads.
And finally - I've never eaten it, but how could I leave it out (I've got so much of it!) - the nettle is said to be great in soups or cooked like spinach. Need I mention that you shouldn't eat it raw? Although it was a favourite endurance game among the kids in my village to see who could bear to eat one fresh off the plant. The trick was to roll a leaf up quickly into a ball and somehow the crushing that went on got rid of the stings. I won't be trying that particular method any time soon!