Thursday, 28 April 2011

Spring Shoots - Nettle, Sorrel, Dandelion, Sea Beet

This is the second part of the article that appeared in Permaculture Magazine, 65, Spring 2011.
Sea Beet


The lengthening days herald Spring and the first new shoots.  Young, green, tender, these first greens are the best to be had.  Purging and purifying after the heavy winter vittles, their appearance, like that of the first blossom, is joy!   Surely the best way to salute the arrival of these greens is to gather a handful of each and, keeping the Nettles aside, to throw them together as a bright salad.  Chop up the Nettles very finely to break the stinging needles, mix with garlic, olive oil and vinegar, for a simple Nettle vinaigrette to pour over the salad. 

NETTLE – Urtica dioica
High in protein, Iron and Vitamin C, Nettles are a sturdy and popular spring green.    They appear early, and their young tops are the best parts to use.  As well as eating them fresh, they can be picked and dried for teas or frozen as greens for stir-frys, tarts and soups.

Nettle Pesto
Chop 500g fresh Nettles finely.  Add to this 250g of Pine nuts toasted and crushed (lay in a tea towel and roll over with a rolling pin), the same of coarsely grated parmesan, a lot of finely chopped garlic (for garlic lovers as much as a whole head) and coarse sea-salt to taste.   Mix lightly with a favourite olive oil, until it reaches a chunky, thick consistency.    Serve the pesto with pasta, spread on bread, add to courgette soup.  Freeze or pot and pasteurise.

The recipe can be done with a blender, but the oil tends to emulsify and create a brown sludge.  Chopping all the ingredients separately by hand creates a vibrant green pesto of myriad textures. 
Vegans can replace the parmesan with sunflower seeds.
Those nettle-venturers who are not yet convinced aficionados might want to supplement half the nettles with a more docile green, such as rocket, basil or sorrel…

SORREL – Rumex acetosa
One of my favourite wild greens, Common Sorrel is much like French Sorrel in appearance and flavour.  It is perennial and grows vivaciously all over the UK and Ireland.  A Rumex, it is related to the dreaded dock, and forms a similar seed-head in Summer.  Like Oca, it is high in oxalic acid, giving it a sour, lemony bite.  The wild version is much stronger in taste than the French, cultivated variety.  Like all the other greens it can be eaten raw in salad, chopped into a vinaigrette, wilted, steamed or stir fryed – although the flavour remains good when cooked, it does lose its emerald green colour to become a sludgy khaki.  If you don’t mind the colour, then just use sorrel in the following recipe for a really sharp flavour, otherwise mix sorrel with other greens, such as young spinach or sea-beet.

Sorrel tart
On a blind-baked pastry case layer buttered softened onions, wilted sorrel and chunks of blue cheese. (In Norfolk Mrs Temple’s “Binham Blue” is a particularly good local alternative to Stilton).  Whisk 4 eggs (duck eggs are very good in this wild and rich tart), mix with a small pot of Crème Fraiche and a dollop of milk.  Pour the egg mix up to the edges of the tart and cook for about twenty to thirty minutes at 180C, or until the egg is cooked.  The quiche should be starting to brown on top and risen in the middle.

DANDELION – Taraxacum officianalis
The name comes from the French “dents-de-lion” (lion’s teeth) due to the toothed leaves.  The French actually call the plant “pissenlit” (wet-the-bed), as it is a well-known diuretic.  As well as a diuretic, Dandelion is a versatile detox.  In tea or tincture it is good for the liver and kidneys, as well as for the bladder and it is used by those suffering from anaemia.  It can be eaten raw, picked green or blanched (grown in the dark – easy to do at home, under a bucket, as rhubarb, endive…), and again, stir-fryed, steamed, added to soups, casseroles or stir-frys.

A favourite memory of feasting on dandelions was in France, where they are quite a common form of sustenance.  As the first swallows sailed in to announce Spring we picked great handfuls of dandelions and served them as they were, the leaves and the flowers, bathed in vinaigrette, tossed only with a few compulsory lardons and a baguette, spread on a table in the sun on the side of a village road.
Dandelion Salad
Use the youngest and most vibrant dandelion leaves.  Cut out the stalks of any larger ones as they can be bitter.  Toss in vinaigrette.  Add lardons if desired.  Finish with a mass of flowerheads.  Serve when the swallows arrive for a glorious sun-shone spring salad.

