Poke Sallet Greens Recipe – Eat it and Die, or Maybe Not
By Kelly Dean
When I was young, our family would occasionally eat poke sallet – or salad: A plant in the rural Midwest and South that is popular as cooked greens in a “mess.” We just called it “poke.” It also happens to be poison.
How did I survive eating that as a kid?
Poke is a big weed when grown. It grew in every nook and cranny of our somewhat unkempt farm as a kid. It emerged from under fence rows, shady barn foundations, trees, dead stumps, around our broken-down hay truck and anywhere the hay mower or bush hog couldn’t go. And it grew where birds pooped. Pokeweed emerged in spring before many garden greens were of pickable size.
And our standing order was to “feel free to always cut it down” — with just one exception.
Pokeweed is small in spring, sprouting from the ground, 1-inch to eventually 8-inches, with unmistakably vibrant, light-green leaves and petioles and a green stalk. At this age, there’s no visible red-purple color on the stalks, petioles or leaves – just green – so far. This is good, eating-wise. Reader assumes risk, though.
This early springtime phase is the only time to pick leaves if you are making a tasty mess of greens. Pick the young leaves with a preference for the newest leaf growth from the top of the plant down. When they’re this young, this is almost all the leaves.
Poke absolutely needs proper preparation (below) to be safe and tasty.
Once they show purple on the stalk, stems, petioles or leaf veins, they are no longer safe to eat.
It’s disconcerting that the best way to spot poke is by its pretty purple stalks and stems because that color also indicates it is not safe to eat; it’s too late; so take note of their location from the previous year, because they come back — always.
Otherwise, look around nearby. You might spot the young sprouts you want away from the older plant. Poke pops out of the ground young and tender over several weeks, so you can generally find the new, young ones for a few weeks. Even if it wasn’t for the early toxins, the plant gets progressively bitterer as it gets older. Boiling and draining doesn’t help it. So there’s little point to mess with it.
Then a rod of tiny green-white flowers shoots out the top.
And then …
As spring moves into summer, they get very hardy with purple stalks, purple petioles, light green leaves and green to purple-black berries that emerge from where the little white flowers used to be. The berries are very pretty — like poisonous belladonna nightshade berries are pretty. By this point, plants can be up to 6 or 7 feet tall and the entire plant is toxic to varying degrees. The root is never edible.
The effects of ingesting the alkaloid-type poison from overly mature leaves is generally profound vomiting and diarrhea in adults. But it can be worse, even deadly, especially for children.
Children should be taught to not touch the plant at all. Only a couple of raw berries can be fatal to a small child due to the toxic seeds inside. Again, the seeds and the roots are the most hazardous parts.
As you’re probably curious, the mature purple-red stalk is firm with a lengthwise fibrous white interior husk, like sugarcane, but hollow in the middle, with paper-like internal pithy sections. When the stalk, stems and leaves die-off after winter, they can easily break free of the underlying root. Stalks are long, dry, woody, hollow and breakable with dry papery pith inside that blows easily in the wind.
Where the heck is your mother?
Mom briefed us about poke being poison, especially the berries, yet she’d also eaten the fresh spring leaves her whole life. So she wasn’t militant about it. The plant was largely considered a farm nuisance due to its size and general lack of usefulness. We kids were expected to cut it out of the fence rows each summer, not fear it.
So poke was hardly something we resisted — whacking it down with a sickle, scythe or simply breaking it over with our hands to make way for a post hole or something. I took very little care with the plant but never had any ill effects that I can recall. I washed the milky stickiness off my hands.
It’s always a good idea to learn from folks who are experienced, especially with spotting and preparing wild edibles.
Again: Pokeweed plants with any purple on stalk and petioles, generally over 8-inches or more are too old for eating safely. If smaller, pick off the upper new leaf growth on plants 8 inches and under — showing no berry growth, and no red or purple coloring on the stalk, petioles or leaves. This will be in the early spring.
1 mess of young greens, about 4 cups (enough to fill about one-half of a stew pot, pre-cooked), consisting of young, green poke leaves. Other safe wild greens may be added if you are familiar with those as well.
1/4 pound of smoked bacon, cut into quarter-slice sections, or 3 T of bacon grease
1/2 medium onion, cut into crude crescent shape slices, not chopped
1/2 cup water for final cooking (after the triple-boil)
1/8 tsp salt (to taste)
1/8 tsp black pepper (or to taste)
Apple cider vinegar as a condiment (to taste)
Rinse leaves thoroughly for dirt removal, then triple-boil per the instructions below.
Triple-boil: Poke must be pre-boiled in water for at least 5-minutes, completely drained, rinsed — boiled again, drained, rinsed — boiled again, drained, and rinsed.
That’s 5-minutes boiling each time, three times total. The water should cover the greens while blanching and be discarded each time. This leeches away any remaining toxic alkaloids and mitigates the bitterness. Now they’re ready to finish.
Note about other greens: A simple double-boiling helps alleviate bitterness from other innocuous wild greens like curly dock, dandelion, false dandelion, Texas dandelion, chicory, chickweed, plantain, mature lamb’s quarter and so on.
Triple-boil greens while simmering the bacon (or in advance).
Cut bacon slices into quarters and drop pieces flatly onto the bottom of your stew pot and let them sizzle to a floppy golden brown on both sides by simply stirring, not flipping.
Due to texture, I prefer not to over-cook bacon until hard and crispy unless I am simply planning to use only the grease. I like it softer in greens. If using just bacon grease already on-hand, just preheat it on a sizzling, low-medium heat.
After the bacon/grease is ready, dump all the pre-boiled greens and onion into the pot and stir the bacon/grease into the greens well. Add water, salt and pepper to taste, but not the vinegar — that’s a condiment for the plate.
Cover and let cook at a very low, barely boiling heat for about 20 minutes until onions are done. Simmering is defined as 30% of stove heat, eliciting a light boiling bubble and wispy steam from under the pan lid. Check fluid level at 15 minutes and splash a little additional water if absolutely necessary to finish cooking. Do not drown greens in water on this final cooking round; use only a little and keep covered for steam instead. When done, greens should be visually similar to spinach when finished.
This last stage can also be “fried” in an iron skillet with the bacon grease after sautéing the onions — or simply leaving onions out all together if you choose. Cook for 2-4 minutes in this case. Spice normally.
Serve poke like any other ordinary greens with salt, pepper and drops of apple cider vinegar (some like soy sauce or hot sauce).
The best accompanying entrées are baked or fried fish — especially cornmeal-fried catfish. Fried potatoes with pimento or onions, cornbread, hushpuppies or rolls also go well with greens as sides.
Meatloaf with its typical fixings is a nice entrée as well.