Next time you’re out for a stroll, stop and look down: You just might be stepping on tonight’s dinner. We’ve noticed chefs adding lots of intriguing plant-based ingredients to their menus lately—things like basil seeds and, yes, even common sidewalk and garden weeds. Look in-the-know this fall by serving one of these at your next dinner party, or mix them into cocktails. And no, you don’t have to scour the earth to find them: You can spot these ingredients at farmers’ markets too. Here’s a glossary of some of our favorites, with tips on how to use them:
Edible flowers don’t just show up in the spring: Nasturtium made several appearances at the recent Feast Portland food festival in Portland, Ore., including in one dish by chef Justin Wills of Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay, Ore. A huge fan of the plant, Wills gathers it from a nearby farm in fall or early winter, when it's in bloom. All three of the plant’s parts are great for cooking, Wills points out: The green leaves, which look like watercress but have a light horseradish flavor, are terrific as a garnish or in pesto, chimichurri or even granitas or sorbets; the yellow flowers can be candied, or dried and combined with sea salt; and the pods, the trendiest part of the plant, are tasty when pickled or brined and used like capers.
This common weed often grows in sidewalk cracks and resembles a small jade plant. But it has more Omega-3 fatty acids than any edible plant, according to researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And thanks to the urban foraging phenomenon, purslane is now showing up on restaurant menus. Look for it at farmers’ markets—or growing as a weed in your vegetable garden. Add it to salads for its peppery, lemony taste and cucumber-like crunch, as chef Winston Blick does at his Baltimore restaurant, Clementine.
Dill is ubiquitous in chicken noodle soup, tuna sandwiches, and all kinds of savory dishes; but at Pazzo, also in Portland, Ore., chef John Eisenhart just started cooking with dill pollen—the actual pollen from the dill plant. “It’s more forward, more aromatic, more floral and brighter,” he explains. The flavor does dissipate when cooked for too long, so he suggests using it as a finishing touch instead. He often sprinkles it over razor clams, but you can use it for simpler dishes at home: Eisenhart suggests adding it to heirloom tomato sandwiches with mayo, on a nice grainy bread.
Seeds add a pleasing texture to dishes, but instead of the typical poppy or sesame, consider trying basil seeds. You can harvest them straight from the flowering top of a basil plant or buy them in a packet. When rehydrated, they have the texture of tomato seeds but the unmistakable flavor of basil. Steal this idea of a stepped-up caprese salad from chef David Metz of New York City’s Craftbar: At a recent dinner event, he pickled basil seeds and combined them in a dish with tomatoes and burrata cheese.
As the flowers drop off wild roses, you can spot the rose hips, or seed pods, which look like tiny crab apples. They ripen by autumn, which is perfect timing: Since they’re jam-packed with Vitamin C, you can use them to stave off winter colds, says John Stanton, bartender at Chicago’s Sable Kitchen & Bar. Look for rose hips in grocery stores, where they're sold dried and packaged in tea bags. Once rehydrated, they look like small, dark-red pellets. Their citrusy and slightly sour flavors are lovely in teas, soups and jams, but we like Stanton’s idea of using them in a cocktail—all in the name of staying healthy, of course. Get his recipe below.
Whistle Stop cocktail
Created by John Stanton, Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago
For the rose hip tea syrup:
- ½ cup dehydrated rose hips (or 10 tea bags of dried rose hips)
- 1 quart boiling water
- Rosewater (half an eyedropper)
- Sugar, as needed
For the cocktail:
- ¾ oz rose hip tea syrup (instructions above)
- 1 ½ oz Pisco brandy
- ½ oz Cocchi Rosa, a rosé aperitif wine (or Lillet, for a less intense flavor)
- ¾ oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 egg white
- 5 drops rosewater
Make the rose hip syrup: Steep the rose hips in boiling water for 15 minutes. Strain and mix with half an eyedropper of rosewater to make rose tea. Mix the tea with an equal amount of sugar by volume, until the sugar dissolves. Then refrigerate.
Shake ¾ ounce of the rose hip syrup with the Pisco, Cocchi Rosa, lemon juice and egg white and serve up in a coupe. Garnish with five drops of rosewater.