Archive | May 2013

Leaf Eaters

Leaf Eaters

Warm rains have the spring garden bursting at the seams. Seemingly overnight, the abundance of green has gone from exhilarating to terrifying. Lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, and chicory are all filling out with lush, tender leaves. It’s the best time of year to become a leaf eater.

The term “leaf eater” was an insult hurled at Southern Italians, who love both wild and cultivated dark green leafy vegetables and ate them in great abundance in the days before pasta and tomatoes. The Italians still love their greens and remain a great source of seed for tasty varieties of broccoli, kale, chard, cabbage, escarole, endive, and more. I am currently growing “Chard Verde de Taglio”, which makes very sweet and tender leaves, and a smooth-leaf spinach called “Matador” along with the tried and true variety “Space.” Beautiful butterhead lettuces–“Nancy”, “May Queen”, “Four Seasons”, and “Deer Tongue”–are at their soft and crunchy best.

Leaf eating is not limited to the Southern Italians. My motto is “Leaf Eaters of the World, Unite”, and I am always ready to go on culinary expeditions to search for new ways to put more green leaves into food. My favorite leaf-eating experiences involve using leaves as wraps and scoops. A Thai friend taught me to scoop up intensely flavored carrot salad with bok choi leaves and wrap an assortment of ingredients in a spinach leaf to make a “flavor bundle.”

Making “flavor bundles” is the perfect introduction to the Thai philosophy of food, which Thai food authority Su-Mei Yu says can be summed up in two words: arroy, meaning delicious, and sanuk, meaning fun and bringing pleasure. Thai food is both delicious and fun because of the playful jostling of seasonings, flavors, aromas and textures. Choosing from an array of vibrant, boldly flavorful ingredients, wrapping them in a leaf, and popping it in your mouth and letting them explode is quintessential sanuk.

A “flavor bundle” meal is an easy and relaxed way to eat because even though there are a fair number of ingredients, you don’t have to do much with them other than chop them up. It’s also a good way to get to know how the different flavors and textures play off each other, and to experience the elements of contrast and surprise so important in Thai and other Asian cooking. You can make slightly different combinations to adjust the salty, sweet, sour, hot taste sensations with each mouthful. Enjoy!

 Leaf Wraps

Leaf Wrap

Miang kham, Miang neua, and Miang lao are a snack or street foods in Southeast Asia and can be translated with names like “savory bite”, “one-bite leaf”, and “leaf-wraps”. Like antipasti, they make great appetizers but can easily become a whole meal when eaten with rice or noodles. The traditional fillings can be simply an assortment of finely chopped condiments, or include more substantial ingredients like shrimp, beef, or pork.

I like to include tofu, as well.

Ingredients: Perfect middle-size leaves from garden or farmers’ market spinach, bibb or butterhead lettuce, mild-flavored “sugarhat” chicory, cabbage, or other tender leaves

Fillings/Condiments: Prepare 1/4 to 1/2 cup each for 4 to 6 servings…. finely chopped fresh ginger (young, fresh ginger is best, but you can use pickled ginger or regular ginger soaked in a mixture of equal parts lime juice and water), finely chopped shallot, scallions, or sweet onion, unsweetened shredded coconut (dry-roast over medium-low heat until lightly browned and fragrant), dry-roasted chopped peanuts or cashews, minced fresh chiles, chopped coriander or mint leaves, 1 lime (remove seeds, chop whole lime in 1/8-inch dice)

One of the following: Seared tofu, boiled or grilled shrimp, spicy ground beef, stir-fried tamarind-pork (or turkey)…or, keep it simple: use thin slices of grilled steak, salmon, tuna, or smoked fish.

Accompaniments: Lime wedges and nuoc cham dipping sauce

To eat: Set out all the filling ingredients out in individual bowls or on a platter, with a large bowl of washed and dried leaves in the center. Place a leaf in your palm and put a small amount of meat, tofu, or fish in the middle. Add a pinch or two of any of the other filling ingredients and a drizzle of dipping sauce or squeeze of lime. Roll up the leaf and pop it in you mouth.

Spicy Ground Beef 

Spicy Ground Meat


Ingredients: 4 to 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 to 4 small dried chiles (or 1 tsp red chile flakes), 1 tsp lemon or lime zest, 1/4 tsp coarse salt, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds, 2 Tbs peanut or other oil, 1/2 cup chopped shallot or white onion, 1/2 lb. lean ground beef (tenderloin or sirloin), 1/3 cup chopped garlic chives or scallions, 1/2 cup chopped coriander, 2 or 3 Tbs chopped mint

Heat a skillet over medium heat and toast the sesame seeds, stirring constantly. Set aside. Put the garlic cloves on the hot skillet and dry-roast 10 to 15 minutes, until softened and lightly charred on both sides. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the peeled garlic with the salt to make a paste, Add the ginger, chile, and zest, and pound into the paste. Add the sesame seeds and pound briefly.

Heat the oil in the skillet and stir in the shallots or onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic-chile paste and cook 20 to 30 seconds. Raise the heat a little and add the ground meat. Stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped herbs.

