Remember the milkweed field across the road from my house? I posted about its inevitable end back in June but I was premature. It took another week before the farmer mowed the field. In addition to the milkweed and the swarms of insects that enjoyed its flowers (though almost no monarchs caterpillars on the leaves), I am pretty sure some red-winged black birds had nests in the tall grasses and overgrowth. Just guessing, based on the way they dive bombed me while I hunted for monarchs to rescue.
No more, of course.
Several more weeks have passed since the mowing. The only upside – from a purely selfish, human consumption perspective anyway – is that the milkweed is regrowing. And right now, they have reached the perfect stage for shoots. Normally milkweed shoots are a spring treat rather than a mid-summer one.
From an ecological perspective, I see this milkweed shoots as fair game. This late in the year, there is very little chance they will grow enough to produce flowers and seeds again, so harvesting some shoots won’t impact their survival rates. (Of course, no telling when they will get mowed again either!)
Most milkweed is well into the seed pod stage by now. My own modest handful of plants feature pods at the perfect stage for cooking as vegetables. I won’t do this of course, because I plan to harvest the seeds for a bigger crop next year. Although I am unsure as of yet where to plant them.
Other milkweeds in the area have seed pods idea for “milkweed cheese”. I briefly considered a milkweed cheese sauce to grace the shoots, but the most plentiful milkweed at this stage near me is in the median strips of highways. And this is not a place where we forage. So I looked for a different treatment for the shoots.
In fact, I’ll be honest. I have never actually eaten milkweed shoots before. I consulted Forage, Harvest, Feast (which I do with some frequency). While Viljoen’s recipe for Milkweed Stems with Miso Mayonnaise looked tempting, I couldn’t bring myself to buy yellow miso for a single dish when afterwards it would sit around going bad in my refrigerator. And the vignole recipe? It is WAY too hot for any kind of soup right now in central Maryland. Instead I decided to riff on the Milkweed and Pancetta recipe. I have roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto before; if milkweed and pancetta can go together, then why not milkweed and prosciutto?
So off to the field I went.
The most important thing to remember when harvesting milkweed to is be 100% sure of your identification! The tasty milkweed and the toxic dogbane often grow in the same habits, sometimes even side by side.
In this case, you can clearly see the branching nature of the dogbane, meaning that is the plant to avoid (on the right). Milkweed also has fine hairs on the stem (which unfortunately doesn’t show in this picture) and under the leaves (which you can just barely discern in the photo, on the left).
Another important note: keep an eye out of monarchs and other insects that call milkweed their home! Despite my best efforts, I brought home two stowaways and a lot of eggs. In the photo above, the random white dot on the underside of the upper milkweed leaf is a monarch egg. I checked each leaf both sides of each leaf as I removed them from the shoots.
I harvested 16 shoots, because Viljoen’s recipe calls for 32 shoots to serve four. And let’s be realistic – no way either of my kids tries these. So it will be just my (very brave) husband and I. I actually could have collected only 12 because I only have six pieces of prosciutto to be halved and then wrapped around the stalks. (I am saving the leaves for the milkweed pate recipe although in my case I’ll be using my abundance of scarlet runner beans rather than fava beans…. or feeding my baby monarchs that I accidentally brought home!)
I followed the basic instructions (although roasted for a total of 20 minutes), and the results were delicious. If not exactly pretty.
For the record, I have no idea how one takes beautiful photos of any dish involving prosciutto. Despite all my care and caution, each and every piece ripped leaving a tattered mess that flopped around rather than wrapping gracefully around the stalks.
Food photography remains a mystery to me.
The deliciousness of milkweed? That is no mystery!