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Wild and Weedy Greens
In the garden of Eden, there were no weeds. The dent-de-lion, or dandelion, lay peaceably with lamb's quarters and lettuce, sourgrass with mustard and escarole. All leaves were young, tender, tame, and edible in the green and salad days of our first gardeners, who had no need of cooks.
In our own less perfect gardens, where leaves grow old and bitter and wild things war with tame, gardeners do need cooks to get the good out of plants that often suffer horticultural snobbery and culinary neglect. I learned my lesson long ago from an herb garden so wet and shady it would grow only weeds and moss. Eventually I made peace with this garden by giving the weeds their head and by actually planting from seed an edible weed patch of dandelions, mustard, sorrel (the cultivated cousin of sourgrass), various kinds of cress, and a gang of chicories, endives, and escaroles.
I even learned to defend this garden by quoting from old cookbooks, which showed that many plants we now discard as weeds were once culled and cooked. Take lamb's quarters, better known as pigweed. While gardeners know that lamb's lettuce, also called corn salad, is an heirloom vegetable, cooks should know that lamb's quarters was once a valued edible green that is today an heirloom weed. Such "weeds" are still venerated by American Indians of the Southwest who have kept their knowledge of the wild.
Another such "weed" is purslane, supplanted in American gardens today by its showy and inedible cousin, portulaca. Purslane, however, has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages. A recipe for "Pickled Pursland," found in Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (1749), was common in American cookbooks until our own century. "Gather ye pursland," Martha says, "when it [is] stalkie& will snap when you break it. boyle it in a kettle of fayre water without any salt, & when it is tender, make a pickle of salt & water, as you doe for other pickles. & when it is cold, make it pretty sharp with vinegar &cover it as you did y other prementioned pickles." The leaves of purslane are thick and faintly sour and the stems are pink, so that the plant is as decorative as it is piquant.
Then there is the Mustard family, which fills our salad bowls with mustard greens, nasturtiums, and cress, and the Composite family, which gives us dandelions and chicories. Until the last century nobody bothered to cultivate watercress because it grew wild by every pond. Dandelions and chicories, on the other hand, have long been cultivated in Europe, where the leaves are used in salads and are cooked as greens, and the roots are ground as a substitute for coffee.
All of these weedy plants are bitter, and since "bitter" is one of our four primary taste sensations (sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) some degree of bitterness has its own special appeal. Cultivated plants are less bitter than wild ones, young ones less bitter than old. Cooking not only tenderizes tough leaves and stalks but also tempers their strength. The first point with greens is that one kind of bitter leaf can substitute for another, and the more kinds mixed together, the better. The second point is that the "bitter" can be soothed by oil and vinegar, complemented by ham or bacon, accented by onion and garlic, moderated by eggs and cheese.
I confess that my weed patch turned me into an addict of bitter leaves, raw or cooked, and served hot, warm, or cold. Fortunately the addiction is common wherever people live close to the land. Americans think of the South as the home of cooked greens, so I've adapted a recipe for greens with oranges from a Virginia friend who was a devoted gardener and who passed over into Eden long ago. The purslane salad is a classic English recipe and the greens with polenta an Italian one. While few gardeners would say, "Glory be to God for weedy things," cooks may yet find in edible weeds one way of regaining a weedless paradise.
Greens with Ham, Orange, and Mint
1 onion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon ham or bacon fat (or olive oil)
1 ½ pounds greens, such as mustard, dandelion, curly endive, escarole, chard
1 cup diced cooked ham or bacon
¼ cup chopped mint leaves
1 egg yolk
¼ cup orange juice
1 navel orange, peeled and segmented
Saute onion in fat (or oil) in a large pot. Wash greens well and chop them
coarsely. Mix them with the ham and mint and add them to the pot. Cover and steam for 10 to 20 minutes, or until greens are wilted. Drain well (save the juice for soup stock). Beat the egg yolk with the juice and pour over the greens. Arrange orange segments on top.
Pickled Purslane Salad
½ pound purslane
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 hard-cooked eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon wine vinegar (or balsamica)
Black pepper to taste
Wash purslane well and drain. Chop leaves and stems together, sprinkle with salt, and let sit 24 hours. Slice or chop the eggs and tomatoes; add the purslane. Mix the oil with vinegar and pepper and pour over the salad.
Serves 2 to 4.
Greens with Polenta
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups cornmeal
5 cups water
4 slices pancetta bacon or prosciutto (or regular bacon)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 pound greens such as dandelion, mustard, chard, spinach
salt & pepper to taste
¼ pound Romano Locatelli cheese
½ pound Fontina cheese
Mix salt with cornmeal in the top of a double boiler. Stir in 1 cup of cold water. Bring remaining water to a boil separately, then add it to the meal, stirring well until mixture is smooth. Cover the top and set it in the bottom of the boiler with at least 2 inches of boiling water in it. Cook the cornmeal 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Cut the pancetta and prosciutto in small pieces (or shred prosciutto), fry until crisp, and set aside. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the garlic, and the well-washed greens to the pan. Season, cover with a tight lid, and steam the greens until wilted, about 5 minutes. Drain (reserve juice for soup) and chop the greens well, by food processor or by hand.
Grate the cheeses separately. Stir the Romano into the polenta. Butter a standard loaf pan and fill it with a layer of polenta, topped with a layer of greens, bacon, and Fontina. Repeat and end with a layer of polenta. Sprinkle the top with a little Fontina and the remaining olive oil. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes to brown the top. Let sit 10 minutes before cutting in slices.
Serves 6 to 8.
Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.