California gold: Miner’s lettuce

Miner's Lettuce

I’m pretty sure that my childhood neighbor, life-long friend and young partner in crime, Anne G, taught me that I could eat Miner’s Lettuce, or what I then identified with as ‘sauerkraut,’ at the very young age of maybe 5 or 6. It was a pretty little green vine that had a nice peppery flavor with a tiny, delicate white flower in the center. I specifically remember knowing that this ‘sauerkraut’ grew in large quantities around my dad’s wood-shop though I never had any problems finding it in abundance elsewhere in the area. There was something very satisfying about eating a plant right out of the ground, so we found great joy in these spring-time snacks.

Zara and Anne in Portland, circa 2007

Growing up in Southern Oregon, greens of all sorts were abundant. I’d guess that Anne and I probably chewed on a variety of wild plants, flowers and grasses as we wandered around near the creek behind our houses, up in the forest on the mountain or in our own front yards. My dad was often encouraging me to snack on strange things, such as the corn from our horses feed or dog biscuits, so I didn’t have a lot of fear when it came to found food.

Foraging was not an entirely foreign concept growing up, though I certainly never learned nor understood the intricacies of true food foraging nor did I recognize the terminology. I recall my dad bringing home paper bags full of morels that he’d find while working in the woods. My 4H forestry group leader, the amazing Mrs Price, familiarized us with edible plants out in the wild. It was not uncommon to spend vast amounts of time wandering through the wilderness collecting plant and tree specimens to take home. As a matter of fact, I spent years compiling these specimens into large binders, using colored pencils to illustrate the perishable berries, fruits and nuts, and then entering the results into local and state-wide forestry competitions, which I often won.

Miner's Lettuce

Fast-forward ~30 years to Mendocino County on the Northern California Coast where I reconnected with ‘sauerkraut’ and introduced it to Jaime. While camping near Fort Bragg last Spring, we discovered large quantities of this delicious little vine growing all over the area. Upon eating one of the leaves, my palate recognized the flavor immediately, conjuring up memories from years prior. The flavor for me is so distinctive, as is the crunch on the stems and the taste of the dew on the leaf, that it will probably always stay with me.

Contrary to the rules and regulations of the California State park service, we grabbed bagfuls of the stuff to take home, even pulling a few fully rooted plants to try growing in our own garden in the city (which I would not recommend because it just doesn’t work). Eventually that Spring, we began to notice that many of the higher-end restaurants in the city were serving Miner’s Lettuce salads on their menus. Flour + Water (our favorite restaurant in SF) in particular has been using it in very creative ways that I never would have imagined.

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Miner’s Lettuce, known by this name since the California gold-rush because the plant was known then to prevent scurvy, is a delicate green that will wilt and deteriorate easily, so handle it with care and use as soon as possible. I’ve heard that it grows in abundance in areas where wildfires have occurred the previous season. It is often found in moist, shady conditions at the foot of trees or in meadows on the West Coast, especially on a sunny day after a fresh rain. This plant is best used in raw in salads mixed with watercress, oil and a little salt and pepper. It can also be blanched or sautéed like spinach and it pairs well with seafood and shellfish.
: Zara

Miner’s-Lettuce Salad With Roasted Asparagus, Rhubarb, Pancetta, and Poached Pheasant Egg

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little more for asparagus
  • 1 teaspoon chives, finely diced
  • 2 bunches miner’s lettuce
  • 1/2 cup rice-wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 bunch small asparagus
  • 4 very thin slices pancetta
  • 4 thin slices white country baguette
  • 4 pheasant eggs
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Blend together lemon juice, olive oil, and chives; set aside. Pick through miner’s lettuce, removing excess stems. Place rhubarb in a small container. In a small pan, scald rice-wine vinegar with sugar, and pour over rhubarb; set aside to cool. Trim asparagus to 3-inch spears; reserve stems for another use. Toss asparagus with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and place on a baking dish. Lay out pancetta slices on another baking dish. Put asparagus in a 400-degree oven for 3 to 4 minutes until just cooked. Bake pancetta in the same oven until crispy, 8 to 9 minutes; drain on paper towels. Brush bread slices with olive oil, and toast. Bring 2 quarts of water with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon white vinegar to a simmer. (1) Poach the eggs for 2 to 3 minutes. (2) Remove eggs with slotted spoon, and (3) place on toast slices. Toss asparagus, drained rhubarb, and miner’s lettuce with lemon- chive-and-olive- oil dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Place salad on 4 plates and top each with a pancetta slice and an egg on toast. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Recipe from New York Magazine, 2008

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