Sautéed Milkweed Pods,
a Surprising Foraged
Vegetable
By Charlie Burke

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Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is best known for its seeds which are
released in great numbers and float in the wind on silky streamers. Children
love to set them free when even the slightest breeze will carry them aloft.
This ubiquitous plant can be found in vacant city lots, on road sides and in
open fields from the eastern provinces of Canada west to Saskatchewan and
south to Georgia.  

Because they are important to the Yellow Swallowtail and Monarch
butterflies, we let them grow in and around our gardens and fields, and I’ve
come to appreciate their fragrant umbels of purple shaded flowers which
attract pollinators to the garden. While gathering pods this summer, I came
across several larvae of the Yellow Swallowtail, brightly striped in yellow and
black.

A few years ago in a used book store, I came across
Stalking the Wild
Asparagus, written by Euell Gibbons and published by David McKay
Company in New York in the early 1960’s. It received wide attention and
reacquainted Americans with foraging, coinciding with the “back to the land”
sentiment.

Euell Gibbons spoke of making flour from the roots of Cattails and making a
salad from their young shoots, boiling day lily buds for a tasty vegetable, and,
of course, gathering wild asparagus. He included descriptions of many edible
wild plants, flowers and fruits long forgotten by the middle of the twentieth
century.  This book is worth seeking out, if only to increase your awareness of
the rich diversity of native plant life, but you might find yourself adding
Purslane or some other “weed” to your salad.

I was surprised to find that several parts of Milkweed are edible. The young
spring shoots can be cooked like asparagus, young, just opened leaves can be
steamed or boiled like spinach, unopened flower buds can be steamed much
like broccoli, and young pods have great flavor.

Two years ago, when we were growing for talented Chef Sebastian Carosi
during his tenure at The Shaker Table at Canterbury Shaker Village, I noted
some small pods on the Milkweed growing along our stone wall. I cooked a
few at home and liked their flavor and texture, then I sautéed some for
Sebastian who liked them so much he sent some of the Village’s volunteers out
into the fields to gather more. They remained on his menu as long as they were
available.

This week I gathered several bags of pods, and Chef Giovanni Leopardi is
serving them with a special Pacific tuna at Carpaccio Ristorante Italiano, his
exciting new restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire. I think Euell Gibbons
would be surprised but pleased that humble foraged Milkweed pods have
found their way onto the upscale menus of these two innovative chefs!

To Select Milkweed Pods

Look for small (under two inch in length) firm pods. Some larger are also
edible, as long as the seeds and silk are moist and white. Break a few open to
be certain that the inside has not become fibrous. Wash and remove any leaf or
flower debris, and they are ready to cook. The thick white sap which gives the
plant its name is bitter until the pods are cooked. Euell Gibbons wrote that the
pods should be placed in a pot and covered with boiling water, then boiled
until tender. He said that if placed into cold water and then brought to a boil,
the bitterness became fixed by the slow increase in temperature. I have found
that sautéing over medium-high heat leaves no trace of bitterness and have not
boiled the pods. I did bring some larger pods to Chef Giovanni and suggested
he parboil them first if sautéing does not make them tender. If the smaller size
is abundant, then simply avoid the larger pods.

Ingredients:

Small Milkweed pods, washed, approximately 10/serving
Flour for dredging
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Cayenne, optional
Chopped garlic, optional
Extra virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges, optional

Preparation:

Trim the stems from the pods. Season the flour with salt, pepper and cayenne,
if using. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, and then film the bottom
with oil. Dredge the pods in the seasoned flour, then sauté with the garlic until
pods are bright green and tender, approximately five minutes. Serve
immediately, adding salt and pepper to taste and a squeeze of lemon juice.

The taste of these pods is like okra but without its gelatinous texture, and I
serve them with either meat or fish.

As awareness of the advantages of eating locally grown foods increases,
knowledge of edible native plants will increase local options. Native plants do
not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or diesel fuel for delivery, and a
walk in the fields gathering food for dinner is a great way to slow down, as
well as providing an opportunity to appreciate the butterflies, dragon flies and
other creatures we are often too busy to notice. Binging the kids along will
connect them with the land as their food source and may encourage them to
experiment with new vegetables  There are excellent current books on foraging
so check them out – you might walk and cook your way into a new hobby.
(We
welcome your feedback if you try this recipe, if you have experience foraging or have other
recipes for foraged food. Write to
editor@theheartofnewengland.com)
    








About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at
Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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milkweed pods, sauteed!
The common milkweed
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