Feed yourself for free: The 12 'Survival Plants' Part 3

John Yeoman
Friday, 8th March 2013

Food for free: the next three plants in our 12 plant series that could help us survive with all the nutrients our body needs.

A few more wild food sources to gain all the nutrients we need and all for free.

Wild mushrooms

The British are fond of mushrooms. We eat at least 28,000 tons annually of just one species, the Agaricus campestris, which has arguably one of the least interesting flavours of any edible fungi, but merely lives longer on the market stall. Meanwhile, some 3,000 species of wild fungi grow in Britain - and a mere four are seriously poisonous.

Nutritionally, mushrooms rank between meat and vegetables, averaging 4% protein (well above most vegetables,) a mineral content of 1% (similar to carrots,) ample vitamins B and D (and some A and C,) and between 100 and 150 calories per pound (220-230 per kilo) As a 'survival' food, edible fungi amply repay the initial trouble spent in identifying them.

But forget about foraging for the 'common mushroom.' It's now virtually unavailable in the wilds. Far more available are the shaggy cap, puffball and ring champignon. Unlike most other edible fungi, they have the following overwhelming virtues for the city dweller.

They flourish in town parks and even rubble-based wastelands, from summer to December. They are easy to identify with a good field guide, but any close 'look alikes' are also almost certain to be edible too, or at worst indigestible.

Shaggy Cap (Coprinus comatus): Unmistakeable with its white flaky truncheon shape, it is highly deliquescent (wilting within an hour or two, even refrigerated,) shrinks fast in cooking and is soft textures and delicately flavoured. So collect only the young unopened specimens and three times what you need, use dry or immediately and cook with only the mildest or creamiest of flavourings. It contains a harmless chemical, which can produce nausea in combination with alcohol, so reserve for teetotal meal or for breakfast omelettes.

Puffball (Lycoperdom perlatum): Eat this familiar golf-shaped fungus while it's young and white for it fast matures - even when cropped - to an inedible brown spore case (which has medicinal uses.) It's very high in protein - more than half that of steak by dry weight is as digestible as the 'common mushroom' and has a mild taste and firm texture. Replaces button mushrooms especially and is particularly delicious fried in large slices with garlic.

Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades): For ready recognition, this pale brown fungus should be picked when it's distinctively part of a mushroom ring or belt, but then picked very young. (Older fungi are often infested with insects.) It holds nearly double the carbohydrate and calories of the 'common mushroom,' has a pleasant woody taste and aroma when fresh, which becomes pungent when pickled. The dried caps give robust Oriental flavour to rich dishes.

Look for all these fungi the day after a heavy rain, on a dry morning when the air feels brittle, and so do you. But you could always experiment with ceps or dried Chinese mushrooms (e.g. shiitake) bought in a delicatessen, before taking the plunge with fungi from the wilds.

A foolproof recipe for any edible fungi is to stew them gently in butter for up to 20 minutes until tender, with a tablespoon of milk and a little nutmeg. But vary them, by chopping and sautéing in omelettes or by mixing with beaten egg whites and breadcrumbs and forming into balls to deep fry.

A mushroom soup can be made by simmering them chopped for 30 minutes in milk with a sprinkling of mace or cinnamon and chopped fresh parsley. 

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The meagre feathery leaves of yarrow look an unpromising food, and their bitter spicy taste and aroma would seem to confirm this. Yet you can count on yarrow, along with plantain and dandelion, to be profusely available in the sootiest depths of the city on the worst soil the year round.

It rates high on minerals, particularly copper and will itself supply an entire pharmacy of herbal remedies, when either eaten raw or infused with tea. To eat, the older leaves should be very well chopped or else have their fibrous spine stripped off.

Add the nutritious leaves or tiny white flowers finely shredded to salads of cucumber and cooked potato, with a dressing of vinaigrette (or mayonnaise, cream, or lemon juice sweetened with honey). Mix them with grated raw carrot and beetroot, which themselves are often sweet enough to offset any bitterness. Scatter them, dried and powdered or freshly chopped, on sandwich spreads or in sweet desserts or drinks.

Yarrow is abundant enough to collect in bulk. Boil it for 20 minutes in two changes of water, to eat as a vegetable - either on its own tossed in butter or with bland vegetables like comfrey or fat hen.

Creamed yarrow is (if you use the youngest leaves) a very pleasant dish. Beat two eggs with 4oz (113g) of honey and four tablespoons of vinegar (preferably cider vinegar). Add a knob of melted butter, season and heat gently until boiling. Stir in a cupful of cream and mix all with the cooked yarrow to form a thick creamy serving. It can be eaten as it is or used as a filling for pies, pastries or homemade ravioli.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Every child soon becomes familiar with nettles. Their antidote is usually a much later discovery. Either cooking or drying the plant, however, banishes both their disconcerting hairs and their sting - which is ammonium bicarbonate and harmless. (Incidentally, its remedy is the juice of dock, sage, mint, rosemary or even nettle itself.)

These processes turn nettle into perhaps the most valuable of the survival herbs. Nettles are abundant, especially on rubbish heaps and they hold major amounts of vitamin C (more than spinach,) of protein (5.5%,) and of nearly all the minerals a human needs and notably iron and phosphorus.

Stinging nettle

Dried and powdered, they are therefore invaluable as a daily food supplement throughout the winter months, perhaps kept in the shaker as a salt substitute (safer for diabetics or those on a sodium-free diet.) The young leaves at any season are palatable, although you will harvest the best crop in spring for drying and should remove the coarser stems before cooking. The old leaves are not only very astringent in taste, but eaten in excess can cause kidney damage.

Add chopped nettles to any green vegetable, stew or soup, or juice them with others in a vegetable cocktail.

The Scottish nettle pudding is of historic vintage and is easily prepared : Mix one part by weight of cooked pureed young nettles with one part together of equal weights of cabbage (or Brussels sprouts,) onions (or leeks,) part-cooked grains, plus some rashers of fried bacon, a sprinkle of herbs, seasoning and an optional beaten egg.

Moisten with stock, tie in muslin in a pudding basin and cook in a medium oven for one and a half hours, or 30 minutes in a pressure cooker.


Feed yourself for free: the 12 'Survival Plants' Part 1

Feed yourself for free: the 12 'Survival Plants' Part 2

Feed yourself for free: the 12 'Survival Plants' Part 4

This excerpt was taken from Self Reliance: A Recipe for the New Millenium by John Yeoman

Photo Credits: www.geograph.org.uk