NOTE: This is my own personal experience of eating a plant that is poisonous if prepared incorrectly! Please consult real professional foraging guides and expert advice before attempting to eat pokeweed, or really any foraged wild food. The author does not assume any liability for illness or injury incurred while foraging or consuming foraged foods.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone out there who has played a nurturing, supportive role for anyone else, ever. We all have elements of the Mother archetype within us, and this day gives us a chance to honor that aspect of everyone, in addition to those who are actually physically mothers (biological or otherwise).
One of my main jobs as a mother is keeping my family fed, preferably with food that doesn’t kill them. Unfortunately with all the stress and uncertainty of the current pandemic – and school being closed and my kids trapped at home without their friends – I have been more lax than usual in the amount of junk food in the house. But as the weeks stretch into months, I find myself reevaluating these decisions. I am also reminded frequently of just how fragile our modern industrial agricultural supply chain really is.
Junk food though is a slow, silent killer. Other food, however, can kill you much more quickly. Which brings us to the subject of pokeweed.
Why, oh why, would anyone want to eat a poisonous plant?
Because it is absolutely delicious, that is why. I enjoy pokeweed thoroughly, since finally braving a taste last year. If you prepare the young leaves and shoots correctly, the toxicity is neutralized, and the resulting vegetable is positively scrumptious in any dish where you would use cooked greens.
(Also, rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the stalks. It’s all about knowledge of safe preparation. A moment of silence, please, for those brave souls before us who discovered the hard way what is and is not edible!)
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a well recognized weed in the mid-Atlantic. Unlike most weeds I cover in this blog, this one is completely native to our area, so “weed” and “invasive” and other such labels reflect how we feel about it as gardeners and farmers rather than any real fact. It was here first!
All parts of the plant are poisonous, and the roots especially so. The berries are somewhat less toxic, but can still kill small children and infants if they consume the raw fruit. And as with any plant, pay attention to the surroundings. The shoots above look good, but grow too close to an agricultural field for my comfort. And is that poison ivy I see??
But the young leaves and shoots, when still emerging from the ground, can be parboiled to within an inch of their lives and thus be rendered edible. Not edible. Delicious. You want to harvest the poke shoots while the leaves are still frilly and wrinkled; before the stalks have started branching; and apparently when they are still very green, rather than pink.
Unfortunately, all the pokeweed I can harvest pops out of the ground magenta-colored! So I use the other indicators to harvest poke at the right stage. I also prefer the poke relatively small – 12″ or less in length. Generally it is advised that you wear gloves while collecting poke because the juice can be toxic as well. I have never encountered this personally. OK, I might have worn gloves this last time, because it still VERY cold, even though it is May.
Conventional guidance says the pokeweed should be boiled in at least two changes of water; 10 minutes or so the first time, and some say as many as 10 minutes the second time. You can have a second pot of water coming to boil while the poke is in the first pot, which saves time. Last year, out of an abundance of caution, I boiled the poke until it nearly disintegrated. This time around, I opted for 6 minutes in the first bath, and 3 in the second. You can see how the color changes from the raw poke…
To the first boiling water bath – note the dramatic reduction in the amount of pink!
To the second bath – no pink remains.
As I understand it, the toxins contribute the pink color and are leached out of the plant matter by way of boiling water. So – in my own personal experience – the color appears to be an indicator of when the poke is safe to eat. In the second bath, I took a sample nibble around 2 minutes, when it looked very green, to check for any bitterness. There was none at that stage, but I still let it go another minute to be sure.
Why two pots of boiling water? When you first plunge the pokeweed into the water, it takes on a pink tinge almost immediately. I don’t know whether the water becomes saturated, and no more of the toxin can come out because of some osmosis-type function (aka, because there is an equal amount of the toxin inside and outside the plant cells). Or if the second bath removes any remaining toxins clinging to the outside of the plant. Some sources even recommend washing the pot between uses, but I dodged this by using two different pots for each boiling bath.
How does one use the parboiled poke? In a word: yes. Well. Only one of my kids would even try it – teenagers have an aversion to green leafy veggies for some reason – so I don’t eat poke nearly as often as I might otherwise. But anywhere you need tender cooked greens, pokeweed can be used. Which brings me to this week’s recipe, creamed poke.
This recipe is grain free, gluten free, and keto. I cannot technically call it a “paleo” recipe because of all the dairy products, but if you cheat with dairy like I do, this one is totally worth the splurge!
- 1 lb parboiled poke greens & stems
- 3 Tbs butter
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 4 ounces cream cheese, cubed
- 1 tsp Italian seasoning
- salt & pepper to taste (I used 1/4 tsp of each)
- Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes for topping
Melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Sauté minced garlic until fragrant.
Add cream and cream cheese and stir until melted. Add Italian seasoning, salt and pepper to taste.
Add parboiled poke to the pan, and toss till thoroughly warmed and coated with the cheese sauce.
Top with Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes to taste. Serve warm.