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.

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