Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eating Invasive Bastard Cabbage for the First Time

It's always exciting trying a new plant or mushroom for the first time, and for me, bastard cabbage (Latin name: Rapistrum rugosum) was one I wanted to add to my menu ever since my husband and I first started talking about moving to Texas.

Though it may be invasive, bastard cabbage does serve
a purpose: it provides spring forage for pollinators.
All the plants were covered in honeybees and butterflies.
Garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, kudzu, and now bastard cabbage. . . one of the main focuses of my foraging has always been to eat as many invasive species as often as I can. Not only does it help mitigate the ecological damage of a plant, but it provides a sustainable food source.

Rapistrum rugosum, commonly known as bastard cabbage, turnip weed, or wild turnip, is a highly invasive member of the mustard family, known as Brassicaceae. This is the family that includes mustard greens, broccoli, brussle sprouts, turnips, and, you guessed it: cabbage.

It's a hearty plant from Eurasia, and it's hearty qualities are giving it the edge over local Texas wildflowers. Some fear that the famous Texas bluebonnets are in danger of extinction through competition with this invader.  Though mostly a problem in Texas, bastard cabbage is also spreading in small pockets of New Mexico, California, and Arizona.

Having moved to Texas last May, I waited nearly a year to try bastard cabbage. If I'm not directly introduced to a new plant by a local expert, I try to observe it for an entire lifecycle, and become completely familiar. I like to see it in all stages of growth: new growth, shoots, flowers, seeds, etc. I compare each stage with descriptions and pictures and make sure that everything lines up.

Ladybugs are also non-native to the Americas - an invasive on an invasive!
Each plant was covered in them, a sign that the plants had aphids - as ladybugs are carnivores. 

Of course, being a member of the mustard family, safe identification is pretty easy. All members of the family are edible, at least in North America, so I really could have eaten it as soon as I was sure it was a mustard, but a little extra caution never hurt anyone.

I was unsure about trying bastard cabbage after it had flowered. Mustards are almost always better when you get them early--as a basal rosette. But I hadn't completed the full lifecycle of the plant when it was just a rosette, and I had to be 100% sure of what I was going to eat.

I'm generally pretty fond of the mustard family -- the wild edibles I know have unique flavors, and bring exciting flavor profiles to any dish. Garlic mustard has a garlicy, slightly bitter note; yellow rocket is sharply peppery, with a bit of a horseradish bite; watercress is watercress: tangy and pungent and unique.

So with high hopes, I sampled some of the plant in the wild.


I was hoping for a mustardy bite from the flowers, but they were utterly bland. The leaves were bitter in taste, and fuzzy in texture. Only the stems were good, with a great asparagus meets young corn flavor.

Then I cooked it, and everything changed. .  .
This is a genuinely good wild edible.

Given the bitterness of the raw leaf, I opted to try a spicy preparation, as spice balances and compensates for bitterness very well. I decided on Chana masala, one of the easiest  Indian dishes to prepare.

I gathered about a pound of the lushest looking leaves, and took 4-5 plants whole as well. I got home, rinsed everything off, cut everything up small into small pieces. I was just going to add the cabbage directly to the dish and allow it to sauté, but the hairy leaves distressed me. 

I decided to try a blanch first. The usual: boiling water, add the greens and boil for 2 minutes or so, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. After the cabbage cooled I nibbled some.
It was a revelation! Nearly all the fuzzy/hairiness was gone, and the bitterness was 100% gone. The remaining flavor, while subtle, was excellent: spinach-like, but with a slight peppery kick and some sweetness, like young corn.

Honestly I was kind of disappointed that I already had the Chana masala started, because I left that the flavor would be better complimented by a simpler preparation: a little garlic, butter or olive oil, maybe a squeeze of lemon and a grating of asiago. I will definitely try it that way next time. Or maybe as a pesto on top of a white pizza!!

I'll post a recipe for my weedy chana masala soon!

When the stems are as large as the biggest 2 here
they will be woody - it's best to eat the small ones.
Ultimately, even if it wasn't the optimal preparation, the chana masala was quite good. I was afraid that the milder taste of the blanched cabbage would be overpowered by the spices, but it held it's own.

Ironically, the only part that was a disapointment was the tasty stems! They kept their excellent flavor, but the larger ones were woody and stringy, I actually had to spit out pieces at times.

Still, all-in-all it was a sucessful experiment, and a great example of how sometimes you have to experiment with a plant to bring out it's best qualities: you don't just want to dismiss it out of hand.

Look for my chana masala recipe this week, and other recipes from my weekend forage!

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