Posts Tagged ‘perennial arugula’

The Shoots of Spring

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This is the great season for hops shoots. I gather a large handful every day or two, taking care to snap them off where the stem is tender and brittle. I wash them, cut the bundle crosswise in pieces about an inch long, toss in a hot skillet with a generous amount of good olive oil, and sauté over medium-high heat, turning frequently, until the stems are tender and  some of the leaves are brown and crisp. Add salt and serve. They have a “wild” and slightly bitter flavor which I love alongside very flavorful meaty main dishes.

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This spring I started to experiment with other shoots. I have been eyeing the invasive tendencies of my goji bushes, which routinely send suckers out 10 feet to send a shoot up right where I don’t want another goji plant. They are turning up everywhere as the weather warms.

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I knew that their foliage was edible but had never been much impressed with the taste, and there aren’t many leaves per bush. The shoots, on the other hand, are bulkier than the leaves, green, tender, and a nuisance unless removed. Yesterday I gathered young shoots of  silene (bladder campion,) goji berry bush, perennial arugula, and alfalfa to experiment with ( shown L to R below.) I wouldn’t try cooking with any shoot that didn’t break off with a clean, brittle snap. You don’t want them woody.

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I didn’t cut them up, just washed them and let them drain. Then they were put in a skillet with some olive oil and fried over medium-high heat until the leaves were crisp and browned. I would guess that it was about two minutes a side. Watch carefully; the line between browned and burned is crossed in milliseconds.

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They were drained on paper towels, salted, and eaten.

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They were actually a rich brown in spots, not black as they appear in my photo. The alfalfa and silene shoots were crisp and pleasant enough to eat, but all I could taste was olive oil and salt. I had used a wonderful olive oil so I didn’t mind that, but I do like a vegetable to taste of itself.  The stars were the goji and perennial arugula shoots. The hot and mustardy flavor of perennial arugula was tamed and made interesting but not excessive, and the goji shoots had an herbal flavor and a delightful texture. I will definitely cook them again. I can easily cook them for my husband and myself, but they need lots of room in the skillet to crisp, so I don’t think it’s practical to make them for more than two people. They are too fragile to withstand being dipped into anything, and are best eaten on their own. They are a passing fancy and to be enjoyed as such.

I only wish that all my invasives could be dealt with by eating them.

There are many other shoots to consider, and this is a time of year for perennial veggies to shine. Meaty young milkweed shoots should be wonderful. It has taken me three years to get a milkweed patch to germinate so mine are still spindly infants, but if you live in an area where it occurs naturally, do give it a try. Asparagus, the classic shoot, is wonderful when pan-fried like this. Young slender green onions can be treated this way with good effect, and green garlic could be great, although in this one use I would use only the white part, since the leaves can seem stringy if not chopped in cross-section. I will soon be experimenting with shoots of young wild lettuce as it starts to bolt. I think these would need to be blanched first to reduce bitterness, but I’m not sure yet.  I’m very fond of using the fresh tender shoot-tips of coppiced mulberries as a green, and I think they would be very good given this treatment, but they don’t come along until about June, so it will be a while before I find out. See here for a discussion of the ins and outs of selecting and eating mulberry leaves.  The young second-year stems of chard leaves that emerge when an overwintered plant sprouts in the spring, before it starts bolting to seed,  might be good for this, trimmed of their green leafy bits and maybe cut in inch-long chunks if they seem a bit on the stringy side. And I have written before about using the young flowering shoots of scorzonera this way, and they are definitely the highest culinary incarnation of that tough perennial.

I often mention Cook’s Treats, the series of improvisational tapas for one that I enjoy in the kitchen when nobody’s looking and I’m doing other things. Four or five tasty shoots, thrown in your smallest skillet with olive oil while you’re working on other things, make a great cook’s nibble. You will need to give them your undivided attention for a few minutes and that’s all, which fits well into the rhythm if many kitchen tasks.

