Posts Tagged ‘salad’

Dandelion Time

Just after the first nettles, the first dandelions are ready to eat. This happens about the same time that the earliest daffodils bloom.

I have mentioned in another post that dandelions don’t seem to occur naturally in my neighborhood, and I went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to have them and paid good money for seeds that people in other climates would pay to get rid of.  Surprisingly, they take a long time to establish. I find that they are extremely straggly and thin the first year, and only a little more substantial in the second year. But in the third year, they make beautiful thick rosettes of spring time leaves that are perfect for salads.  Interestingly, the dandelions growing in my garden beds are not bitter, although in general dandelion leaves are famous for bitterness.  This may have something to do with my alkaline and highly mineralized soil. I’m really not sure. But it is a nice bonus. If yours are bitter, check out Dr. Kallas’s excellent book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, which contains a number of sensible suggestions about making bitter greens more appealing.

All sorts of medicinal properties are attributed to dandelions,  and if you’re interested in that you can read up on it. Personally, as I have said several times before, I think that all leafy greens are medicinal in that they are really, truly good for you. Eat them all, lots of them.

The early spring leaves are both tender and substantial in texture. I like them in a salad either by themselves or with a little bit of outer leaves of romaine lettuce added.  But if you want to add them to a more traditional mixed salad, they add a nice amount of “lift“ to the mixture at this stage.  At times when I lived where dandelions or more bitter,  I was very fond of adding crumbled bacon and hard cooked or Friday eggs to dandelion salads. With the nonbitter leaves that grow here, I prefer to eat them just with a good vinaigrette, and maybe a few bones’ worth of roasted marrow alongside to complete the meal. I roast the bones with salt and seasoning, then dig the marrow out and plop it on a pile of dandelion leaves dressed with good vinaigrette. Grind some pepper over the top, and yum.  It’s a delicious way to stay ketogenic, but if you are not a low-carbohydrate eater, you can enjoy the marrow spread on elegant little pieces of sourdough toast.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of bone marrow, you might want to keep marrow spoons around, as shown above. They have long, narrow bowls that are specially designed for digging this delicious substance out of the bone. You can get heirloom sterling silver ones from England for $700 or more apiece, or you can do what I did and buy stainless steel marrow spoons on Amazon for less than $10 each. They work just fine.

Green Slaw, and notes on salt-curing greens

Right now my garden is full of savoy cabbage and collards, the cold-hardiest greens around, and I’m trying to eat them in as many forms as possible. There are no greens more nutritious, and after a few hard frosts the texture is excellent. One way I really love to eat them is salt-wilted or salt-cured, which makes them more tender and gives them a velvety texture. The slaw shown above was designed to go with Mexican flavors and makes use of cilantro stems, which are often wasted but shouldn’t be. They have pure cilantro flavor and, unlike the leaves, will stand up to marinating or cooking.

For two people, I used one giant outer leaf of savoy cabbage and cut the midrib out. I then rolled the leaf halves up and cut them into thin strips less that 1/4” wide. Half a red onion was cut into very thin slices. The cabbage and onion strips were put in a bowl and salted generously. I didn’t measure the salt, but the idea is to use somewhat more than you might sprinkle on at the table, not to drench them with salt. Half a teaspoon for this small salad would probably do it.  Then- this step is important- I massaged the salt in with my fingertips for about a minute. The bowl was then put aside for half an hour. Meanwhile, I chopped a small clove of garlic finely and cut a handful of cilantro stems in fine cross section, as well as getting the chicken breasts and sauce ready. While the chicken breast was cooking, I squeezed out the greens to get rid of excess liquid. Then I tossed in the cilantro stems and garlic, squeezed the juice of half a lime over the leaves, tossed with couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, and finished with a few grinds of black pepper and a generous sprinkle of ground toasted cumin. The most important final step is to taste and consider the seasoning before serving. It may need additional salt, since much was lost when the liquid was squeezed out. And after considering the flavor balance, I ended up tossing in a light sprinkle of stevia, probably equivalent to about half a teaspoon of sugar.

