Wednesday, March 29, 2017

You CAN eat thistles! Plus a vegan, paleo Greek salad recipe

Thistles. Covered in spikes, bane of young children playing outside, hated by homeowners who want a perfect yard, and loathed by ranchers who fear the weed will take over the grasslands needed by their cattle. Thistles are also edible, at least in parts.

The problem, of course, is the nasty spines. They completely cover the thick, juicy stalks, and the ruffled edges of each leaf. But if you can get beyond them, the inner core of the stem, and the "mid rib" of the leaf (the light green/whitish part), are both edible, and have a texture very similar to celery. There is one downside: thistles, especially the leaf mid rib, tend to be on the bitter side.

To get at the edible parts you want to cut the base of a thistle plant that's ideally a little younger than the one shown above. It should be about 20" or less high, and not have formed a true flower bud yet. Reach in with a long-bladed knife to avoid being pricked, and slice right through the stalk.

Juicy core and crunchy mid-rib, still with a lot of work ahead

Gingerly grab the cut end of the plant, and hold it upside down. Working downwards, towards the flowerhead of your upside-down plant, cut all the leaves where they attach to the stalk. Then, still working upside down, run your knife along the stalk, removing the entire outer layer, and all it's spines. Do this a couple times to make sure neither the spines nor the woody/stringy under-layer remain.

Once that's done, pick up your fallen leaves by the midrib, and run your knife down each side, removing the entire dark green leaf, and leaving just the crunchy center. You can also trim off the top of each leaf, which doesn't have much rib.

So my first experiment, with cooking the thistle stalks, was a failure, because I didn't remove enough of the stringy layer. I decided to try the mid-ribs, and to keep them raw. Unfortunately, the mid-ribs are definitely much more bitter than the stalks, but not quite as bitter as dandelion leaves.

Cut them small, so the bitterness doesn't get overwhelming

But a bittering agent can quite pleasant, especially when off-setting other flavors, and the texture of the mid-ribs was great. I decided to add them to a simple, vegan Greek salad, as a gluten-free, paleo, low-fat and low carb side dish in a Mediterranean themed dinner.

Served with parmesan-broiled basa fillets covered in cleavers pesto

Vegan Greek salad with thistles 

Serves 2-3 as a side dish

6 ripe roma/plum tomatoes, deseeded and diced
1 English/hothouse cucumber, diced
2 cups thistle stalks and/or mid-ribs, finely diced
1 large red or sweet white onion, finely diced
1/2 cup of your favorite olives, de-seeded and cut to quarters
1/4 cup red vinegar
balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. aged balsamic
kosher or sea salt (Mediterranean sea salt would be ideal)
dried parsley
dried basil
dried oregano
freshly ground black pepper

  1.  Mix all your diced veggies (tomatoes, onion, cucumber, olives and thistle) together and sprinkle lightly with kosher or sea salt. Toss/stir and re-salt. Toss/stir again, and re-salt a final time. Set aside for at least 5 minutes
  2. Once the veggies have released some liquid, sprinkle lightly with the dried herbs, and coat liberally with the freshly ground black pepper, drizzle the aged balsamic in as well. Give everything a good mix. 
  3. Just before serving, add in the red vinegar and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar, and mix one final time. Enjoy immediately, it doesn't keep well in the fridge.
The thistles really work well here, the slight bitterness adding complexity to the salad, and a ton of great crunch! Store-bought bitter greens, like endive, radicchio, escarole and rocket, are some of our most expensive, because of the unique profile they bring to a salad. 

This is a great dish for someone who is new or scared to try wild foods, it's got a very approachable flavor. 

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