Perennial Arugula, With Notes on Montpellier Butter

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I have written frequently about annual arugula and how delicious, versatile, and easy it is. A few years ago I bought a packet of seed for perennial arugula, Diplotaxis tenuifolia. I planted them in a likely spot and then, as so often happens at my place, I was overcome by the sight of bare earth, forgot I had sown seeds already, and planted something large and rambunctious there. At the end of the gardening year I cleared the debris away and found tiny wispy plants that I recognized as the perennial arugula. They survived the winter, resprouted tentatively in the spring, and then all of a sudden they were a mass. A thuggish mass, ready to overpower anything in the way of their gangland fervor for territory. And they were, literally, hot. The initial flavor when I chewed on a leaf was pleasantly mustardy, developing gradually to a burn in the back of the throat as I swallowed that wasn’t painful, but certainly wasn’t pleasant either. While I puzzled over how to use them, they bloomed, and the delicately pretty sulfur-yellow blossoms drew bees from miles around. So, needless to say, they were kept.
Sometimes it takes me a while to find the best use for a perennial. So far, my favorite use for this sturdy perennial is to blanch the leaves briefly in boiling water and use them more as a seasoning than a bulk ingredient. Used as a small part of a cooked greens mixture, they add interest. I like a small buttered pile of them as a sort of “cooked herb salad” alongside meats or salmon. I intend to try pounding them with a mortar and pestle as a wasabi-like seasoning. And they are superb in Montpellier Butter. I learned about this lovely seasoning in one of Elizabeth David’s books, I forget which one. But the greatest recipe of them all is the one published by Jeremiah Tower, and it goes like this:

Jeremiah Tower’s Montpelier Butter (this is as he published it. My own tweaks are below.)

Coarse salt
6 spinach leaves, washed
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 bunch watercress leaves (I use 15 good-sized nasturtium leaves)
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons fresh chervil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
2 cornichons, rinsed and chopped
4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed, soaked in water for 10 minutes and dried with a paper towel
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed, soaked, and drained
1 small garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
3 hard-cooked large egg yolks
2 large raw egg yolks
1/2 cup (one quarter pound) good grassfed butter, room temperature
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add salt. Combine spinach, shallots, watercress, parsley, chervil, chives, and tarragon in a fine sieve. Carefully place sieve in boiling water until greens are wilted, about 30 seconds. Remove, and place in ice-water bath to cool, or hold under very cold running water for several seconds until cool. Remove, and squeeze dry. Transfer to the food processor. Add cornichons, anchovies, capers, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Season with salt and black pepper. Process to a smooth paste. Add cooked and raw yolks, and butter. Process until thoroughly combined. Transfer to a medium bowl and slowly whisk in olive oil. Add vinegar, and whisk to combine. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.
This will keep a day or two in the refrigerator, and two months in the freezer.

My tweaks: I leave out the spinach leaves, watercress or nasturtium leaves, and chervil, and use about 25 perennial arugula leaves instead, blanched with the other seasonings as described above. I increase the tarragon to a quarter cup of whole leaves, and I also use a few large cloves of confited garlic rather than one raw clove. I use five hard-cooked egg yolks so that I don’t have to worry about harming an immunocompromised guest. And sorry, Jeremiah, but I do the whole thing in the processor and don’t whisk by hand at the end. I keep the butter in roughly formed little bars in the freezer, tightly wrapped, so that I can cut off large (LARGE) pats with a heated knife and plop them on steaks or grilled salmon and heat briefly under the broiler just before serving to soften and partially melt the butter, or on steamed vegetables, or on nearly anything. I don’t eat the carb-y stuff anymore, but if you do, it is wonderful on chunks of grilled baguette and transcendent on handmade egg linguine with grated Parmesan. If you try this with frozen Montpellier butter and don’t want to take time to thaw it, try grating it on a coarse grater before tossing with the linguine, piling on the salmon, or adding generously to the cooked greens.