Archive for the ‘weeds’ category

dandelion days

May 5, 2013

On arrival last week, I surprised not to see bright dandelions dotting the lawn—like everything else, they’re behind schedule this spring. Since I’m late to the garden party, too, I’m OK with their tardiness; I know that once the blooms do show up, the greens turn from pleasantly bitter to tough and aggressive.

I’ve been eating the greens on and off for the last week, and even though there are plenty of immature plants available for harvest, I’ve noticed the young leaves are tougher than usual—hungover and disoriented from their extra-long winter nap, they’ve come up fighting. It takes an extra measure of determination (in the form of prolonged chewing) to assimilate them.

Friday saw the first splashes of yellow, which was not entirely bad news, as I’ve been wanting to try this. For dinner, I thought I’d prepare dandelions two ways, beginning with my standby method with the greens (slowly brown onions, add sherry vinegar, boil down while stirring with a spoon dipped in honey, add greens). After I threw the greens in the pot, I clapped on the lid, turned off the heat, and began the fritters.  I didn’t have milk, so I substituted yogurt thinned with water. I also used a blend of quinoa flour and corn flour (more of the former). And I added some snipped chives—a brighter echo of the caramelized alliums in the greens.Image

Dip. Twirl. Sizzle. Hmmm…. the bottoms darkened but the tops remained quite liquid. Of course I hadn’t brought the recipe into the kitchen with me, and of course I didn’t think to go upstairs and review it. Had I done so, I would have seen that the instructions say to flip the flowers. I might also have noticed that the illustrations showed stems trimmed to nothing between the time of the dipping and the finished product (although the recipe made no mention of this tedious task). Luckily, I had the oven on for something else, so I moved the fritters in for a few minutes—problem solved. They were delicious, nicely complemented by some of last year’s pickled beets, but too fussy to repeat anytime soon.Image

The next morning, I added a chopped handful of dandelion greens and some sesame seeds to the leftover fritter batter. I probably would have had better luck if I had tried several smaller fritters instead of one large one (which fell apart). Not exactly what I had pictured when starting out, but once doctored with some sriracha, sesame seeds and cilantro, it was a great start to the day.Image

Once, I saw dandelions only as unwanted competition for the plants I chose to tend and did my utmost to eradicate them. But after a couple of years of wrestling with the green-and-gold bullies, I found some respect on the flip side of my annoyance. These “weeds” are masterful in their employment of two opposite, yet equally successful, survival strategies. With their hairy taproots, they dig deep; at the same time, their achenes—aided by aerodynamic pappus—have perfected the art of letting go.

My admiration hasn’t stopped me from trying to rout them from my garden, but I’m no longer so hard on myself when I see that familiar cluster of jagged leaves emerge….again. I know that their will—and skill—for survival is far beyond my feeble attempts at suppression.

And besides, they’re delicious.

berry good

July 15, 2011

soft lettuce + fennel + berries with raspberry dressing

purslane harvest

purslane + blueberries + honey mint vinaigrette

one man’s weeds

July 3, 2011

Last year, I discovered purslane. I had read about the low-growing plant, with its small succulent leaves and pink stems, in Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I was thrilled to identify some growing right in my very own garden. Since  purslane offers more chew than most of the edible leaves available in early summer, plus a pleasant, mild flavor, I actually encouraged it, clearing other weeds from its base while carefully harvesting the tips for my salads. This turned out to be not the best idea — by summer’s end I had more purslane than even yellow squash. So on Friday, when I began coming across the first pink-stemmed creepers, I ripped them out, roots and all. I’ll still enjoy a taste of purslane — but just this once. With this handful (on the checked towel, below), I made a quick, dill-flavored pickle.

Over the course of the afternoon, I also lifted out a few particularly fat dandelion roots. I first tried eating these a couple of years ago (again, on the advice of Uncle Euell) and was amazed at how delicious they are. After an initial boiling with a pinch of baking soda, their bitterness is leached out and a nutty, artichoke-y flavor remains. They also bring a welcome bit of substance to the table.

While I brought the dandelion roots to a boil, I set a bowl containing some of last year’s dried tomatoes, chopped green garlic, and a few glugs of olive oil next to the stove to soften in the steamy heat. Once the roots were tender, I drained and dried them, then threw into a hot cast-iron skillet to brown. A few minutes later, I added some walnuts — just long enough to toast them — then turned the hot mixture into the bowl of oily tomatoes. With some chopped wild arugula thrown in at the last second, it made a fine supper, served over some toasted stale cornbread.

struggling toward spring

May 12, 2011

The journey along the 200 miles that separate New York City from Otsego County is a trip not just through geography, but through time. In the city’s immediate suburbs, lawns are lush and neat, having already been subjected to several buzzes with the lawnmower. But as you head up the river, late spring dials back to early mud season. The grass becomes patchy and slightly wild, like the hair of a toddler yet to go under the clippers, and densely dotted with dandelions. Some of the city trees have already acquired the glossy opacity of summer, but to the north the bright wet green of the newborn leaves seems almost unnatural, like the color of a blown-to-bursting birthday balloon. Further up the road to winter, brown and black still predominate, softened only by a scattering of muddy evergreens.