This basic technique can be taken in many other directions. For a more Chinese take, leave out the cumin, use rice vinegar instead of lime juice, and add some grated ginger with the garlic and finish with a final drizzle of roasted sesame oil.  A sweeter take that can accompany Korean food or barbecue with equal facility can be achieved by tossing the wilted veggies, garlic, and cilantro stems with quasi-Korean sauce.  (Incidentally, when making that sauce, remember that oligofructose is not an essential ingredient and, if you aren’t low-carb, you can just use a smaller amount of sugar.) If pursuing an Asian flavor, use a neutral oil like macadamia oil rather than olive oil.  Rather than cilantro stems, you can use finely chopped parsley stems or a handful of finely sliced celery. You might want to salt-wilt the celery with the cabbage and onions if you use it, to make the texture blend in more harmoniously. You can dress the wilted veggies with wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar, add some finely chopped fresh thyme, and finish with a very good olive oil to have the slaw accompany more traditional western flavors. Parsley stems, lemon juice, oregano, and a final sprinkle of feta on top makes it more Greek, which is where I learned the salt-wilting technique in the first place. You can of course use part of a cabbage head rather than outer leaves, and red cabbage turns a lovely scarlet when salt-wilted and dressed with something acidic.  The point is that salt-wilting is a way to make thick cabbagey leafy greens more tender and chewable so that they can readily be eaten raw, and then you can take the flavor in any direction you want.  If you absolutely don’t have time for the salt-wilting step, you could try just massaging the finely sliced veggies with your fingers for an extra couple of minutes, and depending on your greens, this may soften the texture enough to make them very tasty, although the plush texture achieved by salt-curing won’t be there.  And if you don’t want to serve it as part of your meal, a small portion from half a large leaf or  so made in the kitchen while you do other things is a great cook’s treat  to eat while you work and prevent overeating later on.

I never tire of harping on the fact that leafy greens form the basis of the Cretan diet, the diet that nourished some of the healthiest and longest- lived people in the world. Also, they are full of soluble and insoluble fiber and very filling, so you have half the chicken breast left over to eat the next day, providing economies of time and money in addition to the health benefits.There is a meme going around that says

“How do you reset your body back to its factory settings?

It’s kale, isn’t it?

Please don’t say it’s kale”

Substitute “leafy greens” for “kale” and this becomes fairly accurate, and can be made delicious. If you grow your own greens, it’s also dirt-cheap. So there just isn’t a downside.

 

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.

Permaculture Salad, and Notes on the Siberian Elm

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:

Lettuce

arugula

chervil

scorzonera

salsify

wild lettuce

sow thistle

dandelion

Siberian elm samaras

Bladder campion

tarragon

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.

The Seeds You Need

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Here in the high-desert Southwest, our cold-weather vegetables need to be planted by mid-March, and so late February is my last good chance to review my seed box and order what I need. This resulted in my sending off a frantic order for sugar snap peas. My attachment to them is strong, largely because I love English (shelling) peas but never find time to shell them. My favorite snap pea is the original Sugar Snap. This variety has some disadvantages: it climbs 5-6 feet and has to be provided with support, the pods have strings and need to be de-stringed before cooking, and it doesn’t have much in the way of disease resistance (although I have had no problems with disease.) It has a single incomparable advantage: flavor that none of the newer, neater varietals can live up to. For best flavor, the peas inside the pod have to be allowed to develop. Don’t pick them in the flat snow-pea stage. Then rinse and string the pods, which is a very quick job, and steam them to eat with butter, stir-fry with some scallion and ginger, or cook them in your own favorite way. Yum.

In my opinion they develop a soapy taste when frozen, so I don’t recommend “putting them by.” Eat mountains of the fresh article and give any extra to people you really like.
The important thing is, order those seeds now.

And don’t forget to plant extra so that you can cut pea shoots. Cut when they are 6-8 inches high, pea shoots are delicious in salads and stir-fries.

Appearing now in your salad bowl: Chickweed


Funny how things cycle. When I first learned to forage as a child, I was distressed because I couldn’t find any chickweed near my Louisiana home. Later, when I had a farm in upstate New York, I had plenty of chickweed and came to curse its abundance. Now, in the desert southwest, nature doesn’t offer any chickweed and I had to buy seeds in order to have it again.
Stellaria media, the common chickweed, is a mild and tasty wild salad green, with more nutritional value than many domesticated salad greens. I had to look hard for seed, because it tends to be assumed that everybody has it and wishes they didn’t. I finally found it at Wild Garden Seeds. It appreciates some shelter from our blazing sun, which I provided by planting it in the same row as lettuce and spinach (right in the same tiny trench) so that it could nestle under the larger leaves and stick its head up for picking. The picture above shows this. In my opinion, only the tip of each sprig is worth eating, so I cut one or two inches off each little branch and leave the rest. Eaten alone with no dressing it has a somewhat grassy flavor, but mixed with other greens it’s delicious and adds a certain airiness and lift to the texture of a mixed salad. I use it up for anywhere up to half the bulk of a salad, depending on how much of it I have available at the moment. I have often read that it can be used as a cooked green, but I don’t care for it that way- too bland- and use it only in salads. I plan to let some go to seed, and will also make another planting in the fall, because it loves cool weather.

Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm


There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.