Stir-Fried Tamarind-Pork

Ingredients: 1/2 lb lean pork (use lean ground pork or finely chopped fresh ham or loin cuts…or substitute ground turkey), 2 Tbs oil, 1/2 cup chopped shallot or white onion, 3 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 to 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1 Tbs tamarind concentrate mixed with 2 Tbs hot water and 1 1/2 Tbs palm or brown sugar, 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger

Stir-Fry: Heat a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the shallot or onion and garlic and stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes. Add the pork or turkey and stir-fry until all the pink color is gone, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium; add the fish sauce and tamarind mixture and simmer a few minutes until the liquid is gone. Stir in the ginger and cook 1 minute. Season with salt to taste.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce

Ingredients: 2 tsp chopped garlic, pinch sea salt, 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, 1/4 cup Thai fish sauce, 1/4 cup water, 2 tsp rice vinegar, 1 to 3 tsp sugar (or to your taste), 1 tsp chile paste or 1 or 2 minced small fresh hot chiles

Use a mortar and pestle to mash the garlic and salt to make a paste. Stir in all the other ingredients and adjust the flavor to your taste.

Orange-Soy Sauce

Ingredients: 1/3 cup fresh orange juice, 1 tsp orange zest, 2 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1 tsp lime zest, 1 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1/4 tsp cayenne or crushed red chile, 2 tsp toasted sesame oil, 4 to 5 Tbs soy sauce

I wish you happy snacking. More recipes for filling and dipping leaf-wrapped flavor bundles will come soon.

Eating Green


“Green” has become a buzzword of living these days, but I take eating green literally. It’s all about the color. I’m not sure anyone truly knows about green if they haven’t experienced spring in the mountains of North Carolina. Every day is an explosion of green. Every leaf that unfolds, every seedling that emerges unfurls it’s own gorgeous shade of green. I want to eat them all.

My friend Vicki once introduced me as the person who could grow everything better than she could excepting chickweed. That’s not really true, but I am a person who is always on the lookout for, and who recognizes superior chickweed. Vicki has lush, extravagantly green chickweed growing on the banks of her branch–the best kind for eating.

Chickweed is a wild plant that is a major ingredient in my daughter Naomi’s spring tonic pesto. Making this pesto involves foraging in the garden for early spring volunteers and exploring in the woods for wild edible greens… a wonderful way to spend a misty spring day. While harvesting green leaves we discovered patches of trillium, trout lily, bellwort, tightly wound ferns, and legions of violets.

The early spring garden is also full of surprising abundance. All those wonderful Italian chicories and Japanese mustards are making new leaves, as are the chard and kale plants that survived the winter. Wild arugula (sylvetta), chives, and garlic chives spring to life…mint, sorrel, and wild fennel are at their tender best. Garden-grown chickweed and the tips of my Austrian winter pea cover crop are succulent and sweet. It’s a green feast.

Here is a collection of recipes for eating green. Feel free to mix and match and substitute one green for another. Like the Mexican cook said when asked whether her soup should be made with chard or spinach, “Which one do you have?”

Wild Spring Tonic Pesto

Wild Spring Greens

This is food as medicine at it’s best. You can feel the energy and exuberance of the plant world in this deep green pesto. If it’s possible to capture the essence of spring, this is it.

Naomi and I gathered chickweed, cleavers, nettles, plantain, dandelion, arugula, chives, ramps (wild garlic-leek), violet flowers, sorrel, and watercress. About 3 cups of mixed leaves are pureed in the food processor with 3 crushed garlic cloves, 2 or 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, 1 or 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, and 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Freeze in small portions to use whenever green energy is needed.

Spring Garden Pesto

Garden Green

This is a tamer pesto made with the earliest tender garden herbs–a handful each chopped young parsley leaves, French sorrel, chives, Chinese garlic chives, mint, and a touch of wild arugula. Mash a few garlic cloves with a pinch of sea salt to make a paste. Use a large mortar and pestle or a food processor to finely chop or pound the herbs to make a rough pesto. Add extra virgin olive oil until the pesto is as you like it.

Watercress -Chickpea Soup

It is important to harvest watercress only from clean, uncontaminated water, like the spring water that bubbles out of the mountain above our house. Watercress has a strong, spicy flavor that mellows with cooking. Arugula, broccoli rabe, or spinach could replace the watercress in this soup. Ramps are wild garlic-leeks that grow in rich mountain woods.

