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.
Five years ago, when we first moved to our current property, I planted some scorzonera with the idea that it would be a good root vegetable for fall. When fall came, I dug up a root and prepared it, and found it stringy, hard to prepare, and not all that interesting to eat. I had two good-sized plants, and I never got around to digging up the second one. The next spring it sent up attractive green leaves, and although it was in a spot that I never remember to water, it flourished all summer on the 11″ of rain that we get in an average year. Impressed with its stamina, I left it in place. By the time it came up the third year I had read that the leaves were edible, so I tried them but found them undistinguished and didn’t bother with them again. The plant continued to earn its place by being bright green and trouble-free. This year, its fifth year, the plant began to send up bloomstalks at a time when I had a free afternoon and a propensity to experiment, and I discovered scorzonera asparagus, the plant’s culinary reason for existing. Gather the top 4-5 inches of each scape while the buds are still tightly closed and held close to the stalk, wash well, and toss into a hot skillet with a generous glug of good olive oil and salt to taste. Turn the heat down to medium now. Turn them often so that they brown in spots but don’t blacken. Don’t walk away from the stove! They are done when the leaf tips are fried brown and crispy, and the stalks are just cooked through. Eat promptly, as the semi-wild treasure that they are. I made a little plate of them to be a “cook’s treat” in the kitchen while I was cooking something else, and unwisely offered my husband a taste, which resulted in him eating most of them. They’re good.
This tough-as-nails perennial grows in the desert with little care besides the initial planting and weeding when it’s small, and I plan to plant more. I do offer it some water to make it grow big and bountiful. I may have called the leaves “undistinguished,” but if other spring greens ever fail me, I guess I’ll be glad to have them. It took me a while to learn to use it well, but this plant earns its place in the food garden.
If all the greens you grow are sweet mild greens, your greens dishes will be bland. You need some vigor and some bitterness to make a hortapita or other mixed greens dish come alive. Chicories are a large, drought-tolerant, highly adaptable family well worth getting to know. Our local company Gourmet Seeds in Tatum, New Mexico has the most comprehensive selection I’ve come across. I bought my seed from them last year, and haven’t had to replant. Above, you can see what radicchio looks like in early life. I plant mine in late summer, harvest a small but usable head in late fall, ands take care not to harm the crown of the plant when I cut it for use. If the root and crown are left in place, next April they will look like “earth roses” as you see above. Cut the outer leaves for cooking. Taste before use, and if they’re very bitter blanch them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes and drain well before cooking further in whatever way you choose. Otherwise, when concentrated by cooking, they will be more bitter than you want. Some people like even the outer leaves in salads. Taste before serving. See my “greens” and “recipe” categories for some dishes made with mixed blanched greens, including the hortapita post, which is a great way to eat a lot of greens and enjoy it.
This is the chicory usually sold as “dandelion” in grocery stores. Cut the leaves until May or June; keep taking nibbles raw befre cutting, and when they go from pleasantly bitter to unpleasantly bitter, stop cutting or blanch before use. When very young, they’re good in salads. If allowed to go to seed, they’ll get 4 feet tall and seed themselves all over your garden. If this is not what you want, keep cutting back the stalks before they flower.
I planted scorzonera for the roots, but found that I wasn’t wowed by them. I left the remaining plants in place, and harvest a nice bunch of mild cooking greens from each plant every spring. After one good cutting, I leave them alone for the year. I’ve read that they can be used in salads, but to my tooth they’re too tough to use uncooked. They require no care and are very drought-tolerant. I prefer to mix them with stronger-flavored greens like chicories, and providentially, they’re harvestable at the same time. Vegetables that come up perennially with no fuss are too good to ignore.
For more about greens, see my “greens” and “herbs” pages on my website.