Amaranth is the second of my Holy Trinity of super-nutritious edible weeds. It is a creature of hot weather, and in my garden it’s appearing everywhere right now. Like lambs-quarters it will get huge if allowed to, and unless you have limitless room, your job is not to allow it to.
Consult any good wild-foods guide to identify it, and then assess how much of it you have. If your response is “OMG, it’s everywhere!” then don’t worry about propagating it. Your soil has plenty of seeds. If there are only one or two plants, proceed as for lambs-quarters the first season, and you will have amaranth in perpetuity. I have two varieties, one with smooth stems and one that forms small but unpleasant spines at the leaf joints, and I try to keep the spiny kind from ever going to seed.
Pick them when they’re about a foot high and have a nice large umbrella of leaves on top. I have no interest in eating stems, and I pull off the topmost part with all the largest leaves and add the rest of the plant to the mulch, taking care that it’s completely uprooted.
The greens are fairly mild but have a slight touch of the earthy flavor that’s so pronounced in beet greens. When grown in prime soil the flavor verges on meatiness in a delicious way, and my favorite way of cooking the greens adds other meaty umami flavors.
Wash a mixing bowl full of loosely packed leaves well and wilt them in a small amount of water, stirring frequently over fairly high heat until the leaves all look “cooked.” Drain them, saving all the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid to the pot and boil hard to concentrate it to a very small amount, maybe a couple of tablespoons (don’t turn your back on the pot or it will scorch.) Pour into a little bowl and save.
Chop 6 big green onions. Make a basic separation between white and green parts, but don’t get obsessive about it. Separately chop 6 big cloves of garlic. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in your largest skillet and cook the white parts over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When they begin to look a little translucent and “cooked,” add the green parts, cook another couple of minutes, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook a few minutes more. Meanwhile, put the lump of blanched greens on a cutting board and chop fairly finely in both directions.
When the garlic looks cooked but has not colored at all, add a handful of pitted chopped oil-cured olives to the sautéed mixture and cook another minute.
Add the cooked chopped greens, the tiny amount of cooking liquid, a teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika or, if you like heat, the same amount of ground chipotle chile. Add a small handful each of chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. If not cooking for vegetarians or vegans, add a smashed anchovy fillet or a dash of fish sauce. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes, periodically turning it to get it all completely cooked (a spatula works well.) Taste it, salt to taste, and cook a few more minutes to let the salt blend in. Serve drizzled with good olive oil as a side dish, or fill an omelette with it and add some feta cheese, or bake in phyllo to make a hortapita or little spanakopitas, or do whatever else you fancy with it. Back when I ate bread, I used to love to smear this stuff on slices of grilled baguette and put some grated Parmesan and pine nuts on top. I can remember once baking it in thin bread dough with a raw egg on top, so that when baked in a hot oven the egg came out cooked. You can add cooked chickpeas and bits of cooked meat for a real peasant dinner. It freezes well in vacuum-sealed bags to keep you healthy all winter. When served next to beef or pork, I top each serving with a bit of butter to add to the general animalic savor. I like to have it in the refrigerator for a super-healthy lunch, and it seems to taste best at room temperature.
Incidentally, the main reason for a poor result is not cooking it long enough. If it tastes grassy, keep going until it tastes good. Undersalting is another problem. Add salt cautiously because of the salty olives, but add enough.
If you don’t have a wild good guide that you like, get John Kallas’s “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate” and you will be glad you did.
One of the lovely fringe benefits of gardening organically is that you support a lot of wildlife. Just this morning when I went out to inspect my garden, I noticed anise swallowtails around the flowers and their caterpillars on the fennel.
I put a birdbath on the ground in a shady spot yesterday and filled it with water, and this morning my spa was in use:
Coyotes pass through my yard (had to have the chickens’ run roofed over,) red-tailed hawks soar overhead, Cooper’s Hawks hunt among my neighbor’s trees, bees of all kinds visit the flowers, whiptail lizards scuttle among the plants, and sometimes a huge raccoon comes around to stare longingly at the chickens. Under my feet untold billions of microbes churn the soil. Invite Nature to dance and she’ll take you up on it.
Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:
Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.
Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
Surely everyone knows by now about the bee/pollinator crisis, and all I plan to mention here is that we gardeners can do a bit to maintain the bees that we have left. If you want your fruit trees and squash to bear, then bees are a personal issue for you, and the best things that you can do for them are garden without any insecticide sprays (the drift from which can spread a long way and is very toxic to bees) and feed them. This year I’ve managed to keep a succession of plants blooming that are attractive to bees, but by far their favorite is the common Shirley poppy, available in nearly every seed catalog. While the weather is still cold, scatter the fine tiny seed around in spots where the poppies can get big and bushy in midsummer, keep the area watered and weeded, and let them do their effulgently gorgeous thing. I scatter the seeds around my tomato bed in late winter, they hog the bed in June, and then can be pulled out after blooming to give the tomatoes breathing room. Every morning they lift my spirits twice: first when I catch sight of them and again when I get closer and hear the continual hum of bees working. I am thinking of getting a beehive so that the third thrill can occur when I see them filling combs.
As much as I love lengthy and pontifical books about food, and glorious pictures that make me faint with hunger, there is room in my heart for small practical cookbooks with no frills and good recipes. Tucker Shaw’s I Hate Kale Cookbook is such a book. If you are an aspiring greens-eater, or even if you’re already pretty damn good at it, this book will help you eat more kale. There are useful tips for dealing with its special texture and 35 basic recipes that work, from which you can spin endless variations. In strict point of fact I would say that some are techniques rather than recipes, but never mind if they get more superfood down the hatch. Right about now, when the kale looms large in the garden and farmer’s market stalls are solid green, you need this book.
Shown above is the early spring growth of Portugese kale, also known as tronchuda. If you are going to have kale all summer and fall and again in the spring, you will need versatile recipes.
Tarragon is at its beautiful peak in my garden, and if you have a goodly bush of it yourself, don’t forget to fill a jar with sprigs and cover with wine vinegar so that your salads next winter will carry that delicious flavor. Your own red wine vinegar is preferable but any good grade of wine vinegar will do. If you don’t already have a favorite vinaigrette recipe, try my Opinionated Vinaigrette.
“‘Tis certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat…” Yeats
And so they do, sometimes crazier than others. The one shown above is one of my weirdest so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
When cooking dolmas recently I felt the need for a Cook’s Treat, and there were some nice grape leaves left over that I had no other immediate use for. I heated my little 6″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot, brushed a grape leaf generously with good olive oil on both sides and put it flat in the hot pan, pressing down a bit with a spatula to make sure the leaf cooked evenly. Flip and repeat. Put on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. If the heat is right, the leaf will cook in about 20 seconds or less per side, will be darkly browned in spots but not blackened anywhere, and will be crisp as an ultra-thin potato chip, with a light, delicate crunch and a hint of lemony-sorrel flavor. Have at least 3-4 extra leaves to get the heat right, but once the heat is adjusted, you can make and plate a serving in a couple of minutes. It is easy to do for two but would be fiddly for four. I like to oil all the leaves at once and then have nothing but the frying to concenrate on.
Why do it? Well, it’s different and it tastes good, at least if you like grape leaves and olive oil. The texture and flavor are not quite like anything else, and pleasant novel experiences delight me even when they’re minor. I can imagine a more substantial meze made by adding delicately spiced little fried meatballs to the plate. Little cubes of marinated feta would be another option.
Incidentally, the grape leaves that you use must be suitable for cooking. Please see my notes from my dolmas post on choosing grape leaves for cooking. A grape leaf that has papery unchewable fibers when raw will chew like a fried paper bag when fried.
I also tried frying a pruned tendril. The stemmy part was tough chewing. It looked charming in a rather baroque way, but probably should be considered a garnish rather than part of the Crazy Salad. That said, I ate mine.