Spring in the garden is so beautiful that there is nothing you can do but admit to the cosmos that you could never have deserved this rush of glory but somehow received it anyway. The season conduces to a stance of awestruck gratitude. This is also the great season for salads, and on an average day my salad bowl contains somewhere between 12 and 20 species. I don’t know how I managed to miss the existence of the Bluapple, a wonderful little device that absorbs ethylene gases and helps your salad greens stay fresher longer. Two of these little devices and a year’s supply of refills come in under $20, a bargain when you consider how often it will save you from throwing away your salad materials. Personally I always want to eat my salad greens within a few days of picking, but with this in my salad crisper, they are beautifully vibrant at the three day point, much as if I had just picked them out of the garden. This is significant for working people because washing and drying salad greens takes time, and if you could do it a day or two ahead of time without loss of quality, you will definitely eat more salads.
Like everyone else who works, I have a lot to do when I get home and some nights I need help to get a healthy dinner on the table. I eat a ketogenic (low carbohydrate) diet and don’t have pasta and rice and bulgur to fall back on. For those nights I keep some “fast food” in the freezer, like riced organic cauliflower. If I’m thinking ahead, I leave a bag out to thaw in the morning. More often I didn’t think ahead and need to thaw it quickly in the microwave. Either way, if you just cook it as is, you are going to have a rather damp mess on your hands, in my opinion anyway. So take the thoroughly thawed cauliflower, bundle it in a dish towel, and squeeze the water out of it. You’ll get a surprising amount out. Now you can throw it in a skillet with some salt, sliced green onions, chopped herbs, olive oil, and sliced almonds, and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes with regular stirring. Don’t add water back. Cauliflower loves to go soggy if it gets a chance. It’s done when the cauliflower grains are done to your preference. I like mine a bit on the firm side, holding their shape briefly to the tooth without any hint of raw crunch. Check whether it needs more salt before you serve. Meanwhile, grill some salmon as shown here, or warm up leftover chicken thighs, or slice up some warmed leftover meat. Land it on your cauliflower pilaf and flavor it with finishing butter (Montpellier butter with green garlic is shown here) which also lives in the freezer in convenient individually wrapped portions, or just drizzle with your best olive oil.
Some would say that I should grow, grate, and freeze the cauliflower myself if I’m going to use it, and when such people get hold of me, I always suggest that they invite me over for a meal 100% produced from their yard so that I can write about it😉. So far, those invitations haven’t arrived. I am not a believer in making the perfect the enemy of the good, and we are not full-time yard farmers and have to make our modern lives work. Besides, grating cauliflower is one of the few kitchen jobs that I hate and one that I outsource whenever possible. I grow things that are unobtainable at markets or distinctly better when home-grown, and cauliflower is neither. So let somebody else do the work for you.
Regarding the finishing butter above, I am used to horrified shrieks of “It’s GREEN!” Indeed it is, and so are a lot of other good things. Expose yourself (and your family and friends) to green food until you get used to it, and your health will benefit. After all, nobody has ever looked at wild-caught Alaskan salmon at my table and said “Ugh, it’s PINK!” Good food is good food. Close your eyes if you really must, but getting over biases about green is better.
Here’s another version tricked out with capers, green garlic, thyme, pine nuts, and castelvetrano olives.
“”Boy, I could go for some goat right now” said no American ever. But I have no idea why that is. If you are an urban or rural homesteader you have probably considered goats because they are hardy, compact, dual-purpose, remarkably productive for their size, and extremely friendly. But you have probably thought, or been told, that the meat is strong-flavored and unappealing.
If you are dealing with an old goat, this is certainly true, but I can’t imagine butchering an old goat. Goats under a year old are delicious, with a full robust flavor that people who shop at the supermarket can hardly imagine, but nothing that can fairly be described as gaminess. The ones that I occasionally produce for our household are 100% alfalfa-fed. If you are lucky enough to have access to such meat, cook it with respect. For the chops, that means marinating with garlic and herbs and grilling medium-rare because the meat gets tough if allowed to dry out. If you can’t get young grass-fed goat, apply the same principles to lamb chops, another meat that has not yet had the flavor bred out of it. Sear on the grill to medium-rare, let rest in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes, and serve with a veggie that works with robust flavors, such as the pan-grilled hops shoots shown here.