Winter hangs around for a long time in Otsego County, but even so the small, leafy garden just off the kitchen, well-stocked with perennials and self-seeders, is beginning to awaken. Poking around, I find some patches of kale and wild arugula beginning come back, so I begin the finicky task of removing weeds around them. This space is home to one pretty invader whose main defense is fragility. With the barest tickle, her  spreading, round-leafed greens come away from the soil, but they inevitably leave a tangle of roots — fine as cornsilk — behind. It would be much more efficient for me to scoop out the entire top layer — weeds and wanted plants together — and start anew. But with our short growing season, a couple of weeks of early growth are near priceless.

It’s too early to set out most fruiting-type plants; Memorial Day weekend is the “safe” time up here, though it’s not uncommon to have to cover tomatoes against a June frost. There are some seeds — mostly root vegetables — that can be cheated a little bit early, and so I spend a couple of hours digging up a few rows. Since I’m only working a small section, I use my favorite tool, a short-handled fork alternating with my fingers. (At the end of the month, when I have only a couple of days to fill out the remaining 1000’, I will resort to tools that offer more power, if less finesse.) While I’m at it, I clear around the garlic, planted last fall.

It’s slow going, but the hands-in-the-dirt method is the only hope of truly routing out a weed, roots and all. Also, it’s wonderful to greet the earthworms that seem to be more abundant with each year. Working slowly and close to the ground, I’m able to remove them from the path of my sharp tools… most of the time. Inevitably I find myself apologizing to severed halves of these beneficial creatures. Of course, the joke’s on me — the sorrow I feel upon slicing a worm is about as logical as the triumph I feel upon getting out (almost) a dandelion root. It is only a matter of time before what appears to be violence reveals itself as nothing more than a means of propagation.

no-lettuce lunch

July 3, 2010

The garden is finally beginning to throw off a few edibles of the non-leafy variety. Today I pulled three turnips and plucked a couple of handfuls of peas.

Also, I have a new favorite weed: purslane. It grows along the ground, rather than reaching for the sun, so unless you’re on your hands and knees getting after the tall weeds, you’re likely to miss it. Today, getting after the tall weeds, I discovered it everywhere. Unlike dandelion and many other “found” greens, it has a very mild taste. I also appreciate that the leaves are thick and plump—a nice change from the flimsy salad greens that have made up so much of my diet these past months. If there were a Purslane Marketing Council, the slogan could be “Less bite, more chew.”

The young turnips were mild enough to eat raw, so I sliced them thin, along with a golden beet and some peas in their pods. Then tossed in the purslane and dressed it all with a vinaigrette made with green coriander, mint and honey. Yum.

gone to seed

June 19, 2010

I was gone barely a week, but in that time the sorrel soared, the lettuce let loose, the arugula rocketed, and the weeds…. wow.

if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.

May 11, 2010

Spring weeds greens with…sliced pickled garlic and oregano/chive foccacia

brown rice pilaf with dried figs, almonds, sweet spices

their own roots

polenta, poached eggs, last summer’s pesto, parm

first (and second) crop

April 13, 2010

On Friday afternoon, I cleared the small garden behind the house. Over the past few years, I’ve cut a lot of dandelion leaves for eating, and I’ve dug up a lot of their taproots to make room for my vegetables, but I had never tried eating the root, despite the enthusiastic exhortations of Euell Gibbons. This day, however, I determined to combine weed control with dinner preparation and sup on dandelion two ways. (I hedged my bets by also setting some focaccia to rise before beginning my work—I figured not only would the sweet carmelized onion topping balance the inevitable bitterness, but the refined flour could cushion my system for the plant’s powerful cleansing properties.)  

Uncle Euell’s recipe for the roots goes like this: “Slice them thinly crosswise, boil in two waters, with a pinch of soda added to the first water, then season with salt, pepper and butter.” My roots were much smaller than his, which he described as having several forks as big as your little finger, so I left them whole. After the first boil, I took a taste and was very pleasantly surprised. There may have been a very slight bitterness, but you had to know to look for it. And their taste—slightly nutty, slightly artichoke-y. Oh edible taproots, where have you been all my life?  As good as they might taste, their appearance leaves something to be desired:  I cooked a handful of walnuts in butter, and just as it was beginning to brown, threw in the chopped blanched roots and tipped a splash of wine from my glass. I cooked only long enough to heat and glaze the root pieces, then stirred in some chives. Still not beautiful, but so, so good. (The lovely red stuff is a survivor from last year’s mesclun patch.)

