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Eating Green

Chickweed

“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

Nettles

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.

Antipasti: Welcome to the table!

Antipasti are a brilliant invitation to a meal, or a meal in itself. I love eating this way–little plates of savory tid-bits to choose from, mixing contrasting flavors, texture and color as you take each bite. It reminds you that you’re hungry, and that food is glorious. Cured meats, fresh and aged cheeses, grilled and marinated vegetables, pickles, cooked greens, salads of tomatoes and arugula, olives…a single dish or many may appear on the antipasto table. The preparations are typically simple, and the flavors vibrant and enticing.

Antipasti with Bread

For our first meal at Tenuta SantArcangelo, our host Gerardo went all out with the antipasti offerings. The table looked like a promotional display for all the products of Southern Italy…a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and salumi, fresh mozzarella and ciocavallo cheese…an onion fritatta…a basket of bruschetta, and a bowl of fresh diced tomatoes. Then, because Gerardo knew that I am very fond of vegetables, he brought in a plate if pickled wild asparagus, a saute of sweet peppers with onion, and another dish of lambasconi (a slightly bitter bulb of wild hyacinth) with hot pepper and pancetta. Potatoes with aglio, olio, e pepperoncino (garlic, olive oil, and hot pepper) and broccoli given the same treatment followed shortly. This was not the whole meal, but you can see how it easily could be.

Bruschetta is simply grilled bread– a good place to start. You need a loaf of rustic Italian bread, a crusty baguette, or ciabatta and extra virgin olive oil. Cut the bread into slices 1/2-inch thick, brush them with oil, and toast on an outdoor or stovetop grill on both sides. Drizzle with more garlic-infused oil, or use your bruschetta to hold one of the following toppings.

Tomato Salad*Tomato salad: We had this tomato salad with bread every morning at Serra Gambetta. To make it, dice perfectly ripe tomatoes, sprinkle them with coarse salt and a bit of dried oregano, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Mix gently.

Variations: add finely chopped garlic, replace the oregano with torn fresh basil leaves, or toss the tomatoes with chopped arugula and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

*Roasted red pepper spread: mix roasted red peppers (1 cup chopped) with sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes (1/2 cup chopped), caramelized onion (1/2 cup), roasted garlic, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, a little salt and some hot chile flakes. Chop coarsely in a food processor or by hand and stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Pepperonata with Capers and Olives: Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with 1/2 cup chopped onion over medium heat. Cook 3 or 4 minutes until the onion softens. Raise the heat a bit and stir in 3 or 4 (about 1 lb.) diced sweet red peppers. Sauté, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes, until the peppers are tender. Stir in 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbs rinsed capers, and 1/4 cup coarsely chopped olives, cook 1 minute. Stir in 2 or 3 Tbs chopped parsley. Remove from the heat and season with red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste.

Antipasti Table VariationsVariations: Sauté sliced mushrooms with the peppers. Add 1 or 2 chopped anchovy fillets when you add the garlic.

*Green Olive-Artichoke Tapenade: Mix together 12 chopped green olives, 4-6 chopped marinated artichoke hearts, 3-4 chopped oven-dried (or sun-dried in oil) tomatoes, 1 Tbs. capers, 1 finely chopped garlic clove, 4 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley leaves, and 1 Tbs chopped fresh mint. Stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Herbed Cheese: Mix 1 cup fresh ricotta or goat cheese with 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 or 2 Tsp. chopped fresh mint, 1 tsp. lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper.

*White Bean Puree: Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft. Add 1 tbs. chopped garlic and 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes and stir 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked white beans. Stir to coat the beans well and cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes to let the beans absorb the flavors. Season with salt to taste. Put the beans and 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley in a food processor and process to a coarse puree.

*Sauté of Greens: Steam or parboil a bunch of chicory, chard, kale, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens until tender (3 to 5 minutes). Heat chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil 1-2 minutes. Stir in the chopped greens to coat with oil and continue to cook over low heat until tender. Beat 2 eggs with 2 Tbs grated Parmesan. Stir the egg mixture into the greens; cook just until the eggs are set. Or leave the egg out–it’s good that way, too.

*Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini, and Peppers: Heat a grill to medium-high heat, or use a stovetop grill pan or broiler. Slice the eggplant 1/2-inch thick. Slice the zucchini lengthwise 1/4-inch thick. Brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill the sliced vegetables 3-4 minutes per side, until they have dark grill marks and are tender. Grill the whole peppers (or roast them over the flame of a gas burner), rotating them so that their skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a dishtowel to cool, 10-15 minutes. Peel, seed and slice them into narrow strips. Arrange the vegetables on a platter. Drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a few drops red wine vinegar. Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint. Roast the vegetables in a hot oven if you don’t want to grill.

*Marinated Olives: Mix green and black olives with enough extra virgin olive oil to coat them well. Sprinkle with orange zest, crushed fennel seed, red chile flakes (or minced fresh hot chile), and minced garlic. Toss and marinate several hours before serving.