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In This Place

Cooking with a Little-Known Wild Edible

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Elspeth Hay
Milkweed growing wild outside of Ceraldi in Wellfleet. If you look closely, you can see that the plants have had their tips snapped off for use in the restaurant. The one on the right is growing new shoots that will eventually flower.

I first tasted milkweed a few years ago. I was at Ceraldi in Wellfleet—a restaurant known for its focus on hyper-local ingredients— and I tried the plants’ shoots. They were bright and snappy and so gloriously green-tasting that I wanted to learn more. Co-owner and chef Michael Ceraldi explains what Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed is.

“It’s edible in the shoot stage and then when it buds too, and even the pods are edible, they can be used like okra.”

I asked him to describe—for someone who’s not really familiar with it—the look of the plant.

“Milkweed is—the leaves are oval, they’re about 4-5 inches long depending on the age obviously. And they look kind of like matte or flat, kind of like a big sage leaf is a good way to think about it and they’re thicker. And one of the best times and what we’ve done here at the restaurant is to eat them in the shoot stage when they’re brand new.”

The time for this is coming up in the next few weeks. You harvest the milkweed tips or shoots by snapping off the tops of the plants where they break naturally—just like you would with asparagus.

“One thing that people bring up about eating milkweed is that that is what monarchs eat. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves and then when the eggs hatch the caterpillars eat the milkweed and that’s one of their favorite foods. So whenever we harvest I’m sure to only pick the tips because the plant will branch if you pick the shoot,” said Michael.

It’s kind like if you pinch the flowers off basil or arugula that’s about to bolt. The plant just tries again.

He’s done some interesting things with milkweed at the restaurant. “Typically our go to is on the menu we always like to have something fried because people love fried food, they’re on Cape Cod for vacation most likely, so. We’ve tempura fried them often,” he said.

That’s the dish I had—tempura fried milkweed shoots served on a pillow of homemade ricotta. It was so good.

They’ve also fermented and made kimchi out of milkweed tips too.

“It’s completely edible in that stage. Also you can eat the flowers, you can fry the buds they’re like little pom poms and some people recommend boiling it in multiple changes of water I’ve never done that I’ve always just cooked it or sautéed it but you could also pickle, so if you catch the young pods you can totally pickle them like okra, and the young seeds have a taste that’s kind of like that kind of like how okra has that like kind of lip smacking sort of vegetable kingdom short rib sort of thing going on that’s like what milkweed pods are like as well, and you can also stuff them as well depending on the age.”

Once the pods get older and tougher, you can’t really eat them. But when you cook young milkweed properly, the flavor is pretty amazing:

“The flavor’s similar to green beans, some people say asparagus, but I think it’s more like when it’s deep fried it tastes more like deep fried green beans.”

If that description has you motivated to get out and find some milkweed, I’m with you. I found a recipe for deep-fried milkweed buds in whole wheat beer batter. You can find it here.

This piece first aired in May, 2020.