The Greens of Spring: herb extravaganzas

april-2009-008

As much as I love cooked greens and good traditional green salads, I like to find other ways to enjoy spring greens. Herbs are concentrated little packets of flaror, fragrance, and antioxidants, and will amply repay the time you spend growing them. Right now I’m interested in the multifaceted cuisine of Indonesia, and find their lavish use of herbs very appealing. A pile of chopped cilantro, rau ram, mint, and Thai basil is one of the most appealing “salads” you can imagine, and strewn across this simple dish, it adds freshness and complexity. There is still time to plant some interesting Asian herbs in your yard, and the mint, Thai basil, rau ram, and cilantro are easy to grow. You can order rau ram plants (click “More on Asian herbs” below for a source)or you can buy a bunch of it at Ta Lin or your own favorite Asian grocery and root some sprigs. Clich at the end of this post for more info on growing Asian herbs. Or, you can find all these ingredients at Ta Lin in Albuquerque. Those of us who left a few small onions in the ground last year are harvesting big, beautiful green onions right now, and this is a good place to use them.

For two very large servings or four small ones, you’ll need:

  • 3 large or 6 small green onions, white parts finely chopped and green parts cut in 1/4″ lengths.
  • one bunch cilantro, leaves pulled off stems
  • 10-12 sprigs each of mint, rau ram, and Thai basil, well washed and all leaves pulled off the stems
  • 1 betel leaf (can be omitted)cut in very fine shreds
  • 2 sprigs of murraya leaves (sold at Ta Lin as “curry leaves”)with the leaflets pulled off the stem and shredded very finely
  • 1″ X 2″ piece ginger, peeled and chopped to matchhead-sized pieces
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled
  • 1/2 pound fresh thin egg noodles, soaked in hot water until softened, about 10 minutes
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk.
  • 1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar or white sugar
  • 1 tablespook sambal oelek, or more to taste.
  • Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce handy by the stove.
  • corn oil as needed for stir-frying
  • 1 lime, quartered

Have everything prepared as described, because this dish takes about ten minutes to cook, and you won’t have time for any prep while cooking. Be aware that you are going to use half the ginger, sambal,  and green onions for the shrimp and half for the noodles.

Heat your largest wok . Keep the heat very high while cooking. When very hot, pour in a glug of corn oil (I’d guess that a “glug” is about 2 tablespoons) and immediately throw in half the chopped ginger. Stir around in the hot oil until very fragrant, about a minute. Throw in half the chopped white parts of the green onions and stir-fry for another minute. Add the shrimp and drizzle fish sauce over them. Probably about a tablespoon is needed. As they sizzle, add a tablespoon of sambal oelek. Cook the shrimp another 1-2 minutes, stirring once to distribute the sambal. If you kept the heat high enough, they’ll be nearly done. Throw in half the green onions, stir in well for about half a minute, and dump the shrimp into a bowl. Set aside, covered, to keep hot. Now wipe out the wok very quickly with a rag or paper towel, return it promptly to the heat, and add another glug of oil. Put in the rest of the ginger and the shredded betel leaf and curry leaves, fry a minute, and put in the rest of the white parts of onion. Cook another minute, then add a tablespoon of sambal oelek, a tablespoon of sugar, and the coconut milk. Boil hard for one minute, drizzling in some fish sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning: it should be fairly salty, since this is the seasoning for the noodles. Now put the drained noodles in the wok with the remaining chopped green onion tops. Stri-fry  over high heat for about 5 minutes. Using a heatproof spatula, keep turning the noodles, drizzling on some  fish sauce if needed. Keep a fork handy and keep tasting the noodles to make sure that you don’t add too much fish sauce; a tablespoon or a little less is about right. When they are very hot throughout and the seasoning is well distributed, toss in half the cilantro leaves and turn out onto plates (2 plates for a one-dish meal, four plates if part of a larger meal.) Quickly finger-mix the cilantro into the mint, rau ram, and Thai basil leaves, and divide the herb salad among the plates, covering the noodles. Now distribute the shrimp among the plates, topping the herbs. Serve immediately, with lime quarters for squeezing over the top. The herbs offer an array of different sensations as you eat, since they are not chopped finely, which would amalgamate the flavors.

Incidentally, please consider buying Alaska prawns when you want shrimp, or one of the other environmentally sound choices on the Seafood Watch list.


When you need fresh egg noodles, it’s easy to buy them at asian groceries, but they aren’t organic and the color is blatantly artificial. Instead, use any recipe for fresh pasta dough, using organic flour and free-range eggs, and cut the dough sheets with the spaghetti cutter. Or, for very fine noodles, find organic capellini and cook them to the al dente stage, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking, and proceed as directed. It may not be strictly authentic, but in my view it’s healthier.
If you’re interested in Southeast Asian herbs, there are several that are well worth growing for yourself, and some that in my view are better bought. Rau ram and mint are very easy if you supply them with some water. If you have an outdoor faucet that drips a little, plant some mint under it. Rau ram can be started anew each spring by rooting some cuttings from a bought bunch, will live happily all summer if you water it, and will die over the winter and need to be replanted next spring. Thai basil is easy, and probably you won’t want more than a few plants. Start them now, plant out in a fertile sunny place, and cut them frequently so they don’t go to seed. Shiso can be handled the same way, and now is the time to start. Cilantro needs to be planted regularly if you want a steady supply. I suggest using one of the slow-bolting types like “santo,” and planting a 3 foot row at least every month. Plant more often for a steady supply, and plant a shorter row if you don’t use it that much. Murraya (curry) leaves can be grown in a pot, as can Kaffir lime leaves, and Well-sweep Herb Farm has both of them, but you’ll need a large sunny window and a lot of patience to produce useful amounts. I am trying to grow Kaffir lime leaves because the local supply is erratic, but I buy curry leaves when I need them, which is rarely. Same with betel leaves, which I don’t use more than a few times a year. However, Well-sweep has the betel vine if you want to try. Lemongrass can be grown in pots, but I don’t have room to keep a useful amount of it indoors over the winter, so I buy it. I urge readers to buy organic ginger and fresh turmeric when needed, and the Co-op has both. I’ve read that the turmeric leaf also has many applications as a fresh herb, so I’m trying to grow some, and I’ll let you know how it turns out. Fresh pandanus leaf has unequalled fragrance and I’ve never found them fresh in Albuquerque, so I’ll be trying some in pots this summer. I’ll keep you posted. Be aware that all these herbs and leaves need to be grown in full sun for best fragrance, so don’t try them unless you have the right conditions. Torch ginger flower, which is widely used in Malaysian cooking, can’t be found locally and is a huge plant impractical to grow indoors unless you have a greenhouse. If anyone knows where to get the buds in our area, please let me know.

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