I sometimes think that the direction of mainstream American agriculture is to eliminate anything that has a distinctive flavor. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve rediscovered dry-aged beef and gotten away from chicken breast, which (unless you raised it yourself) is the most tasteless and cottony part of a tasteless and cottony bird. I have tasted prime-grade beef that had no discernible beef flavor, just a fatty faint sweetness. Spinach is sold in the baby-leaf stage when it has no intrinsic flavor. Corn is as sugary-sweet as cotton candy, with no “corn” flavor to speak of. It makes me grateful beyond words for my tiny patch of land where I can grow hops shoots and chicory and grape leaves and wild weeds and herbs of all kinds to feed my desire for food that tastes of itself.
By the way, I cook hops shoots a lot in the spring and after trying several methods, I’ve decided that the only one worth pursuing is to cut the shoots in lengths about 1.5 inches long and stir-fry in a hot pan with some very good olive oil, a hefty pinch of salt, and nothing else. Continue to cook, stirring intermittently, until there are browned spots and the little nascent leaves are fried crisp. This gives them the richness to accent their slight wild bitterness and makes them truly delicious. Like good goat chops, they are a feral and flavorful treat
I mentioned marinating goat and lamb, and my favorite marinade is the one that my mother used when I was growing up, with a tweak or two from me. It’s great for goat, lamb, and beef. Tinker with it as you see fit, but at least once try it as written here, with the finish described:
Red meat marinade:
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Red Boat fish sauce or 2 mashed fillets of anchovy
2-3 crushed cloves of garlic (I prefer 3) or a couple of stalks of green garlic, sliced fine and then crushed in a mortar and pestle
a small handful of celery leaves, chopped
Mix all ingredients and let sit half an hour, then pour over chops in a dish and let marinate at least four hours and preferably overnight in the refrigerator.
Finish: remove from marinade and salt lavishly on both sides with alder-smoked salt. Sear on a hot grill to produce the ultra flavorful Maillard reactions. Lower heat and grill until done, but no more than medium-rare. Rest in a low oven. Eat and weep. The alder salt makes the meat jump into deliciousness. It’s a case of robust meeting robust and the flame of love being kindled.
If you get interested in producing a bit of your own meat or supporting a farmer who does, study the book “Goat” for more cooking inspiration. Goats and sheep produce milk and meat from land that wouldn’t support crop agriculture, and their meat still has its own distinctive and wonderful flavor. This book was published years ago but, regrettably, there is still nothing else like it.
When I was in my early 20s and becoming aware that I was by far my happiest in the kitchen and my interest in flavor and food was on a level that was not entirely normal, America was obsessing over classic French and Italian cuisine. Anxious cooks were obsessed with anything Julia. Later there was anything Marcella. But it was an oddly joyless time. If you went to a dinner party, you were expected to talk all evening about the food. Very little ever got said about anything but the food. There was a lot of competition involved, and the kitchen ethic that I grew up with in Louisiana, that of getting over yourself and cooking something good and inviting people in to enjoy themselves and each other, did not seem to be there.
Fortunately in Manhattan in the early 80s there was joyful food to be had. I would make the very long walk to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where there were basins full of wriggling seafood and strange vegetables all along the sidewalks, and ginger and wild-looking dried things that might be fungal or might be animal, and the elderly vendors would hand me unfamiliar vegetables with the invariable instruction “cook in soup.” There were the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue, full of wonderful spices with a combined aroma that seemed like Nirvana, where a passing shopper in a gleaming sari might easily stop and spent 20 minutes telling me how she cooked greens or chappati like the ones her grandmother made. There was a Greek market on Ninth Avenue that sold green coffee beans for roasting at home and olives from enormous barrels and where the proprietor might cheerfully pass me a shot of Greek brandy as he wrote up my modest purchases, for the pleasure of watching me gasp and sputter as I tried to swallow it.
And there was Paula Wolfert. Instead of the staid rhythms of a classic cuisine, she wrote about the bold, the unexpected, and the renegade food of the world. Her recipes were long and extremely detailed and assumed that you loved to be in the kitchen and that spending a few extra hours there was nothing but a pleasure. She wrote about food that was not for showing off, but intended to warm and nourish people and make them incredibly happy. Her name became a kind of secret code among enthusiastic home cooks, and we might have long pleasurable arguments about which of her books was best. I bought my first couscoussiere, a huge tin lined copper beauty that was the glory of my kitchen and astonishingly cheap at the time because few people in America wanted one. I preserved lemons and cooked chickpeas and developed a serious addiction to coriander leaves and toasted my own spices and longed for an exciting life like Paula’s. As Paula went on through various Mediterranean cuisines, I went with her, loving every minute of the journey. My Paula Wolfert cookbooks are ragged, broken backed, and splashed with food, which is as it should be. In some cases they look less blemished, because I wore out the original copy and got a new one.
