Saturday, March 19, 2016

Pickled Sow Thistle Bud "Capers"

As sow thistles get a bit older, and start to flower, the leaves become tougher, more bitter and a tad fibrous. The prickles can also become stiffer and less pleasant to eat. At this stage it's best to cook the leaves completely before you do anything with them. But this is the stage when the buds are also ripe for harvest.

An older sow thistle with buds

The buds don't taste all that different from the rest of the plant, a mellow sweetness within, sort of like corn, would be the only difference. Otherwise it's that same rich green, slightly bitter flavor, rather like kale. 

One of the most popular ways to eat any slightly bitter bud is to pickle it, and make sort of a mock caper--it's really crazy how much they tastes like them when done!

I've had sow thistles this way, but I've never made my own, so when I was on my evening walk and saw 5 large plants on the corner, I figured it was the perfect opportunity.

Each plant will yield numerous buds and spent flowers.

Bud on the left
Spent flower on the right (discard).
After positively identifying sow thistle, and spiny sow thistles are really easy to ID, (I should do a post on that soon), I just pluck the top of each stem off, right below the cluster of buds, blooms and spent blooms.

Unlike true thistles, the spines of spiny sow thistle aren't really sharp. You'll feel a prickling, but it's more like a tickle than an actual poke. 

I remove the leaves and then separate the spent flowers from the actual buds. The spent flowers will be higher on the plant.  The buds are what you want, and they will be tightly closed, often with a dimple on the top of the bud. The spent flowers will not be fully closed, often having a small tuft of yellow poking out, and will frequently have enlarged bases. 

Prickly sow thistles in flower, with buds, too!
It won't hurt you if you eat any of the spent flowers, they aren't poison, they just have a weird texture, and don't take as well to the pickling process.  

These plants are prolific reproducers, it's one reason they are so invasive, so each plant will produce quite a few buds and flowers over the course of it's life. If you pick them off individually, rather than nipping the whole top, they will grow back the buds faster. But even if you just break it off like I did here, the plant will still grow a new bud cluster.

In fact, if you cut the whole thing down, it will still shoot up a shorter stalk and bud again. And since the plant is an introduced invasive, you don't have to worry about sustainability.

This plant was at the perfect stage - all buds. Use even the tiny ones at the base.

Even just 5 plants gave me a small handful, more than enough buds to experiment with. All told it came to about 6 teaspoons, or 1/8 of a cup. There should have been more, I lost a few in plucking. Turns out an outdoor table with slats is not the best place to sort small round objects.

The process is simple, in the future I will probably try more flavors,  like spicy or maybe with some grated lemon zest .  . . But for this first time, I just did a basic pickling mix and they came out really tasting like capers!

I've based my measurements on the 1/8 of a cup of buds I harvested, but feel free to double, triple, etc. the recipe.

When pickled, they take on an olive green color. These are really good!

Pickled Sow Thistle Bud "Capers"

Based on 1/8 of a cup of buds. Can be doubled or tripled, or more! 

1/8 cup sow thistle buds *
4 tsp white vinegar
4 tsp water
1/2 bay leaf
4 whole black peppercorns
4 whole coriander seeds
1/8 tsp powdered garlic
1/8 tsp salt
Glass jar with lid
  1. Rinse and drain the buds. Check one more time that they are all closed up.
  2. Mix the water, salt, and vinegar, heat till boiling. For this small amount, I just microwaved them in a coffee mug
  3. Add the buds, peppercorns, garlic, bay leaf and coriander to the jar. The jar must be glass (or ceramic), not plastic or metal, but it can have a plastic or metal lid.
  4. Pour the boiling water, vinegar mix over the buds and spices. Give everything a shake/stir, cover and put in the fridge.
  5. Store for at least 48-72 hours (2-3) days, shaking or stirring 1-2 times a day before eating. Buds will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.
* This recipe can be made with the buds of any slightly bitter wild plant, like dandelion or daisy.  Mild buds, milkweed or mallow, for example, can also receive this treatment, but they won't taste as much like capers. I've seen recipes for nasturtium buds as well, but I've never tried them. Eat your weeds, and don't be afraid to experiment!

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