Ingredients: 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 1/2 cups chopped onion or leeks, 2 or 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 5 or 6 ramps, 1 finely chopped jalapeno, 1 1/2 Tbs minced ginger, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (one14-oz can with liquid), 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth (or chickpea cooking liquid), 8 oz well-washed watercress, 4 oz spinach leaves, salt, freshly ground black pepper, yogurt (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a heavy soup pot with the onions or leeks over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the onion is very soft. Stir in the garlic, ramps, jalapeno, and ginger; cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the spices, one cup chickpeas, and broth; season to taste with salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Add the chopped watercress (reserve a small amount for a garnish) and spinach leaves and simmer 1 or 2 minutes, until wilted. Cool slightly and puree the soup in a blender until smooth. Add liquid as needed. Season with salt and pepper

Toss the remaining chickpeas with a drizzle of olive oil and 1/2 tsp crushed cumin seed. Shake them around in a hot skillet for a few minutes to toast the seeds, and scrape them onto the surface of the soup. Scatter the reserved watercress on top. Serve with a dollop of yogurt.

Note: The combination of chickpeas and watercress makes an excellent hummus. Puree the 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas with 2 garlic cloves, 1 or 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, a large handful watercress, and 3 or 4 Tbs tahini. Add salt to taste.

Green Fritters

Ingredients: 1 cup cooked rice, 1/2 cup farmer’s cheese or crumbled feta, 1 large egg, 1 tsp lemon zest, 1 bunch chard or other greens (enough to make 1 1/2 cups cooked and squeeze-dried), 1/4 cup chopped scallions or garlic chives, 2 Tbs chopped dill or fennel greens, pinch cayenne, 1/4 tsp salt, freshly ground black pepper, sesame seeds

Steam the greens a few minutes, until tender and wilted. Drain and press out excess liquid. Put all the ingredients except the sesame seeds in a food processor and pulse to combine. Shape the mixture into small patties and coat with sesame seeds. The fritters may be fried in a skillet or baked in the oven at 400 degrees F. for 20 minutes.

Serve with lemon wedges or quick pickled lemon slices.

Green Rice with Rajas


This is a lovely way to eat nettles. Harvest by pinching off the top few leaves of tender young plants in spring. Violet leaves are a nice addition. If you don’t have nettles, use spinach, chard, or beet greens. I like using white rice for this dish to show off the green color. Long grain white Basmati or short grain Arborio rice give different, but equally good, results. Rajas are strips of roasted and peeled poblano chiles.

Ingredients: 1 cup rice, 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, 2/3 cup chopped onion, 8 to 10 oz nettles or other green leaves (enough to make 1 to 1/2 cups when steamed), `1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1 1/2 cups water, 1/2 tsp salt

Wash the rice and set aside to drain. Wash the nettles or other greens and steam 2 or 3 minutes until wilted and tender. Warm the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onion 2 to 3 minutes. Add the drained rice and cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Using a blender, puree the greens and parsley with the water and salt. Combine the rice and greens in a saucepan and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover tightly, and cook the rice about 20 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.

Serve topped with strips of roasted and peeled poblano chiles.

Watercress Guacamole

Ingredients: two diced ripe avocados, 1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapeno or serrano chiles, 1 cup chopped watercress, juice of 1 lime, salt and black pepper

Combine all the ingredients and season to taste with salt and pepper. Leave chunky or mash smooth, as you like it.

Add an avocado and increase the onion to 1 1/2 cups and the watercress to 2 or 3 cups. Sauté the onion until soft. Stir in the chopped watercress and cook 1 or 2 minutes to wilt. Puree all the ingredients with cold water or broth (or yogurt) in a blender. Sprinkle chopped chives or cilantro on top.

Spring Garden Salads

Garden Greens

While I wait for the lettuce to grow, I fill the salad bowl with the first spinach leaves, arugula, baby kale, chickweed, and the leaves of over-wintered chicory. My favorite salad varieties are Chicory “Bionda Folie Larghe” and Chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste”, that I found in the Seeds from Italy catalog and planted last fall. The new spring growth is mild and tender–perfect for eating raw in salads.

Because greens such as spinach, chicory, endive, and kale are stronger flavored and sturdier than lettuce, they are particularly well suited to combining with salad add-ins like slices of avocado, feta or blue cheeses, shavings of aged cheese, crumbled bacon, diced apples or pears, hard-cooked eggs, or toasted nuts. Add a scattering of tender fresh herbs (parsley, chives, mint, chervil…) and a lively citrusy dressing. Try vinaigrette made with fresh orange juice and a splash of balsamic vinegar to complement slightly bitter greens. For even more flavor, serve the salad with a bowl of spring garden pesto or salsa verde on the side. Or, don’t bother making a salad…just put little bowls of “add-ins” and pesto on the table with a platter of beautiful green leaves. Wrap whatever you choose in a leaf and pop it in your mouth. What could be more delicious?

Salsa Verde: Use a large mortar and pestle to mash together a large garlic clove and a pinch of coarse salt. Combine the garlic paste with 2 Tbs red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice, 2 tsp dijon mustard, and 3 Tbs finely chopped shallot or sweet onion. Set aside while you finely chop about 3/4 cup fresh herbs (parsley, chives, mint, chervil). Mix the herbs with 2 Tbs chopped capers and 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil. Scrape the garlic mixture into the herbs and stir well. Adjust the flavors by adding salt, black pepper, more oil or lemon juice.

Variations: Incorporate anchovies into the garlic paste. Add chopped green olives to the salsa.