Wandering through local farmers market as the growing season begins, one can’t help but notice tender young salad greens practically vibrating with aliveness.
From the brightest chartreuse to the deepest emeralds, spring greens are surprisingly diverse. To those who love to cook, the variety and availability in the Inland Northwest is inspiring and exciting. Once the heat of summer arrives, some will become unavailable – so be sure to enjoy these little guys while you can.
There are the old standbys, of course: baby spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, baby bok choy, red and green leaf lettuces, a mesclun mix. But eventually, you’ll stumble across something a little more esoteric that will give you pause: purslane, mache, tatsoi, sorrel, dandelion greens, watercress, mizuna, nettles, pea shoots, little gems, baby mustard greens, sunflower sprouts, lovage, even fiddlehead ferns.
Perhaps the most common and approachable way to enjoy spring greens are simply raw in salads. They make for a true “one-pot-meal,” requiring no cooking, and are perfect for warmer weather.
Mesclun, a mix of spring greens, also called spring mix, is a combination of baby greens and herbs, harvested while young and tender, long before leaves reach their full size. The mix offers a range of textures and flavors – from nutty arugula to spicy beet greens to lemony sorrel to mustardy tatsoi. Their contrast gives salads layers of complexity and nuance.
The term mesclun originated from outdoor markets in Provence, where farmers would combine their earliest and most prized spring greens into their own unique mixes, often consisting of arugula, mache, dandelion, oak leaf and chervil. The word is derived from “mesclur,” which translates to “mixture” or “to mix thoroughly.” Here, it’s quite the same way. Each grower decides what goes into their own particular mix, so it’s always a little fun and interesting.
Surprisingly, leafy greens weave their way back in time throughout history. Although ancient Greeks and Romans did not use the word “salad,” they enjoyed a variety of dishes made with greens and dressed with oil, vinegar, salt and herbs. Sounds like salad to me. The term “salad” is derived from the Roman, “herba salata,” which literally translates to “salted herb.”
The French, too, sprinkled raw leafy greens with oil and vinegar and salt, similar to the Romans. There are records of recipes dating back from the early 1500s that include raw watercress, hops, asparagus and chervil. In the next century, it’s said Louis XIV had a great love for greens and salads. According to culinary historians, he consumed large quantities of salad greens all year round, because they were refreshing, easy to digest, promoted good health and sleep, increased his appetite and quenched his thirst.
To add a bit of intrigue to your everyday salad, try switching up your greens to something less familiar. For example, if you are used to buying arugula because you love its peppery bite and nutty flavor, next time, reach for watercress, a cruciferous green, believed to be one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables around. Or give jagged-edged mizuna a try. While it’s a strongly pungent-flavored green, it usually won’t overpower a dish, although it may look like it could.
Instead of romaine, see if you can track down little gems, a smaller and better tasting relative, and try changing up how you prep them. Cut them in half or in quarters lengthwise, then pour dressing over top.
But please don’t limit spring greens to just salads. Their reach in the kitchen far exceeds this. Baby beet greens love to be gently sautéed in garlic-infused olive oil. Once wilted, pile them on toast, lathered with creamy goat cheese, or top with a soft-poached egg. Baby braising greens love to be cooked this way, gently wilted in olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper and a little lemon. Serve them on their own as a veggie side dish, or incorporate them into quiches or savory tarts like you would with cooked spinach.
For the more adventurous palate, nettles, purslane, sorrel and dandelion greens can often be found at the farmers markets or can be foraged locally. Stinging, but incredibly mineral dense, nettles can be easily tamed by blanching in hot water, then used to make soup or pesto. For maximum health benefits, use them raw in smoothies, or make nettle tea, full of iron and nutrients. Simply pour boiling water over the fresh leaves and let steep for 10 minutes.
Purslane, considered to be a weed by many, has a tendency to pop up all over the place around here, along sidewalk cracks or in the yard. This incredibly nutritious succulent has juicy, crunchy, glossy little leaves that taste of lemon and pepper, and offers remarkable amounts of minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants. In Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Foods,” he named purslane as one of the two most nutritious plants on the planet – the other being lamb’s quarters, another one to hunt down.
