In season: foraged greens

For many years, the most photographed item in the opening weeks of the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market is the wild salad mix gathered by Chris Clinton and Isia Cooper of Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. Each bag includes a variety of about a dozen different greens and is topped with a handful of edible spring blossoms.

The couple sells what they grow and forage and this is the seventh year they’ve sold their wild salad mix. In addition to selling at East Atlanta Village, Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet is also at the Sunday morning Grant Park Farmers Market.

“We started gathering this salad mix at the end of our first year. We already had a relationship with wild foods, and as we looked around our big field, we thought wouldn’t it be awesome to make a salad from what some would think of as weeds but what are really edible greens and flowers. People are drawn to the bags of salad mix for the aesthetic quality of the flowers, but they find it tastes really good, too. When we don’t have it, our customers want to know where it is,” said Cooper. The farm is in Atlanta’s Lakewood neighborhood.

The bags of salad are so pretty that in addition to inspiring hundreds of photographers, they inspired a little girl to name the combination a “fairy salad.” The makeup of the wild salad mix varies throughout its season.

“About every three weeks, what we’re able to gather shifts. Right now, with the cool spring, we’re gathering violet leaves and flowers, wood sorrel leaves and flowers, chickweed, lambs’ quarters, lance leaf plantain, wild onion, henbit and wild arugula. There may be young linden leaves, tiny dandelion leaves, tiny pine shoots for their burst of lemon flavor or spiderwort flowers. We make sure there aren’t too many bitter leaves. It’s really very tasty,” said Cooper.

Cooper calls the wild salad mix a “labor of love” for the hours it takes to gather what goes into the bags. “It can take us a full day to pick enough for just 10 bags. People simply aren’t going to get this anywhere else.”

Knowing what wild plants are edible has come from much study and many classes. The couple also gathers only from their fields where they know there’s been no pesticide or insecticide spraying. And they don’t keep dogs.

They keep the salad mix available up until the weather gets really hot. They can’t let the plants grow too long into the summer or they’d become a big weed problem and take up space the couple uses for growing other crops.

So in July and August, there’s no wild salad mix at their table. But come September, shoppers find the wild salad mix back in its fall incarnation.

The mix comes in a plastic bag that has tiny holes for aeration. Cooper suggests keeping the mix in that bag until ready to use. Then, even though the mix has been washed once at the farm, wash it one more time before serving.

Cooper says they enjoy the salad mix best when it’s treated simply. They may dress it with a little olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt and add a little goat cheese.

On a recent Thursday at the East Atlanta Village market, Philip Meeker was demonstrating a recipe for a charred spring vegetable salad featuring the farm’s wild salad mix. Meeker enjoys using freshly picked greens and says Crack in the Sidewalk’s wild salad mix really represents the flavor of the week with its ever-changing array of greens.

“You can almost taste the sun on their leaves. Weeds aren’t bred for sweetness and aesthetics like a lot of vegetables, so their flavors are often surprising and complex. A lot of them are quite beautiful and make for an aesthetically pleasing dish. Most weeds have incredible medicinal properties as well, helping with conditions as diverse as seasonal allergies and vitamin absorption,” said Meeker.

Philip Meeker’s Wild Greens and Charred Vegetable Salad

This recipe comes from Philip Meeker, chef and owner of Bright Seed, a food education and personal chef company. Meeker says, “The salad features wild lettuces, flowers, ramps and seasonal vegetables found at East Atlanta Farmers Market. You can substitute nearly all of the ingredients for similar options such as herbs and lettuces for the ‘weeds,’ scallions for the green onion stalk and ramps, sweet onions for young Vidalia onions, olive oil for pecan oil or vinegar for kombucha.”

The directions for the salad are very precise but quick to execute, and Meeker has a reason for each step. “By using a cast-iron skillet to cook half the vegetables, you don’t have to add fat or oil until you dress the salad, which preserves the flavor of the oil, prevents off flavors that can develop while cooking with fats and leaves the vegetable with a firm, meaty texture. The resulting salad preserves the crispness of the lettuce while highlighting the natural sweetness of the other vegetables.”

4 hakurei turnips with leaves, divided

3 young carrots (multiple colors if possible)

1 young Vidalia onion with green stalks, divided

3 ramps, greens separated from the bulbs

5 leaves mature chicory

1 tablespoon pecan oil, divided

1 teaspoon kombucha, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt, divided

3 handfuls wild lettuce and flower mix

Have two bowls ready.

Cut the turnips into 4 or 6 wedges. Cut carrots into sticks approximately 1/4-inch wide and 1 1/2-inches long. Slice onion bulb into 1/8-inch thick slices. Combine turnips, carrots, onion bulbs and ramp bulbs in one bowl.

Slice onion stalk into 1/4-inch thick slices. Set aside.

Cut turnip, ramp and chicory leaves into 1/8-inch slices. Cut turnip and chicory stems into 1/8-inch slices. Combine the leaves and stems in second bowl.

Heat a well-seasoned 15-inch cast iron skillet over high heat. When the skillet is about to smoke, drop in prepared turnips, carrots, onion and ramp bulbs. Do not add oil or salt. Char the vegetables until blackish-brown on one side, remove ramp bulbs, then push the rest of the pan’s contents into a pile in the corner of the skillet. Slice the ramp bulbs thinly and set aside.

Add onion stalks to skillet, allow to char slightly and then move all vegetables from skillet and divide between two serving plates. Sprinkle sparingly with pecan oil, kombucha and salt.

In hot skillet, add turnip greens, chicory and ramp stalks. Heat until greens are slightly wilted. Do not stir leaves and allow them to char slightly. Divide heated greens between serving plates and sprinkle sparingly with kombucha and salt. Drizzle with oil.

Divide wild lettuce and flower mix between serving plates. Season sparingly with remaining pecan oil, kombucha and salt. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately. Serves: 2

Per serving: 271 calories (percent of calories from fat, 24), 7 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 489 milligrams sodium.

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