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When I talk to people about my passion for foraging, many of them initially feel like there can’t possibly be an easy and accessible way to actually cook these plants into a delicious meal. They more or less imagine me rooting around in the dirt, bringing home a bunch of bitter roots and leaves and munching them raw, scowling from the flavor but relishing in my savage hobby.
Of course, this is silly… cooking with wild plants is no different than cooking with veggies from the supermarket, it’s just a matter of learning what works and what doesn’t for any given plant.
But even after teaching them some wild plants, they don’t usually start foraging for them because they feel stuck with regard to what to actually do with them. Fear not, however.
“Green soup” is a forager’s creation that’s extremely simple and easy to make, so it’s a great one to start out with to show that using wild plants in delicious recipes doesn’t have to be hard, complicated, or fancy. And just as with cooking anything new, it’s easiest to start simply and then experiment with more complicated applications once you’re more familiar with all the complex flavors and textures involved.
Making “green soup” is basically as simple as blending a variety of foraged greens into a broth. The result is a rich, ultra-nutritious vegetable soup that you can eat alone, or fortify with added protein like sautéed chicken (or meat from squirrels you caught on your homestead, for that matter!)
I usually start with chicken broth, either homemade or the boxed stuff from the store, but you could try it with beef broth for a different flavor.
For a third option, you can make a forager’s vegetable broth if you’re lucky enough to have a few choice plants that are convenient enough to harvest at the same time. My favorite forager’s broth combines stinging nettles with cow parsnip, making for a flavor that’s not quite like anything you’ve ever tried.
It will remind you of certain Chinese broths, and is likely to either completely delight you or repulse you. I, clearly, am in the pro-cow parsnip camp. There’s also the option of making a rich wild mushroom broth from foraged fungi. Whichever type of broth you use, we’ll start with some basics on flavor regarding wild greens.
Bitter vs. Mild
Many foraged greens have a bit of bitterness to them, while others are milder. The key to a tasty green soup is balancing the flavors so that you don’t have too high a ratio of strong-tasting plants, otherwise the soup will be overly bitter or peppery.
A stronger-tasting soup could be turned into a marinade, but for soup, you want a milder flavor profile. Therefore, use mostly mild-tasting plants—I’d recommend starting with a ratio of somewhere around 4 parts mild greens and just .25-.5 parts slightly bitter or peppery ones.
Take note: some plants, though technically edible throughout a growth phase, are much more bitter before or after the ideal harvesting time.
If you find that one of these varieties is harsher on your palate than you expected, it could be a matter of personal taste, but could also mean your specimen is a bit less or more mature than is ideal for getting the mild flavor you seek. Typically, the younger the plant, the less bitter it is.
If you can’t get your hands on any mild species, you can also boil them in a couple changes of water to reduce their bitterness. I usually sauté all my greens regardless (with the exception of chickweed) before adding them to the soup, which achieves a milder overall flavor.
The good news is, you can taste your soup as you work and just add more of each type of plant as needed. Below I’ll go into some recommended plants, and then the very easy process of actually making the soup.
Recommended Mild Greens
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is my top go-to base for making green soup. Its mildness makes it perfect to build upon with more flavorful varieties. It’s one of the mildest-tasting plants I know of, so for green soup I don’t usually even pre-cook it before grinding it in. Chickweed can also often be harvested in great bunches.
To identify it, look for “mats” of intertwined green hugging close to the ground. There are several varieties, but they often grow in these mats and have long, limp stems with opposite-arranged teardrop-shaped leaves.
When in bloom, flowers look like tiny white stars. Each has five petals but look closely, as the shape of each petal makes it look like there are twice as many!
Sow Thistle (Sonchus arvensis, etc.)
Dandelion-like in appearance but quite mild when harvested young and especially after being cooked, sow thistle is a great plant for green soup. It grows all over roadsides and disturbed lots here in central Virginia.
In ideal specimens, the flavor is similar to lettuce. Harvest the young leaves and unopened flower buds, which make for a nice edible garnish.
To identify sow thistle, look for dandelion-like flowers that appear in clusters at the end of long stalks. The leaves are irregularly-lobed and spiny, and mature specimens have very defined, prickly spines that are softened during cooking (though specimens with very well-defined spines may be too old to be tasty). Simmering helps reduce the bitterness further in more flavorful specimens.
