By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Greens & Beans: Nutritious foods, free for the taking

Lately, I’ve been reading a number of heartbreaking stories about people finding themselves unable to afford vegetables or other nutritious food, and fearing their health is suffering in consequence.

Times are hard for many people. It might, therefore, be useful to learn more about some of the foods growing free in the world. It won’t likely fix everything — nothing I’m suggesting here, for example, is especially high in calories — but it may help to fill in some of the nutrition gaps. If you have the ability to preserve some of the bounty by drying or freezing, you can keep yourself supplied for months.

It is, of course, very important to harvest from unsprayed, untreated land. No fertilizers, herbicides or anything else that might poison you. Also, make sure you’ve accurately identified plants before consuming. The library is one good source of guide books.

Greens & Beans

Nicole Montesano is a mostly vegetarian who likes to eat, cook and garden.

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Dandelions are a good place to start the search for free vegetables. They’re rampant in the spring, and they are highly nutritious; good sources of vitamins such as K, A, B, and C, and of minerals and fiber. They are a diuretic, so check with your doctor if you’re on prescription medications.

Look for ones that aren’t yet blooming. Once they bloom, the greens turn too bitter to be palatable. They are bitter before that, too, but less so.

Considered a nuisance today, they were imported deliberately as a food and medicine source. Use the greens for anything you’d use more familiar greens for, from soup to stir-fry to casseroles. People also put them in salad, sometimes mixed with milder greens.

They do tend to need quite a lot of rinsing, and maybe a brief soaking. You can blanch them about 30 seconds or so to remove the bitterness. On the other hand, bitterness is good for you; it aids digestion.

If you obtain more than you can eat immediately, freeze or dry the excess. Unlike native plants, dandelion is probably not subject to concerns about overharvesting.

Dandelion roots are good for you, too. They’re most often roasted and used as a coffee substitute; they have a rich, slightly bitter flavor with a lot of body. The best time to harvest is late fall or early spring, and the best location is in someone’s garden, where the loose soil will encourage sizable roots. The roots will need to be very well scrubbed. Once you’ve finally got them clean, chop them roughly and put them into a food processor. Grind them fairly fine, spread them on a cookie sheet and place them in a 250 oven for a couple of hours to dry and roast. You could also chop or grind them by hand.

You’ll have to experiment to determine for yourself how dark a roast you prefer. Use about a teaspoon per cup of coffee — or tea, if you prefer to call it that — adjusting to taste. Steep in boiling water, and strain before drinking. As with coffee, some like it plain, and some prefer to add milk or creamer.

Other edible garden weeds include broadleaf plantain — the weed, not the banana relative — chickweed and purslane, both of which some people like to add to salad. Lambsquarters is also edible.

Lemon balm is a naturalized garden escapee that grows like a weed. You can use it as a flavoring or salad ingredient, although I prefer it in tea. To dry, rinse, shake dry and tie the stems together. Hang the bunch upside down until dry, then strip off the leaves and store in a plastic bag or glass jar. Steep about a tablespoon of crushed, dried leaves in two cups boiling water and strain before drinking.

Lemon balm is a medicinal herb, used for calming, and for anti-viral properties. It’s also rather pleasant to drink, although quite mild. I like to combine it with something sour.

Studies have shown lemon balm to be effective against cold sores. Dip cotton balls in tea from the steeped leaves to apply topically.

Check with your doctor before consuming if you are taking sedatives, thyroid medications or HIV medications.

Stinging nettles are ready for harvest this time of year. You’re looking for just the top five or six inches of the emerging plants. Wear gloves; they’re called stinging for a reason. Nipping off the tops prunes them, but shouldn’t kill them; nonetheless, don’t over-harvest.

They, too, are rich in vitamins and minerals. You can cook them fresh, or freeze or dry them for adding to soup. To dry without a dehydrator, I find the easiest method is to spread them on cookie sheets on top of the refrigerator or another warm location. Be warned, even when dry, they sting. You may prefer to handle them with tongs. Once cooked, they’ll give no further problems.

Fir needle tips can also be dried to make a vitamin C-rich, mild and pleasant-tasting tea. The new growth is usually preferred, but snip with some care; those are new branches you’re removing. Be sure not to take too many from any single tree.

Later, when blackberries ripen, pick a lot of them and freeze, if possible, to provide yourself with fruit for a longer time than the fresh harvest will last. Dry some, too, if you can, to pound up and steep for tea.

There are, of course, many other edible wild plants, but definitely check a plant guide or consult with someone knowledgeable before proceeding. For more information, visit

Nicole Montesano can be contacted at

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