June 11, 2014 at 2:23 PM ET
Summer is the perfect season to forage for wild foods. Edible plants and sweet berries are everywhere this time of year, and they add local flavor to everything from salads and sandwiches to desserts and drinks. It's best to learn about foraging in-person with an expert guide, but your own garden or backyard can be an ideal place to start poking around for common edible plants. Here are tips on which plants to look for—and how to use them to add fresh flavors to your summer meals and beverages—from Ava Chin, author of the new book Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal (Simon & Schuster).
Wild dandelion-mesclun salad
Easy-to-recognize dandelions with their “toothed” leaves and yellow blossoms thrive on lawns across the country, and are high in vitamins K, E and A. For a healthy summer salad, tear a handful of freshly washed dandelion leaves into bite-sized pieces with your fingers and add to mesclun greens. Toss with cherry tomatoes or halved, grilled peaches, shaved parmesan, and your favorite balsamic vinaigrette.
Picnic sandwiches with garlic mustard spread
Grind up flavorful garlic mustard into a delicious pesto-like spread to enhance the taste of egg salad or grilled chicken. Garlic mustard springs up in gardens and parks, and along the edges of woods. Like dandelions, it can be found across the U.S. This time of year the plant produces triangular-shaped leaves: Toss them into a blender with extra virgin olive oil, a dash of lemon, and a pinch of salt and pepper to make a zingy sandwich spread.
Lamb's quarters on the side
Considered among the most nutritious plants in the world, the spinach-like greens known as lamb's quarters out-spinach their more familiar, domesticated cousins in terms of pure flavor and health benefits. Also known as white goosefoot because of their leaf shape and the whitish powder that covers the new growth, lamb's quarters are a treasured vegetable in Greek, Bangladeshi and Persian cuisine. They're best gathered before they go to seed, and plucked at the new tips like basil. For an instant summer side dish, sauté the greens in extra virgin olive oil with a little salt and pepper to taste.
Burdock and pancetta pie
While burdock is better known as a “gobo” in Asia and prized for its earthy taproot, this common weed, which thrives across the northern states and Canada, also produces edible leaves that are high in phytonutrients. Choose the youngest, most tender leaves that you can find and prepare them in the following way: Blanch in boiling water for five minutes, strain, then roughly chop the leaves while cooking pancetta bits. Add the leaves to the pan and simmer with a touch of cream sherry. Place the burdock and pancetta mixture over rolled-out pizza dough, and lightly sprinkle on a few pinches of your favorite melting cheese, like gruyere or mozzarella. Place in a hot oven and cook as you would any pizza. The bitter components of the leaves mellow out and become somewhat kale-like when paired with the smokiness of pancetta and cheese.
You know when the mulberries are fruiting: Cars get berry-bombed, sidewalks get littered, and children and insects have a field day. White and red mulberries can be found across the country, but contrary to the popular children’s rhyme, they're actually trees, not bushes. While both kinds of mulberries make wonderful jams, they also render well into lovely compotes. Melt butter in a skillet, adding in brown sugar and a dash of lemon or balsamic vinegar; fold berries into the mixture and cook for 3-5 minutes. Pour over ice cream, cake or waffles.
Native sumac trees, both staghorn and smooth, produce red berry clusters that resemble torches in the height of summer and throughout the fall. You can make a refreshing lemonade-like beverage by dunking the berry clusters in water for at least four hours (or overnight). Perfect for diabetics, sumac-ade is so naturally sweet and thirst-quenching that it doesn’t require any sugar. Sumac, which is not to be confused with poison sumac—a completely different plant—is also the main citrusy ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice za’atar.
Ava Chin is the author of Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal (Simon & Schuster). A professor at CUNY, she forages with her family throughout New York City and in England. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.