In 2013 Paula was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and consistent with her personality, she not only tried every way she could to maintain her own health but became a spokesperson for others with the illness.
The cookbook Unforgettable, with the story of Paula’s life woven through recipes that she loves, has just been published through a Kickstarter campaign, and all diehard fans will want to own it. You can find it on Amazon. But don’t forget all the other books that chronicled her passionate interests through the years and gave us recipes that we will never forget.
Even though we never met, Paula was my constant kitchen companion for decades. My hat is off to her, now and always. And by the way; best Paula Wolfert cookbook ever? Mediterranean Grains and Greens. No question. Or if you aren’t convinced, meet me in the kitchen sometime and we can have a lovely argument about it.
Spring on the urban homestead is so beautiful and bountiful that I can hardly believe it, and I spend more time than I care to admit just wandering around dazed with the wonder and joy of it all. But there is a practical aspect to my trance, because while giving thanks to the cosmos for the life that surrounds me, I am noting what can go in the salad bowl that evening.
The salad shown above is a pretty typical urban homestead salad. It contains a handful of lettuce, some early arugula, and a lot of biennials and perennials that wintered over and got an early start. Tiny leaves of curly kale that began to leaf out as soon as the weather got warm are good salad material, still sweet from night frosts, although I don’t like older kale in salads. There is a little chervil because I threw the seeds around in warm spots last fall.
So here’s the species list for tonight:
Siberian elm samaras
mustard (one Southern Giant plant overwintered somehow)
Green perennial onions
A few further notes on the ingredients: in the past I had tried cooking scorzonera greens and thought they were fairly uninteresting, but for some reason I never tried them as salad material until this year. They are very mild in flavor and have a nice slightly substantial and tender texture, and I am using them a lot now. They make a good base for some more flavorful greens like dandelion and mustard and arugula. I have written in the past about how much I love the elongating flower stalks when pan grilled in olive oil, so this is a very good dual purpose vegetable. I plan to plant more of it.
In the past I have mostly used Siberian elm samaras as a “hand salad” eaten spontaneously on walks when they presented themselves. They are too mild to be of much interest cooked, although I do use them in greens mixtures sometimes, but I have found that I like them in salads in rather substantial amounts, probably a cup of washed samaras in a salad for two. There is something about the texture that I enjoy, provided you pick them at the right stage, when they are about the size of a dime and the edges are still fresh green and have not yet grown at all papery. They need a little bit of cleaning, but most of the debris can be floated off once you have broken up the clumps with your fingers, and 15 minutes of preparation is not too much for a vegetable that cost you no effort or money whatsoever in the growing.
Have a look at what’s available to you in field and forest and in your own yard. Learn how to make a really good vinaigrette. Use common sense, and don’t eat plants unless you are completely sure that they are edible.
Tonight I find myself eating a lovely and satisfying dinner out of the yard, and reflecting on a series of happy surprises.
First, I went to the shed to get a tool, and my latest mushroom laundry basket had a gorgeous huge clump of oysters across the top.
The tronchuda, or Portuguese kale, was still tender and sweet from night frosts, and there was a wild abundance of green garlic to cook with it because I finally planted enough to satisfy my taste for it.
The exquisite late Jeanne d’Arc crocuses were finishing the crocus season.
And the garden goods could be washed and prepped right in the garden where the water could do some good. This is an ordinary laundry sink, but I asked the nice man at the plumbing supply store to sell me the correct fittings to hook a garden hose to it. So the water can be turned on and off, and the water drains out into a bed that can really use the moisture. My ingenious yard man got me a 3 foot piece of hose with the correct fittings to attach to the fawcet at one end and the hose at the other, so there is no fumbling underneath when I want to use the sink. And it could be lifted and moved if I wanted the water to land somewhere else.
Life is good, and spring is good.
I decided to reblog this older post because these three plants are still my most reliable, mild, and versatile early greens. This is a good time of year to think about planting some perennial greens or locating a wild patch that you can harvest from, and you will rejoice every spring for years to come.
Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally…
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