Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foraged Simple Milkweed Bud Stir-Fry Recipe

After a long day of being in the sun, hiking around foraging, I usually don't want to spend hours prepping an elaborate dinner. A quick stir-fry can be the perfect solution. Straightforward ingredients, simple, carefully chosen spices, and an exotic, wild element produce a memorable meal, one that comes together in about 30 minutes--and all in one pot!.

Milkweed buds are a great wild food source. They are generally abundant, incredibly easy to gather, and are part of a plant that will produce one vegetable after another over the course of several months. (Shoots in the early spring, buds and flowers in the early summer, and pods during the height of summer.)

Milkweed stand, with edible flower buds
Especially if you are in an urban area, the biggest challenge can be finding milkweed from an uncontaminated environment. Given the plant's fondness for disturbed ground, and open, sunny areas, rows are frequently lined up, with tantalizing abundance, around highways, construction sites, and other polluted,areas. I have found good sources to be abandoned fields and river/stream floodplains, and other recommend woods that have been recently logged. These were harvested from a parking lot that had been abandoned 40-odd years ago. (More on that here).

The monarch caterpillar depends on milkweed to thrive
When foraging for milkweed buds, take only from well-established populations, and only take 1 or 2 per plant. I aim for the largest ones, since they fill my needs quickly, and ultimately I harvest fewer. Some foragers prefer the smaller, more densely closed buds, and Samuel Thayer reports that those that are just about to bloom are sweetest. . .but I just can't determine any difference in flavor.

Be careful to look out for, and not inadvertently harm, the young caterpillars of monarch butterflies, who will be hatching on milkweed at this time of year.

As wild foods go, milkweed buds are not one of the most exciting, at least not in my opinion. Some claim they taste like broccoli, some say green beans, I say they taste like a generic green vegetable. Good--but nothing to crow over. Maybe they will be more flavorful in your region. They do have a very unique texture, and a simple stir fry allows that quality to shine. If you find the texture distracting, don't worry, the pods will be ripe soon.

Be careful not to pick the flowerbuds of any of the toxic dogbanes. At this stage, the plants really do not look similar, if you compare descriptions with a reliable guide. Dogbane will taste incredibly bitter, as will toxic varieties of milkweed. If your plant tastes bitter, do not eat it.

This recipe is pretty basic, but it lends itself well to adaption. For vegetarians and vegans, tofu could be used in place of the chicken, added at the end of the dish instead of the beginning. Fresh ginger would be a nice addition, and you could experiment with fish sauce as well. You could add orange, or sriracha, or sesame. . . but at that point you really have a completely different dish. One of the fun things about stir fries are the endless experimentation!

Simple Milkweed Bud Stir-Fry 

1 lb chicken breast, sliced into strips
2 cups of milkweed buds
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cup carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/4 cup of minced garlic
1/2 cup of broth (water may be used in a pinch), divided
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 dried chilies
1 - 2 tsp. sesame oil
Oil, for frying
4 cups of cooked rice, for serving. 
  1. Blend the cornstarch into 1/4 cup of the broth or water. Set aside.
  2. Start your rice cooking according to the package instructions.
  3. Clean your milkweed, and inspect for insects and spiders. 
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a larger saute pan or wok. When the oil is hot, break open the dried chilies and add the chilies, their seeds, and the garlic to the oil. Stir gently, and heat until fragrant, but do not brown the garlic.
  5. Add the sliced chicken breasts, and brown on all sides, turning frequently.
  6. Add 1/4 cup broth to the pan or wok, and reduce to a medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 7 minutes, until the chicken is about halfway cooked through.
  7. Add the onions and carrot, and more broth, if needed. Continuing to stir or toss, cook the ingredients until the onion is translucent.
  8. Add the soy sauce and the milkweed buds. Stir to coat everything evenly. While continuously stirring or tossing, cook until the milkweed buds are tender, about 7 more minutes. Alternatively, you can cover your dish, and allow it to steam--but still stir it at least once. 
  9. When the milkweed is cooked, move the solids to one side of the pan, and tilt so the liquid pools in the empty side. Add the cornstarch slurry to the liquid. Whisk together, then stir to coat everything evenly with the sauce. Drizzle the sesame oil over the top, and stir or toss to finish. 
  10. Serve over the hot cooked rice.
Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
Serves 4


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