SEA BEET – Beta vulgaris sp. maritima
Growing on the edge of the marshes, and along the coast, Sea Beet is a staple spring green.  Recognised by its thick, fleshy leaves, shaped as arrowheads in a rosette, it can grow into a large shrub.  Although it is apparent year round, in Spring it provides an early source of substantial greens.  It has a good texture and rich flavour and is used like spinach in a variety of recipes.   Blanche it, steam it, stir fry, wilt or fill tarts with it.  Or serve with fish or shellfish to continue the coastal theme.

Stir-fryed Sea-Beet.
Stir fry young sea-beet leaves with onions, garlic and caraway seeds in olive oil.  At the last minute douse with Tamari and Balsamic Vinegar.  Serve on its own or on the top of Puy Lentils with a spoonful of yogurt.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Winter Roots - Oca, Salsify, Jerusalem Artichoke

Vaguely untimely, this article appeared in Permaculture Magazine, (67, Spring 2011), Part 2 to follow shortly...

Wearied of frostbitten greens, sprouts and mincemeat, pickles and preserves, the temptation is to plunge, without a glance backward, into the onset of Spring.  I would first like to offer one last eulogy to winter vegetables, to three of the less common and more remarkable tubers, hoarded in the dank depths of the vegetable underworld.


These, beside their ruddy counterparts, are the rockstars of the roots: sultry, elegant, with extravagant tastes, ebullient spirits…  But this isn’t about their looks.  Stubby, grubby and hairy, they are the sweetest, the most delicate flavoured, most exotic of the roots.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKEHelianthus tuberosus
Towering eight-feet-high in triffid-esque arrogance, the stalks nodding with yellow flowerheads at the height of Summer, the Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as the Sunchoke, is related to the Sunflower.  Indeed, the name Jerusalem is thought to come from a confusion with the original name, originating in Peru, the Girasol. They are one of the most labour-free plants to grow, and if a few tubers are left in the ground when harvesting, will provide a crop the following year.  Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Artichoke is famed for being the cause of foul wind and tortuous flatulence – I have yet to hear of a sure-fire remedy.  But their sweet, delicate flavour, reminiscent of artichokes, keeps me growing and eating them.  As for the baneful after-effects I have a couple of suggestions.  Don’t eat Jerusalem Artichokes in large quantities and try and combine them with herbs and spices that ease digestion such as fennel, bay and cumin.  I also take the time to first peel and blanche the vegetables in acidulated water (add vinegar or lemon-juice), which is then discarded, in an attempt to lessen the effects. 

You can roast, soup and mash Jerusalem artichokes, or eat them raw as, somewhat surprisingly, you can most roots… Their reputation has taken a recent upturn and they are to be found, in the form of diaphanous Soufflés and Veloutés, in the very highest realms of haute cuisine.

Jerusalem Artichoke Purée
Purée Jerusalem Artichokes for a jazzed-up variation on mashed potatoes.  Peel, then boil in acidulated water with a potato.  When beginning to fall apart, drain and blend with butter and black pepper.

Jerusalem Artichoke Salad
For the sassiest raw Winter salad.  Slice very thinly, cover immediately with lemon juice to prevent discolouring.  Add walnut oil and toss with toasted walnuts.  Sprinkle with chives or an available green.

SALSIFY- Tragopogon porrifolius
Salsify, or Scorzanera – the two varieties vary only slightly – can be planted in Autumn for a Winter harvest.  A showering grass-like fountain above ground, Salsify tapers to a long hairy root.  It is related to the Jerusalem Artichoke but, fortunately, did not inherit the side effects.  Its taste is light and difficult to define, somewhere between oysters, chestnut and coconut.  It can be put in gratin, and the Irish chef Dennis Cotter, of Café Paradiso renown, braises it with star anise...  I think, as with all these delicate roots, it’s best as it is.

Salsify as it is
Boil unpeeled for twenty to thirty minutes in acidulated water (it exudes a sticky, milky sap and discolours).  Once cooked slip off the skin and add a squeeze of lemon juice or Umeboshi seasoning for a breathtaking combination.  A nut-oil or a knob of butter gives a gentler flavour.  Serve warm with salt and pepper to taste. 

OCA – Oxalis tuberosa
Oca, long unknown, has likewise recently hit the headlines of haute cuisine.  The tubers are planted like potatoes in Spring and grow slowly to be harvested in the depths of Winter.  A shrub of shamrock shaped leaves and pretty yellow flowers, it originates in Latin America.  The leaves and flowers are edible and make pretty additions to Summer salads, but the plant is high in oxalic-acid so beware of gorging!

