Eating In: Go wild

Paula Wolfert's new book contains lots of delicious recipes for wild greens, discovers Michael Bateman, and happily, you won't have to go foraging for all of them

FORAGING is all the fashion on the west coast of the United States. Foraging for food - for salad leaves and wild greens, for woodland berries and forest fungus - is the antidote to the tyranny of modern supermarketing with its bland conformity. Indeed, America's leading cookery book writer Paula Wolfert, who regards herself first and foremost as a "hunter-forager", implies that foraging is the last refuge of the super-serious cook (in New York, though, foraging will be restricted to a quick trip to top grocers Dean & Deluca).

Wolfert is the winner of the prestigious Julia Child and James Beard awards for her cookery books on Morocco (she lived there for seven years while researching it), south-west France and the eastern Mediterranean. In her new book, Mediterranean Grains & Greens, published this month, Wolfert enlarges on the foraging theme. She takes up the call of the wild so passionately expressed in Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed, that classic of food romanticism by a London journalist who decamped to rural sites in Catalonia, the Cyclades, Tuscany and Apulia.

In fact, it was the Californian cook Alice Waters who first framed the concept of forager, a theme at her famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. When Wolfert picked up the baton she ran with it - and how she ran, practically the length and breadth of the Mediterranean.

"I've lived the cycle of the hunter-forager in Italy, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia and Israel," says Wolfert, "gathering greens with food writers, shepherdesses and home cooks. In most places where I have foraged, wild greens are revered as the finest yield of the earth. From the Euphrates to Heraklion on the island of Crete, from the Tunisian coast south of Sfax to Jerusalem, I foraged with people who still believe the earth's bounty is there for the taking. Sometimes it was wild asparagus and wild garlic that they were after, sometimes thistles and mallow or more exotic greens."

Wolfert has an insatiable appetite for knowledge, so the result of her research was bound to be encyclopaedic. From hundreds of plants she has focussed on some 80 field leaves and wild greens in common use among country people, either eaten raw in salads or cooked as greens. A shortlist includes those familiar to gardeners, if not the average cook, such as borage, salad burnet, lemon balm, wild mustard leaves, wild garlic and wild fennel (found along British roadsides). All will enhance salads.

Others are generally known as weeds; stinging nettles (young nettle tops can replace spinach in recipes), chickweed (used raw in salads or, in Italy, tossed into vegetable soup), common mallow (the shoots and leaves are stewed with chicken in Greece), field poppy (in southern Turkey the raw leaves are added to pies and bulgar pilaffs) and fat hen (boiled like spinach).

Many are more esoteric, known to the naturalist, such as wild carrot, wild salsify, sea kale, wild radish, wild rocket, shepherd's purse, woodland Alexanders (which taste like celery) and several varieties of sorrel.

In the Mediterranean foraging is known as "apron cooking" because of the aprons worn by the foragers. These are usually home-made and have three pockets. One pocket for bitter greens, one for sweet greens and the third for roots and mushrooms.

In Friuli, north-east Italy, there's a dish called pistic which can include as many as 56 different leaves, including such delights as nettle, corn poppy and watercress. That's quite a shopping list. The leaves are boiled, squeezed dry and sauteed in butter with garlic and lard.

In Greece and Cyprus, horta is a prized dish. This is a mix of bitter, tangy, sharp or mild edible greens, such as young nettle tops, spinach and wild chard, but may also include wild fennel, rocket, mustard greens, endive, radish sprouts, pea shoots, escarole (bitter lettuce), frisee, spinach, fat hen and young dandelion leaves. These wild greens are boiled and then dressed with vinegar or lemonjuice and olive oil.

I've enjoyed some of these wild leaves, such as fat hen and nettle tops. I pick marsh samphire and rock samphire and sea kale. Sheep's sorrel is fabulous and lemony in a salad. I like the mucilaginous texture of wild mallow, but chickweed strikes me as metallic and dandelion too bitter. I'm looking forward to trying corn poppy leaves.

But in terms of taste and nutrition, foraging is a great idea, though without Wolfert's experience (or her book at your side) you may feel tentative about experimenting with the more esoteric leaves. But here are some tips.

Strong-flavoured greens (most wild greens, turnip greens, collards and dandelions) should be submerged while boiling and plunged into icy water when done. Press out surplus moisture, then sautee in olive oil to serve. The bitterness of greens such as mustuard and turnip greens can by tempered by slow-braising. Toss them in hot oil then cook in stock, covered, for 20 minutes.

Tender leaves, such as freshly-washed spinach or young chard, can be wilted in a pan with a little oil. Baby leaves, such as lamb's lettuce and rocket, need only minimum heat when wilting.

Happily, in her book, Wolfert features many delicious dishes with the more easily obtainable, tamer greens such as spinach and Swiss chard. To illustrate the approved Wolfert way with greens, we've chosen a recipe from Chez Panisse, created by head chef Christopher Lee.

`Mediterranean Grains & Greens' by Paula Wolfert, Kyle Cathie, pounds 25, is available to readers at the reduced price of pounds 22, including p&p (0171 840 8772). `Honey from a Weed' by Patience Gray, Prospect Books, pounds 12.99, is available at the special price of pounds 9.99, including p&p (01803 712269)

PROVENcAL TIAN WITH CREAMED SPINACH

This recipe combines hand-chopped young spinach with lots of stewed onions, enriched with a creamy bechamel-style sauce. Christopher Lee serves his version in a pastry shell. Paula Wolfert cooks hers in an earthenware pan, known as a tian.

Serves 6

675g/1lb 8oz young flat-leaf, stemmed spinach

5 tablespoons butter

450g/15oz chopped onions

112 cloves garlic

salt

freshly ground black pepper

112 tablespoons flour

250ml/8fl oz milk, heated

grated nutmeg

12g/12oz grated breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon olive oil

Wash the spinach thoroughly: discard the stems and bruised leaves and drain in a colander. Heat three tablespoons of butter in a 30cm (12in) saucepan until bubbling. Add the onions and cook, covered, over medium heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, roughly chop the spinach. When the onions are soft but not brown, stir in the spinach, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Raise the heat a little and cook for 10 minutes while stirring, until the spinach has expressed its moisture and is very liquid. Cover the pan, tip it, and drain the liquid into another pan. Reduce the liquid to one half and reserve. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook for one minute withoutbrowning. Pour in the reduced liquid and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is creamy and smooth. Gradually stir in the hot milk and nutmeg, and bring to the boil, stirring. Once boiling, fold in the spinach. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5. Place the spinach mixture in an oiled 25cm (10in) earthenware cazuela or tian, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, and drizzle with oil. Bake for 20 minutes, until the crumbs are browned and the tian is bubbling. Cool for 15 minutes and serve warm.

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