Adventures in Knotweed

Last year I missed the window to harvest knotweed (Reynoutria japonica), that narrow of sliver of time when the shoots go from “perfect eating” to “towering over your head”. This year I had better luck, not thanks to my persistent foraging habits but because our erratic weather and colder than average spring delayed the growth of many perennials. By the time I visited the knotweed patch, many thick shoots had just reached the perfect size for foraging.

Young knotweed shoots perfect to harvest
Young knotweed shoots perfect to harvest

Obligatory warning: when foraging knotweed do not harvest shoots from any patch that appears to be treated with herbicides, such as glyphosates. In my particular case it looks like someone tried mowing to beat back the knotweed advance… how little they know!

I harvested over a pound of shoots easily, then set about the challenging task of deciding how to prepare them. I’m always on the lookout for new savory knotweed recipes. So many cooking writers treat it synonymously with rhubarb, another spring vegetable which often gets lumped into the “sweets” category without a second thought. Flipping through Forage, Harvest, Feast (yes, that book again), I decided on an adventure: Knotweed and Mugwort Lamb Shanks (p. 214).

What a learning experience that was.

I recently discovered we had mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) growing wild in the woods less than a mile from my house, so this recipe seemed like the perfect opportunity to get to know this herb a little better. While mugwort is often used medicinally, Viljoen devotes an entire section of her book to mugwort as a culinary herb.

A clump of spring mugwort shoots
A clump of spring mugwort shoots

Obligatory mugwort warning: one of its herbal uses is as an “emmenagogue”, which is to say it can cause one’s menstrual cycle to start. As a result, almost everyone who writes about it warns that pregnant women should avoid it. I’m not sure whether it poses the same risk when used as a culinary herb – presumably in lower doses and buffered by other plant material – but I am including the warning as well. Better safe than sorry!

The other main feature of this recipe was field garlic (Allium vineale), both in the form of field garlic salt and field garlic oil. Which brings me to one of the main challenges I encounter exploring many of the recipes in this book. Mabye Ms. Viljoen has these seasonings just laying around in her pantry (and I’m sure she does), but I don’t. And most people don’t. And most of her recipes are like that, using a whole bunch of different foraged ingredients, to the point where if you can’t find one or two of them locally, you just give up on the recipe altogether. It’s not like you can just swing by the store to pick up field garlic oil… or mugwort. Or knotweed.

Or lamb shanks, apparently.

Turns out that was the hardest ingredient to acquire! Even our local butcher only had a paltry offering and most stores had nothing. The one grocer we finally found with lamb only had one shank, and three small bone-in-loins. Close enough! The other thing I learned is that lamb – shanks or loin – is not actually cheap. I thought shank in particular was considered an inferior cut of meat and thus sold at a good price. Heck no. We spent $20 on meat to accompany our free foraged ingredients!

Knotweed with Mugwort and Lamb Shanks
Knotweed with Mugwort and Lamb Shanks

Only to learn that none of us actually care for lamb. It wasn’t the flavor, but the texture. Lamb is very greasy, and as the servings on our plates cooled the “juices” from the cooking process congealed before our eyes. I’m sure if we were in a situation where no other protein existed, we’d find a way to eat lamb and enjoy it, but thankfully we’re not there yet!

As a side note, if you chose to use a cast iron dutch oven for this recipe like I did, make sure to line it with foil first! The knotweed melted and caramelized into a sticky goo that required significant scrubbing to remove. (You’ll notice there’s only a “before” and no “after” photos of the dish…)

One last word of warning. If you try this, or any knotweed recipe, please, please, PLEASE do not compost raw scraps, or toss them into the garbage to go to the local landfill. Even a small chunk of knotweed can grow into a whole new plant, meaning careless disposal contributes to the inexorable march of this destructive weed across the landscape. Cook the trimmings into oblivion before disposing of them. After cooking, I even put the scraps into a paper bag for our burn barrel to make absolutely sure nothing escapes into the environment.

Anybody have other good savory knotweed recipes to suggest? Quickly, before they’ve all grown too big to eat!

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