I’ve been meaning to try eating whitetop, aka hoary cress (Cardaria spp., Lepidium draba or related Lepidium sp.)—an invasive plant targeted for eradication in parts of the Colorado high country and undoubtedly other locations too. It saddens me to see whitetop taking over entire fields; I always wonder what plants might grow there if that whorey mustard hadn’t so asserted itself.
Last summer, when Colorado wild edible plants expert Cattail Bob Seebeck gave me my first taste of whitetop flowers in a farm field in Mesa, it nearly burned my tongue off—a seriously spicy mustard. Which is why I was so surprised that my friend Butter found it to be pleasant and mild prepared in the style of broccoli rabe. She harvested the tops before the flowers opened, including a small portion of stem and leaves, then blanched and sautéed the hoary cress with salt, red pepper flakes, and red wine vinegar.
Whitetop Broccoli in Fried Rice
A couple of nights ago I took a page out of Butter’s recipe book, adulterating it of course (because few and far between are the occasions that I actually follow a recipe), and used some “whitetop broccoli” I harvested recently from Fort Collins in a simple preparation—steamed for approximately 8 minutes and served atop refried, leftover rice with oil and salt and one egg scrambled in with it.
Gregg enjoyed it prepared this way, which I served as a side dish to Tofu Cubes with Black Greasewood and sautéed oyster mushrooms. I enjoyed it too—but I’ll admit I had to add a touch of soy (read: Bragg’s aminos) on top, probably the same as I would have done were it broccoli.
Gregg’s take was that the whitetop faux broccoli is somewhat like broccoli in texture, but with some of the bite of Brussels sprouts. A broccoli lover, he was quite keen on using the whitetop flower bud clusters as a substitute, as evidenced by his repeated utterances of: “I just can’t believe that whitetop broccoli. I just can’t believe it.”
In her post, Butter notes: “There are several places in the online literature that say that young leaves of Lepidium draba contain hydrogen cyanide,” which is poisonous. However, she writes, “these sites seem to be repeating the same information, word for word, in a way that is nonspecific,” and recounts eating “quite a bit of this plant this year” without suffering ill effects. She adds: “Also, this recipe calls for hoary cress which is nearly in bloom, which means it is no longer ‘young.’”
I emailed Cattail Bob Seebeck to double-check the hydrogen cyanide question. “If it’s there at all, it’s in small quantities,” he replied. “Cooking or drying will neutralize it. It’s the same cyanide in Malus and Prunus spp.,” he added. “That’s what gives chokecherry bark that almond smell when you peel it. It evaporates quickly. Small quantities will have no negative effect on physiologically ‘normal’ people. Large quantities can cause problems. Livestock have been killed from eating too much, although I rarely hear of mustards containing it.”
Cattail Bob indicated too that although fresh chokecherry pits have hydrogen cyanide in them, people who have swallowed a couple by accident have had no ill effects. “The cyanide from the pits is evaporated if heated (making chokecherry jelly, for instance, by cooking the fruit with the pits, then screening them out),” he wrote. “However, as with all wild edible plants including mustards … I always recommend eating in small quantities and/or cooking, just to be safe. With wild mustards, many normal human digestive systems have been shown to be a touch sensitive to the various compounds found therein, especially when eaten raw.”
To Cattail’s caution I’ll add that whitetop is often targeted for herbicide spraying, so it should be collected where that’s unlikely to happen, and obviously where plants are not deformed and curled inward upon themselves as if being tortured (poor things), which is what they can look like when sprayed.
Whitetop & Oyster Mushrooms Quiche
Next, I took the whitetop-as-broccoli experiment to something fancier—a bastardization of a Broccoli Quiche recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I used whitetop for broccoli, milk in place of cream, Parmesan cheese instead of Gruyere, and added fresh oyster mushrooms that we harvested outside of Fort Collins recently. (For those I used the tougher parts of the mushroom stems so we could save the soft, gilled caps for another recipe.) Here’s how to replicate it:
½ – 1 cup oyster mushrooms, sliced thin
½ medium onion, chopped
butter and/or oil
1 tbsp wild onion (Allium spp.) flakes (or green onions, chopped)
1 packed cup whitetop, upper stem & leaf bits chopped into chunks, with flower bud clusters intact
1 cup milk
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground pepper
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Sauté oyster mushrooms in butter until golden brown; then set aside.
- Sauté chopped onion together with dried wild onion (Allium spp.) flakes until the onions are translucent; then set aside.
- Blanch whitetop in boiling water for one minute; then strain.
- Mix eggs, milk, salt, and pepper.
- In a frozen pie shell (or fresh), layer Parmesan cheese, oyster mushrooms, onions, and blanched whitetop; then pour custard mix on top.
- Bake for 25-35 minutes (according to the Joy of Cooking recipe) or 40-45 minutes if you’re at 10,000 feet like me—basically until the custard sets and becomes light golden brown.
This recipe was fairly decadent, despite the omission of heavy cream, and turned out to be a big hit in our house—as evidenced by Gregg’s happy and incredulous moans for the duration of brunch and subsequent consumption of the leftovers.
UPDATE 5.27.13: I’d originally identified the plant I’ve been eating as Lepidium draba, syn. Cardaria draba. Today I updated it to just Cardaria spp., following Cattail Bob Seebeck, 2012. There are several species of whitetop (Weber and Wittmann, 2012). Seebeck gives similar edibility characteristics for all.
UPDATE 5.30.13: How deep does this wormhole go? Seems USDA includes whitetop in Lepidium, while local botanists W&W and Cattail Bob stick with Cardaria. So today I updated this post AGAIN to list both options. Then, I wrote a little more about the taxonomy thing at a new post, More Whitetop Kitchen Experiments, if you’re interested.