“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
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
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.
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.
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
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.