Common milkweed shoots are one of the best parts of the plant, with a couple caveats.
Note: This post only covers the edible shoots of common milkweed. For a full breakdown on every edible part of the plant I know, please refer to my Guide to Milkweed.
At the restaurant we've been obsessed with milkweed shoots lately (the shoots of Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed). 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 There is not a lot of literature on Midwest wild food and most of it is outdated, regurgitated field guide info, so Thayer's book is a real treasure.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 common 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.
The two plants 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.
Just a quick note before you embark on a milkweed adventure. Overconsumption of milkweed, for some people, can lead to some GI problems. Start off small, say a couple shoots, or an ounce, see how your stomach feels, and take it from there.
Cooking Milkweed Shoots
Here is some general culinary knowledge I've gleaned from working with them:
- Blanch your milkweed in salted water before frying to ensure it's tender.
- Do not over-indulge, especially if it's your first time. Eat a few shoots first to make sure they agree with you, as everyone's digestive system is different. Over indulgence can make some people sick, even if it's well-cooked.
- To find where the milkweed is tender while picking, break it off where it breaks clean, just like you would asparagus.
- 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.
- 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.
- The leftover leaves from trimming milkweed can be braised until soft, or pureed to color pasta, like I do in this recipe.
- Young tender milkweed shoots, broken off where they're tender, like asparagus
- Kosher salt for the blanching water, plus more to taste
- Unsalted butter to taste, or another fat you
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, it should taste like the sea. Meanwhile, remove the leaves from the milkweed shoots until you reach the top cluster of small leaves, if you end up liking the texture of the leaves, you can leave more on, but I suggest trying them with only the top-most leaves on at first as they'll be the most tender.
- Blanch the milkweed shoots for 30 seconds, then transfer to a pan with butter if you'd like to fry or saute them with other ingredients.
- If you want to put the milkweed shoots directly on a plate, and say, top them with salt and butter, cook them for a bit longer, say 1 minute or so, or until a cooked shoot tastes good to you. The milkweed shoots should not be mushy--just imagine you're cooking asparagus.
Milkweed Can Regrow It's Shoots and Buds
As a final note, I almost get scared putting up posts on eating milkweed, people are really fiesty when it comes to this plant, and the harm they assume comes to the monarchs from people harvesting it. In my world, and in the world of a number of other well known foragers, the opposite is true.
Enjoying cooking with milkweed means I want more of it, and I'm not going to do anything to mess up a good patch. Additionally, the heading is true...milkweed can regrow shoots after harvesting, it also reproduces underground via rhizomes, as well as above ground with seeds. So here is your evidence for people that would shame you for enjoying this plant.
It should be noted that I haven't tested this in wild areas where I harvest, only places where a lawn mower on the farm can pass through. Either way, it's step in the right direction for milkweed harvesters.