FOR THE SALAD
8 baby potatoes
1 cup snap peas
2 eggs (optional), boiled to your liking
1-2 Turkish or English cucumbers
½ fennel bulb, shaved (optional)
1 bunch watercress
6 ounces smoked trout, smoked salmon, lox, pickled herring or smoked/cooked sardines (or substitute cannellini beans or baked/smoked tofu for a vegetarian option)
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
Other optional additions: pickled red onions, fresh sprouts, chive blossoms, nasturtium petals, sliced avocado, blanched green beans or other veggies, a dollop of plain yogurt, toasted rye croutons, or rye crisp, crumbled.
FOR THE DRESSING
¼ cup olive oil or grape seed oil
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white (or black) pepper
1 teaspoons fresh grated or prepared horseradish
Place the baby potatoes in a pot of water and boil, then simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Add the snap peas in the same water during the last minute to quickly blanch. Drain. Rinse under cold water.
At the same time boil the eggs, either soft or hard, your preference. Peel, halve.
While the eggs are boiling, stir the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork, tasting and adjusting as needed. Prep the veggies. Using a veggie peeler, shave the cucumber into ribbons (or just slice into rounds). Thinly slice or shave the radishes and the fennel.
Assemble the salads. Lay a bed of watercress on the bottom of two bowls. Top with cucumbers, radish, fennel, fish, eggs, pickled onions, capers and fresh dill. Scatter blossoms around the top.
Dress the salad right before serving. Add a dollop of yogurt for extra richness if you like, and serve with rye crisp.
Yield: 2 servings
Rustic Swiss Chard and Pine Nut Galette
1 (12-inch) pie crust or galette dough (see recipe below)
1 large sweet onion, diced, about 2 cups
1 bunch chard, about 8 leaves, very finely chopped, tender stems OK
16 ounces whole milk ricotta, 1 ½ cups (or substitute part goat cheese )
2 ounces grated Pecorino (or Parmesan)
½-¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 large egg
2 teaspoons flour
½ cup basil, Italian parsley or dill, chopped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large skillet heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion and cook 3 minutes, stirring.
Add finely chopped chard, turn heat down to medium, cover for a few minutes, then stir again and cook until wilted. Turn heat off and let cool for 5 minutes. Fold in cheeses, add salt and spices, lemon zest. Using a fork whisk in an egg and the flour. Fold in the fresh herbs.
Place the pie crust or galette dough on a parchment-lined backing sheet. Pile the filling in the middle, leaving about 2 inches around the edges.
Pinch, crimp and fold up the edges, folding over in one direction. It doesn’t have to be perfect. With the remaining egg/cream mixture, brush the top of the crust.
Bake in the middle of the oven until golden and slightly puffed, about 35-40 minutes.
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
Heavy cream, as needed
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into big pieces
In a food processor, pulse flour and salt. In a measuring cup, lightly beat the egg, then add just enough cream to get to 1/3 cup. Whisk this together.
Add butter to flour mixture and pulse just until there are pea-size chunks of butter. Drizzle the egg mixture (up to 1/4 cup, saving the rest) over the dough and pulse or stir until it just starts to come together but is still mostly large crumbs.
Put dough on lightly floured counter and pat it together to make one uniform piece. Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 2 hours, or up to a week.
When ready to make the galette, roll the dough out to a 12-inch round – being sure to measure – this is the perfect thickness. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Spring Nettle Pasta
8 ounces cooked linguine (I used spinach flavored)
3-4 cups raw stinging nettles
3 medium garlic cloves
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted, reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish
1 cup basil or Italian parsley
1/4 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for desired consistency
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Kosher salt, more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper (white or black)
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated, reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish
1 tablespoon lemon zest, for garnish
Bring generously salted water to boil in a pot big enough to hold nettles and stems. Once boiling, using tongs, place the nettles in the pot (stems OK). Blanch in rapidly boiling water for 1 ½ minutes. Using tongs, remove from water and place in ice water bath, to chill rapidly. Separate leaves from bigger stems, placing all leaves and some of the smaller stems on a clean kitchen towel. Wring dry. You should have just about 1 cup nettles.
Place them in a food processor with the pine nuts, herbs, garlic, lemon juice, cheese, salt, pepper and oil. Pulse until uniform, but not too smooth. Scrape down sides to make sure all is combined.
Toss with cooked pasta. Garnish with lemon zest, pine nuts, and grated Parmesan, serve immediately.
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, feastingathome.com.
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