Leftover rootstuff with some fresh leaves for lunch the next day:   Saturday I moved on to the big garden. It gets lots more sun, so not surprisingly these dandelions were better developed. By now I trusted Uncle Euell unreservedly, so when I saw that most of them had tiny undeveloped blossoms in the center of their crowns, I looked forward to enjoying another one of the dandelion delicacies described in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. These three-food plants were even more trouble to clean and prepare, but eventually I had this: Supposedly the crowns take only one boil, but a quick taste told me this was wrong, wrong, wrong. I put them back on for another boil, then contemplated what to do. I had planned on serving them simply, but the thought of facing an unmitigated bowlful of bitterness and earth was not so appealing.  So I set some water to boil for pasta in one pot; in another, I warmed some olive oil with chopped garlic and red pepper.  The second swim did much to dilute the bitterness. I threw the crowns in the zingy oil for a minute or so, followed by the cooked pasta, then some romano cheese and fresh oregano. Success! It really was quite delicious. There is something satisfying about reaping what one did not sow, about the idea of gathering several meals for nothing. Of course, when you consider I spent several hours on the harvest, another couple of hours cleaning, and another hour or so on preparation, those meals were hardly free, even if one somehow figures in the value of clearing weeds to make way for vegetables. On the other hand, those hours were completely absorbing, full of more variety and fascination than many evenings I’ve spent in the theater at considerable price. I can’t even begin to assign a value to such education and entertainment as I experience in the garden, even before the intentional crops begin to appear. So… I win!

“practice, and all is coming”

July 14, 2009

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois often told his students: 99% practice, 1% theory. This goes against my grain a bit—I love me some book-learning—but the more time I spend on the yoga mat (his laboratory) and in the garden, the more I realize the wisdom of his recipe. I’ve been studying gardening books for several years, and they’re pretty useful at planting time—what will do well in my climate, how far apart seedlings should be spaced, who needs a pole to climb, who likes mulch and who does not, etc. But as I spent my Sunday morning weeding, it occurred to me that, after several years of practice, I finally have some practical knowledge under my belt. The only weed I know by name is the dandelion, but I recognize just about everything that likes my dirt, and I know pretty much everything I need to know about these little green squatters. I know which ones can be removed with a quick flick, which require my fingers to follow long horizontal runners beneath the soil, which require the help of a tool. I know, by feel, the moment when I can give a sharp tug at a certain angle and have the whole thing come away cleanly. As a result of practice, I’m able to organize visual and tactile data and perform some pretty delicately calibrated actions with my muscles. It is an activity that is completely absorbing and, while admitting of a certain amount of verbal description, completely resistant to useful verbal instruction.

Back to basics

May 15, 2009

A surfeit of any one ingredient is a good test of ingenuity, or endurance, or both. It wasn’t until I faced the end of this latest greens heap that it occurred to me to reach back and approximate a familiar taste from my past: Plain greens, in all their vegetalmineral glory, cooked down with a hunk of pork into a sinewy-soft mass.

A side of greens is pretty standard fare in south Louisiana, where I grew up. I ate turnip greens and mustard greens from three generations of gardening ancestors, though I can’t remember having a very strong opinion of them, for good or ill. They were just there.

For a time, my family frequented a restaurant called ‘Round the Bend, which offered a bottomless pot of greens, served family style, to precede the meal. The greens were pretty good, especially when doused with pepper vinegar, though probably not good enough to explain my enthusiastic consumption of bowl after bowl. (That pre-adolescent appetite was more an appetite for attention than for the greens themselves. In the end I got both.)

Dandelion greens are hardly delicate, but they don’t stand up to the same kind of treatment as the muscular greens of my childhood. There is another Louisiana tradition—one which I’ve read about but which is not part of my culinary heritage—called gumbo zhebes (or z’herbes). It traditionally calls for seven different greens, though of course more is better. Beyond that—controversy abounds. Some begin with roux, some do not…. and it goes on from there. 000_0631

I was not interested in achieving authenticity. I was just interested in borrowing the “more is better” idea, using what I had on hand. My version had bacon, dandelion greens, ramps, chard, thyme, sorrel, cooked for around five minutes. The taste was surprisingly reminiscent of the greens at ‘Round the Bend—dark green and tangy and ever so slightly porky. I was sorry my pot was not bottomless.