Recommended “Flavoring” Greens
Field Garlic (Allium vineale)
As a small child I used to go hunting for “onion grass” every spring, munching it up despite the fact that it was really too oniony to be enjoyed on its own. As an invasive species, you don’t have to worry about over-harvesting. Field garlic was the first wild edible I learned, but as a boy I never bothered digging one up to get to the small, garlicky bulb beneath the surface of the soil.
Chop up the “grass” part and use as you would scallions, and/or dig up the bulb and mince it up to use as you would onion or garlic to add some flavor to your soup. As with normal garlic or onions, there is a papery sheath you’ll want to remove, but it basically comes off on its own during chopping.
Identifying field garlic is easy. Leaves are grass-like and hollow, and bulbs are small. All parts of the plant will smell like onion, especially when crushed between your fingers, leaving no doubt for positive identification. It’s also considered an invasive, so harvest as much as you please.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Named for flat, purse-shaped fruits, Shepherd’s Purse is in the mustard family and makes a good flavoring spice.
Pluck from the stem, hold the bottom between your index and middle finger, and run it up the stem to detach the little “purses” and cause them to fall into a paper bag. The greens can also be eaten.
Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata)
This invasive plant has leaves with an oniony flavor, and roots that taste somewhat like horseradish. It’s strong-tasting and is also in the mustard family, so you won’t need too much of it. My dad used to make my brother and I pull it up in the woods around our house every spring and summer, and in peak season I’d smell garlic in the air after pulling hundreds of them.
If it grows in your area, chances are you see it every spring and summer. Scallop-shaped leaves will smell oniony when crushed between your fingers, making for an easy identification test.
This plant can get quite tall in some places—up to three feet or so, where the little white flower heads bloom and threaten to spread their seed. All parts are edible but for a green soup I recommend adding finely-chopped leaves or minced bits of the root as a flavoring element.
Since Garlic Mustard is a non-native invasive, it’s impossible to overharvest it. As much as I like eating it, the ecosystems in the U.S. where it grows would be better off if it were eradicated.
Making Green Soup: The Green Broth Method
There are two ways to make a forager’s soup. You can grind the greens into paste and turn your whole broth green, or you can just chop them up and let distinctive plant pieces swirl in the broth.
The former method can work great but is is more difficult to do well, because the flavors of all your plants will become inseparable from the flavor of the broth. Increased surface area on the plants from being finely-ground will also bring out more intense flavors.
The other method, using chopped and sautéed plants, retains the distinctive flavor of your chicken broth, allowing you to sample the flavors of each of the individual plants you’ve added. It tends to be more forgiving in terms of achieving the right flavor balance of mildness versus intensity.
For the “green broth” method, just sauté your plants briefly in some olive oil (unless using chickweed, which I just add raw after rinsing), and then grind the plants into a paste in a blender or food processor, adding olive oil as needed to get a thin but pasty consistency similar to that of pesto sauce.
From there you can simply stir them into your broth until well-blended and heat it all up again to get it hot. Try topping with some parmesan cheese.
You can experiment with different plants to find a flavor that’s just right for you, but you can start with my method of four parts mild-flavored plants and one half-part strong-flavored plants, and adjust from there to taste.
Making Green Soup: The Chopped Veggie Method
This method, as mentioned earlier, is a bit more forgiving for beginners, as it’s easier to avoid creating a soup with too strong a flavor. Since there’s less surface area when you keep the plants as whole pieces, the flavors are easier to control.
Instead of creating a green paste from ground-up plants, as with the previous method, this method calls for sautéing whole plant pieces and then then steeping them in hot broth. You can then season to taste with some of your leftover raw plants, or just the salt and pepper in your pantry.
Aside from experimenting with salads, forager’s soup in its many different forms is in my opinion the best way to dip your toe into the world of foraging for your own nutritious—and yes, delicious—wild plants.
Once you’re comfortable, there’s no limit to what you could make: stuffed wild grape leaves, delicious pesto, wild plantain leaf chips, cattail flour, dandelion wine…the list goes on and on. And it’s like I always say…money may not grow on trees, but food literally does! All we have to know is learn how to find and use it.
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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