At the restaurant we’ve been obsessed with milkweed shoots lately. They’re awesome because they help to fill the gap of what to hunt for in the month or so of “interim” we have until the chanterelles start, but these pretty guys are much more than a consolation prize.
Finding wild plants that are edible isn’t hard, but finding some that are truly delicious is. The Milkweed and all of it’s gifts are really one of the greatest things I have discovered so far, and I have eminent forager Sam Thayer to thank for it. I first read about harvesting the shoots of milkweed in Thayer’s book The Forager’s Harvest, which is a great resource for us in Minnesota since Thayer is Based in Wisconsin. There is not a lot of literature on Midwest wild food and most of it is outdated, regurgitated field guide info, so Thayer’s book is a real treasure.
Back to the milkweed shoots. These are great because they’re not only widely available, but delicious. It can be tough to find wild plants that lack bitterness, so milkweed really stands apart. When the shoots are young, the stem is tender and juicy, not even close to bitter like some people say. Here is the kicker, and Sam covers this in his book: there is a bitter look alike species called dogbane.
It can be tricky to separate milkweed from dogbane, and I made the mistake once of making a soup with dogabane shoots instead of milkweed, it was incredibly bitter. Both plants like to frequent the same areas, and unfortunately, both give off white latex when the stem is broken. They differ in that dogbane’s stem is much more firm, also it’s leaves are more pointed, and they are more thin than the fluffy, slightly furry leaves of milkweed. Dogbane leaves are also very smooth to the touch, where milkweed leaves are a bit fuzzy feeling, like sage. I just taste tiny bits of the stem in the field, it’s not hard to pick out the biter from the real deal.
If the sweet shoots weren’t cool enough, after the stems start to get fibrous, the milkweed continues to change. Already I can see my favorite part of the plant starting to show itself: the buds. Like broccoli from an alternate dimension, they’re excellent, and have every bit of the sweet character that the shoots do, if not more.
Tips for cooking milkweed shoots
Here is some general culinary knowledge I’ve gleaned from working with them:
- When you find a nice patch of milkweed, make sure to not over harvest. Decimating the milkweed population before the plants have a chance to flower will not only rob butterflies of food, but rob you of the chance to pick the delicious buds that will begin to grow later in the season.
- To find where the milkweed is tender while picking, break it off where it breaks clean, just like you would asparagus. If you want you can peel the entire stalk, just make sure to completely remove the stringy inner fibers from the tender heart of the stem.
- I like to remove the large leaves from milkweed when I’m going to eat the stem, up until the very top leaves. The leaves you trim off can be cooked separately, if you like, I suggest chopping them, then braising until they’re soft and tender.
- You can really pick any young milkweed that hasn’t started to bud yet, but the youngest will be the most tender.
- Milkweed shoots can be blanched in salted water and shocked in an ice bath to preserve their vibrant green color, which is a valuable trait since many wild, leafy plants cannot.
- Milkweed loves fat, it’s hard to explain, but the leaves have a tendency to taste “dry”, imagine eating cooked sage leaves. Butter, oil, vinaigrette, lard, use whatever you want, just keep it lubed up and it will be delicious.
- If your milkweed shoots are a bit older, the leaves on the stalk should be trimmed off up to the very top cluster, when they get large they have a bit of a funky, furry texture. If you find yourself with a pile of trimmed milkweed leaves, chop them up and cook them until they’re tender in some soup. The older leaves can also be blanched, shocked, and pureed.
- A great way to preserve these is just to shock in boiling salted water, then refresh in an ice bath. Afterwords, drain and freeze in plastic bags or containers.