Milkweed is equally abundant as ramps--maybe moreso--it has a longer season, and it's edible in several forms, from shoots, to buds, flowers, smallish pods, and the immature silk that Sam Thayer calls "milkweed cheese." It is, indeed, thanks to Thayer that I, and many others, have come to know and appreciate the culinary qualities of this long misunderstood plant. It was thought for a long time, and by many so-called experts (including the venerable Euell Gibbons), that milkweed was inherently bitter, and that any form of it therefore required cooking in several changes of water simply to make it palatable. In a thorough and utterly convincing essay (the first of his work that I encountered), Thayer laid that notion to rest. I won't bother to paraphrase further what you can read for yourself right here.
So far the milkweed parts I've worked with have been the flower buds and small pods. Our Wisconsin land must be rife with the shoots in spring, since it's rife with mature plants right now (our Saint Paul front yard has a nice crop, too), but I haven't managed to catch them at that stage. What I've mainly done with both buds and pods, other than just munch on them, desultorily, during walks around our land, is to pickle them. That's how I spent most of my day today.
I gathered maybe a quart of the bud heads (I doubt that's botanically accurate, but it will do), giving each a little shake as I picked it to dislodge any insects--many insects like milkweed, not just monarch butterflies. My fingertips became sticky with the latex that gives milkweed its name, but I was able to rinse it off easily when I was done; I believe that Thayer reports a somewhat caustic effect from longer exposure of skin to the latex. Once I got the buds home, I rinsed them thoroughly, then chilled them in the refrigerator overnight. That actually seemed to have firmed them when I came back to them. This afternoon I used a paring knife to cut the buds off the flower head, a pleasant little chore accomplished while watching "The People's Court." I didn't bother about the little tails that remained attached to the buds; they're edible, as well, and likely will largely disappear after pickling.
The flavor of unseasoned milkweed is nowhere near as assertive as that of ramps--but then, outside the allium world, what is? It's mild, green, a bit like lightly steamed green beans, I'd say. The buds have a nice crisp "pop" when you bite into them, the small pods, as well. Up to an inch or so in size the pods remain tender enough to steam or stir-fry. The uses of the silk, that "cheese," I have yet to explore.
I've been calling these pickled buds milkweed "capers," but I think I'll drop that term. Nonetheless, you can use them in most of the places you'd use something like a caper--in salad dressings, to flavor an egg salad or deviled eggs, sprinkled over grilled or fried meat or fish. I'm going to mix some into mayonnaise tonight, along with some chopped pickled ramps, to make a wild tartar sauce to serve with fried whitefish.
I would never advise anyone to use this blog, or any simple descriptive or photographic source, as a field guide to wild edibles--always consult a good field guide or two or four, or a trusted friend who knows about these things. That caution registered, milkweed is among the easiest of wild foods to identify. The buds will be on the plants for another week or two. As you can see from the photos here, some have already bloomed. It's not the sort of thing one wants to subsist on, but milkweed provides many opportunities through the spring and summer to get a delightful, safe taste of wild foods.
Milkweed: It's the new ramps. You read it here first.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw