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.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE, OCA and SALSIFY
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 ARTICHOKE – Helianthus 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.
NETTLE, SORREL, DANDELION and 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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
This article was published in Permaculture Magazine, (PM 67 Spring 2011).