Posts Tagged ‘pokeweed’

Pokeweed: the Fugu of the Vegetable Kingdom

May 25, 2008

Well, it’s all uphill from here. When I decided to explore the food options growing wild in my area, I knew that I would, sooner or later, have to cowboy up and try pokeweed. Mature pokeweed plants are poisonous, but the sprouts, when gathered young enough, have very little of the toxin in them. The cut-off for when they are safe to eat is generally in the 8″ tall range, but it’s a little fuzzy depending on your source. I never thought I’d be one of those people who died doing something stupid, but I was reconsidering as I ate my poke sprouts. I would really prefer to leave the phrase “poisonous weeds” out of my obituary, I guess.

Finding Poke

Poke is really easy to find in the summer, when it’s full grown, but quite difficult to spot during its edible phase, which is around May in the Great Lakes region. When mature, It’s one of the more spectacular weeds in the temperate zones, with thick, purplish stalks, big oblong leaves, and clusters of purple-black berries. I don’t have my digital camera running yet, but there are some pictures on Wikipedia:

Poke Pics

It grows along the edges of forests in disturbed areas. I found my patch alongside a parking lot, but have seen other specimens along railroad tracks and in vacant lots. It’s a perennial, so if you can find some in the summer, note the location so that you can return in the spring. The stalks die in the fall, but they usually remain through the harvest period. I found my patch by looking for last year’s dead, sun-bleached stalks, and harvested the new growth coming up beneath them.

Harvesting Poke

As mentioned, I avoided any sprouts that were taller than 8 inches or so. In each cluster, there was a range of height, from 4″ to 16″, and sticking with the mid-sized sprouts worked best. I chose my sprout, traced it back to ground level with my hand, and bent the stalk until it snapped off. This is similar to the method for harvesting asparagus by hand, and assures that you’re getting the most tender part of the sprout. I gathered about a dozen sprouts, enough for a single serving.

Preparing Poke

Upon getting the pokeweed sprouts home, I pulled off all of the leaves, leaving the little cluster of baby leaves at the top. These leaves can be prepared as greens, but I don’t have a good greens recipe, and there weren’t many leaves, anyway. I tried peeling the stems, as advised by my guidebook, but they were too tender, and the skin kind of just rubbed off. I did use a paring knife to shave off any part of the stem with a purplish hue, in the possibly-mistaken assumption that the color announces the presence of the toxin.

Once they were cleaned, I cooked them just like beans, asparagus, or broccoli–in a pan, with a little bit of water, and steamed until bright green and tender. A dab of butter and a little salt, and they were served as a side dish.

Eating Poke

It tasted very much like a very young green bean, or a mild asparagus, or the white stalk of broccoli. Kind of a general “young vegetable” taste. It was not a culinarily transcendent experience, but it was also not very foreign–this just tasted like an everyday vegetable. I was expecting something out of the ordinary. I was more relieved than dissappointed, though. Making a lifestyle shift towards local eating is a lot easier without any strong shifts in taste. It did take a bit more time than asparagus to prepare–pulling off the leaves is a little time-consuming. It probably takes about as long as it takes to prepare a head of broccoli.

I will definitely be eating pokeweed sprouts again next spring, although I may someday get to the point at which my asparagus patch is producing enough spears to fill that part of the spring menu. If I find a particularly fruitful poke patch this summer, I may attempt to freeze a quantity of poke, as it seems like it would make a great frozen vegetable–it’s got enough substance to not get mushy, and a pleasant enough flavor that it could be slipped into a lot of dishes.