Free food is everywhere


DELICIOUS Nettle pesto has a rich, earthy, spinach-like flavor with a slight tang – and zero sting.

Widen your diet just by looking around you

Green Living
McKinley Neal

National Biodiversity Week just wrapped up on Sunday. Events were held around the country to help people connect with and appreciate the incredible diversity in nature – from plants and trees to insects, birds and mammals – and how we can help protect it. This dovetails nicely with the ‘No Mow May’ movement to encourage people to leave their lawns during the month when many native wildflower species emerge to become great pollen sources for pollinators.
The interesting thing about biodiversity that we often spend less time talking about, though, is how having a broad range of plants around can help us diversify our diets as well, and rediscover more traditional ways of seasonal eating and plant use. The American Gut Project found that people who ate at least 30 different tywpes of plants per week had a more diverse gut microbiome than people who ate ten or less.
My first experience with the concept of eating common ‘weeds’ (as I had been taught to consider them) was when a friend who did an internship on a farm cultivating herbs told me excitedly that a handful of nettles contained more vitamin C than an orange. This was impressive to me as well, and so I have slowly learned about several plants that are abundant in my garden.
Nettles are indeed rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants, plus an array of minerals, especially iron. Nettle tea is familiar to most; it can easily be made by steeping fresh nettles in boiled water, or by drying the nettle thoroughly and then breaking it up to use as any other loose leaf tea. Many cultures in Europe traditionally used fresh spring nettles in soups at the start of spring. I love them in a potato and leek soup, as well as briefly blanched and made into a pesto, or sautéed in olive oil or butter much like spinach or kale.  
Dandelions are another common species that offers many options – the flowers can be used in salads or to make traditional wine or tea, the leaves are great for salads, in pestos or sautéed, and the roots can be boiled for a non-caffeinated coffee substitute. Ribwort Plaintain is a common species that is easily overlooked, but it is also rich in vitamins and minerals. The leaves work in pesto or hummus as well, or in savoury meals (add to an omelette, quiche or other tart, or in stews or even a fruit crumble).
One of my favourite books on the subject of edible plants growing in our immediate surroundings is ‘Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies’, by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal. also has an excellent index of many common wild plants and their uses.
PAX is also hosting a series of seasonal foraging for cookery workshops with Lindsay Munro of Heart & Head Herbal, who recently led a course and tasting event on using spring greens and flowers and provided a lovely recipe book. Find her on Instagram: @heartandheadherbal.

McKinley Neal co-runs PAX Whole Foods & Eco Goods, a minimal-waste shop in Westport offering bulk organic toods, reusable goods, household products, eco-trendly personal care Items and gifts.