Saturday, December 18, 2010

Eating Thorns- Foraging Milk Thistle

Milk thistle in salad with tomatoes, cukes, and peppers
with dressing made from homemade mayo and
foraged passion fruit. So delicious!
Alright, alright, I know what you're thinking. "That woman has gone off her rocker. She's completely ca-ray-zy! Absolutely out of her mind. She's eating thorns, for goodness sakes!"

Seriously, if I hadn't read that thistles are a commonly foraged food by the indigenous people to my region, I would have thought the same thing. But if they eat it, it must be worthwhile.

Why eat milk thistle?

Because it tastes delicious! Just like spinach, in fact. When raw, the leaves taste like a cross between spinach and romaine lettuce- a greeny, earthy, just slightest bit bitter, that works as a perfect accompaniment to a vegetable salad. When cooked, it works as a terrific spinach replacement in all recipes. The stem of the immature plant reminds me in taste of swiss chard stems.

Because, as a foraged food, it has much more nutrition than any green you'll get in the store, as nutritional value of foods decrease dramatically each day they're sitting around before they're eaten. Transporting veggies from the farm to the packaging plants to the distributors to the grocery store to your home takes time, and during that time, the nutritional value of food diminishes with each passing day.
On the other hand, as a foraged food, it goes straight from the ground into your kitchen and will likely be eaten within a day or two. It's a good source of manganese, iron, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium.
A large milk thistle plant. Not all of them are this huge.
 Younger plants are just short and flat on the
ground without the stem and flower.
And unfortunately, spinach and lettuce are some of the vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide (and are on the list of the dirty dozen foods most contaminated, that should be avoided whenever possible). Milk thistle works as a great, organic substitute.

Because it's free. Need I say more?

Because the land wasn't harmed, the air wasn't polluted, and the no finite resource (gasoline) was used to bring this green to your table. Which can't usually be said about other greens and veggies.

Because it is very good for your body. Milk thistle has many health benefits, some proven with reliable scientific studies, and others still in the process of being tested, but have been used to treat ailments for over a millennium. It works as an antidote for eating poisonous mushrooms, as a liver cleanser and treatment for liver diseases like hepatitis and cirrhosis, destroys free radicals and is used to fight cancer, helps prevent and heal gallstones, and much else. (You can read more about it here.)

Because it is easy to identify by its unique white and green mottled leaves with thorns along the edges. For more identification information, see here.

Because it is found everywhere. Native to the Mediterranean, it now can be found throughout the world including (but not limited to) Europe, England, Africa, Asia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Milk thistle grows not 200 feet from my front door, in an empty lot across the street.
Foraged milk thistle (with some mallow thrown in).
Note the distinct white spiderweb design on the leaf,
which easily identifies this as milk thistle.

Because every single part of the plant can be eaten, from the leaves to the roots to the stems to the flowers. I've only eaten the leaves yet, but they're definitely worth the effort. (See more info about eating the rest of the plant here.)

Because contrary to what you might think, the thorns aren't as big of an issue as they might seem. The thorns are only along the sides of the leaves- so long as you hold the leaf by the middle, you won't get pricked, though you might find gloves to be useful while picking the leaves. (I didn't bother.)
To eat them raw, you just use scissors and cut off the very edge of the thistle leaf. (Bigger ones are less work.)
Once you cook them, the thorns soften, and you can eat them, thorns and all. Frying the leaves makes the leaves crispy like potato chips (crisps for you non Americans) and the thorns non irritating. Boiling them also softens the thorns enough that you can eat them like spinach without a second thought. (If you're still concerned, you can whiz it in a blender to make sure no part of the thorn remains, but I find it unnecessary.)

I'm a new milk thistle forager, but I'll never look at this common weed the same way again! It is so delicious, terrific, and nutritious that I'll have an easy peasy time staying away from pesticide and herbicide filled spinach and lettuce!

Have you ever seen milk thistle growing? Have you even foraged it? Would you have the guts to try this one out, should you come across this plant? Does that salad look appetizing to you?

10 comments:

  1. My neighbors fourteen yr old son picked a mature milk thistle plant yesterday. He, my son and myself all ate part of the stalk not the leaves. I think he was kind of off put by the thorns. It had sort of a neutral taste and we shared quite a bit of it. He saved the pretty purple flower to dry. I will gather some more of these. Thanks for the article.

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  2. I've been eating milk thistle for year. Delicious. I've always cooked it. After reading this, I may try it raw one of these days.

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  3. hahah in morocco they dam grow everywhere, tooooo much, forests of em
    i like ot eat them

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  4. Thank you for the information. I have several growing in our yard. (Weed eater broke and the cows did not eat them when they got into the yard.) I'm willing to give it a try.

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  5. love your blog! i want to harvest some seeds, do you know how?

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  6. Milk thistle is a great vegetable / herbal. The leaves are designed so if you peel them from top to bottom you end up with a perfectly thorn-free stalk. The stalk has a mixed taste... to me it tastes like anise/licorice. If you've only ever eaten lettuce or broccoli, then your tastebuds will probably sit up and praise milk thistle. If you hate vegetables, it's probably b/c you're not eating ones that your body craves. Milk thistle is a vegetable that some folks crave, b/c it's a seasonal tonic-type. It helps clean the body out after a long winter. I never ate the leaves, but now that I know I can cook them ... holy cow I'm gonna chow down during thistle season come next spring. These things grow like crazy in Dallas - Fort Worth TX (they can get up to 5' tall). In some horse/cow pastures around town you could literally load up a truck with them and barely make a dent. Between milk thistle, dandelion and sorrel (broad leafy plan w/o any ridges that tastes tangy) you can make some interesting salads.

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  7. In Turkey they cook the young shoots with beef or lamb, and it's delicious. You can also substitute the meat with avocado.

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  8. Yes! the young stalks have a lemony taste. You do have to make sure to cut out the thorny bits or cut the stalks before the leaves are even developing. Clean and trim them well and batter and deep fry them. Delicious! Or use them in a stew. They are sometimes chopped and
    fried with an egg mixture, too.

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  9. Hi Penny,

    While foraging for milk thistle images I found your gem of a blog ... and I am using one your images for illustration.

    Thank you

    RLiM

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  10. Does anyone know where I can buy a Milk Thistle plant or a field that I can pick some at? I found plenty of sites that have seeds but no plants. I live in the DFW area

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