Oca on the table
Like a lemon-scented new potato in the depths of December, the tuber is a welcome addition to the Winter table.  Serve as new potatoes for that Summer zing, roast in their skins with garlic and rosemary for a taste of Italy, or cook up with cinnamon, ground ginger and orange rind for a festive feel. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The throes of the Hungry Gap...?

Asparagus, Broccoli, Red Celery, Leeks, Lemon-Balm, Sage, Rosemary, Marjoram, Chives, Eggs.

As we prise ourselves away, out of the torrid grip of said epoch, I am obliged to ponder the notion of this era bereft of nourishment.. indeed, as I fill yet another trug from the bountiful belly of an early Spring garden, I revoke it.

The wild greens started early, with Ransoms, and Dandelions, Nettles, Sorrel, Sea Beet in full green bloom in February… after the Spring Equinox when the roots in the ground start to turn to seed, the Leeks and Celery still sat around, and Watercress began to fill the streams (forager beware: Liver fluke), Lovage, Marjoram, Herb Patience and Fennel springing up in the garden… and now, oh prolific Purple Sprouting Broccoli abounds and, blessed days, the Asparagus are rousing, poking their dreamy heads through the straw in overnight spurts of growth.

Broccoli and Asparagus plucked and, I insist, taken without a moment’s hesitation, to the table are more akin to foods of the gods than meagre offerings of a time of famished spirits.

And in homage to these simple-yet-unearthly Spring shoots, I pray, do not then drown them in suddy boiling water, nor adulterate them in the depths of chaotic menus, the art is in allowing the essence of these vegetables to emerge.

Steam or lightly blanche the Asparagus and/or Broccoli and serve on the raw-side of cooked,  still-warm on a salad of (aforementioned) wild herbs with a squeeze of lemon, a drip of oil… for the vinaigrette-o-phile: a simple Balsamic Vinaigrette, for the glutton: Sea-Salted Butter or a home-made Hollandaise Sauce whisked with the yolks of today’s eggs, for the outdoorsy: grill the Asparagus on an open fire by night...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Ramsons: the word is out.

They appeared a month back, awakening the woodland on the edge of Ragman’s Lane Farm in Gloucestershire.  Then in Norfolk the woods and gardens started billowing.  On Clare Island a tiny planted patch had spread providing a lush early spring ground-cover just outside the kitchen window of the old cottage.  I blogged about it in Pestos and Vinaigrettes, The Outdoor Lab put it in Potato Dauphinoise and Bacon Sarnies, I ate it in secretive, unblogged Omelettes… In Ireland I chopped it with nettles into a raw Jerusalem Artichoke Salad, then I chopped it into Christophe’s dreamy Raw Cow’s Cheese for breakfast, and then into raw Parsnip and Apple Salad.  Suddenly Food Urchin did a mammoth Garlic blog, comprising of a traditional Pesto, a Soup, a very photogenic and doubtless palatable Bread… and then, out of the blue, the EDP featured a Celeriac Soup with Wild Garlic Puree.

The scavengers’ secret is a secret no more.  Fortunately there is plenty to go round, and a few months still remaining of the season… Ramsons or Wild Garlic can be recognised by its flat rounded blades of leaves, its tiny starry white flowers on a long stalk, and of course its pungent garlic smell.  

Celeriac Soup with Wild Garlic Puree (EDP March 26th 2011)

50g Plain Flour
50g Butter
1kg Celeriac, peeled and cut into chunks.
2 lt Veg stock [make your own!]
350g Onions
350g Celery
3 Garlic cloves
350ml Double Cream

Cook celeriac in stock.  Separately fry up rest of ingredients except cream.  Add Celeriac, Stock and blend.  Heat adding cream, on a low heat.

Wild Garlic Puree

Bunch of Wild Garlic
500ml Olive Oil
Lemon Juice

Rapidly blanche Garlic.  Shake off most of water.  Blend drizzling Olive Oil into mixture.  Add squeeze garlic pinch of salt.  Blend adding rest of Olive Oil to nice green purée.  Swirl into Soup at last minute and add chopped Wild Garlic Leaves.

Celeriac should be out of the ground now, as the Spring Equinox has passed and it will go to seed.  It can however still be stored in a cool, dry place with air circulating.

I will post the aforementioned Raw Salad recipes on a later occasion… keep an eye out.

(Also to look out for now:  Young Nettle Tops, early Plantain leaves, Sea-Beet, Dandelions – beginning to flower, Wild Sorrel – arrow shaped heads in pastures and, apparently, disused railway lines, Watercress, Jack-by-the-hedge, Goosegrass, Good-King Henry… to name but a few.)