One question people ask me when we’re talking about ‘Vegetable Literacy’ is, “What is your favorite plant family?”
“Do you mean to grow or to eat?” I ask.
“To admire for its flowers or for its curvaceous membership?” I wonder.
“Or for its eccentricity, or colorful stories?” I hope.
These botanical families are all quite wonderful and also, quite different, and it’s hard for me to choose a favorite. They’re all favorites.
Some are large, others small. Some common and trustworthy, others strange and eccentric. But the family that is now captivating me most right now is the aster (daisy, or sunflower) family. The word Asteraceae, the name for the family, comes from the Greek word for little star. Think of an asterisk (*), another little star, or an asteroid, a somewhat larger one yet quite little in comparison to our big star, the sun. Jerusalem artichokes are in this family and I once wrote a piece in which I referred to them as “star flowers.” I didn’t know about the word Asteraceae meaning little star, or even what family they were in. They produced sunflowers, but lean and articulated ones, and they struck me somehow as stars, especially those on the ends of eight-food branches, nodding against the sky. How curious that they belonged in the family known by the same name. We know without knowing.
This family intrigues me. Its members are prickly, spiny, hairy, bitter, but with innocent looking daisy-like flowers along with variations on the composite flower theme, such as the tufted purple artichoke and thistle blossoms.
Consider cardoons, artichokes, salsify, burdock, chicories and endives, lettuce grown in too warm a spot. These are plants that in many cases emit a thick, latex like liquid which, if you taste it, and I have, is bitter indeed. You can tear your fingers along the edge of cardoon spine or prick them on an artichoke leaf, and you’ll astonished at all the roots that sprout off a long root called salsify, which give it its other name, “goats beard.” Sometimes my radicchio is almost too bitter to eat. And those strange subterranean creatures, sun chokes, will take over your garden. They might have flowers like little stars, but they’re aggressive in their march towards dominance. Burdock dwells here, too. It was long considered a medicinal plant before it was regarded as a vegetable. Its root grows to such length that harvesting is the challenge. I was once sent a burdock root that was three feet long which said as much about the harvester as about the soil. It was like having a large snake it the kitchen.
The culinary herb in this family is tarragon, which also goes bys the name dragonwort. Or dragon’s mugwort. Artemisia dracunculus. Why dragon? The name dates back to a time when the idea of the Doctrine of Signatures, a system that looks for correlations between a plant and its possible uses. As the roots of tarragon are snaky in appearance, it was thought they were useful for treating snakebites, which were thought of as small dragons.
The Milky Way seems especially well peppered with little stars against the desert night sky, my asters are already up though many months away from making their galaxy of lavender blooms, and there’s enough tarragon to use in an egg salad made with my neighbor’s perfect eggs. Spring is creeping, however slowly, towards its own lush moment.
Egg Salad with Tarragon, Parsley and Chives Makes about 2 cups
I had somehow forgotten about egg salad, but with the tarragon and chives emerging in the garden, eggs becoming more numerous with the lengthening days, and some very good bread in the house, egg salad suddenly came sharply into view. I also add a small, finely diced pickled shallot to egg salad just to insert a little zing into the creamy richness of real farm (or backyard) eggs.
6 farm eggs (likely to be on the small to medium size)
1 tablespoon minced tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon finely snipped chives
1 tablespoon minced parsley or lovage
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small shallot, finely diced and tossed with a little vinegar
chive blossoms, if available
Cover the eggs with cold water in a saucepan, bring them to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let stand for 7 minutes. Pour off the hot water, rinse with cool, then peel and chop the eggs.
Put them in a bowl with the herbs, and mayonnaise. (If you used commercial mayonnaise you might not need much salt.) Taste, add ¼ teaspoon, then taste again. Season with pepper.
If you want the zesty hit of the shallot, toss it, once diced, with just a few drops of vinegar and let stand for a few minutes. The color will change right away to a soft pink. If there is excess vinegar, drain it off and add the shallots to the mix. Pile the egg salad into a serving bowl and garnish with chive blossoms, if you have some.
‘Vegetable Literacy’ is centered on 12 plant families and how they meet in the kitchen. It’s also a cookbook (some 300 recipe). Mostly it’s about connecting the dots between botany and the garden and the cook. People ask me what inspired this exploration and I have to say that I don’t recall a single moment in which that intention suddenly leaped to the fore. It was more like the idea of botanical families and the relationship between them and the kitchen had been there for a long time. Maybe it’s in my genes—my father was a botanist and gardener and farmer among other things. And even though it didn’t occur to me plant anything until I was in my mid-thirties, something must have rubbed off. And it rubbed off from my botanist brother, Michael, my many farmer friends and the gardeners I have known. Most of all, though, it was starting to garden that made plants and their families come into view with increasing clarity. Once I started to grow vegetables, I saw them in different ways: how much space they need, how large and many their leaves, how similar the blossoms within a family, the possibilities of eating more of them then what we see in the store or even the farmers market—hence the many little pointers about eating the whole plant—and more. The garden reveals the big and sometimes gnarly world that lies behind the pretty vegetable.
I’m the last person to write a book about gardening, and this isn’t a garden book. I’m still a beginning gardener; a fumbler in the garden. Here it is March and I haven’t even planted my peas. Expert or not, it’s amazing what a garden can teach one. It gets you to open your eyes and all of the sudden plants connect to one another, to you, and your cooking like never before. It’s a deep thrill that also be a cheap thrill. You don’t need an acre. Grow a pot of cilantro and use those little green balls before they become dried coriander and you have a really special treat. Or try a larger pot of chard, and an even larger container of potatoes. One caveat is that you do have to be there for your garden and this is the one thing I really had to work to make possible. No traveling in summer. No more teaching or going off here and there. It worked. But ironically, it looks like this summer I’m going to be away from my garden too much to take proper care of it doing what? Walking around the country with ‘Vegetable Literacy’ in tow.
Presenting a book to the world is always a thrill and something of surprise. Here I am hunkered down in my office or out in the garden, and suddenly ‘Vegetable Literacy’ is out there, no longer my near secret activity of the past two years. As my artist husband says about his paintings, he wants them to “grow up and go to college” – that is, get out there in the world, and it’s the same with a book. Although this first foray into the world feels tender and vulnerable; a bit of shock, really, I’m thrilled to have had the chance to write ‘Vegetable Literacy’. I hope it inspires those who read it as it did me while writing it.
And tell me if you wish, what plant families are you drawn to? In the garden or in the kitchen.
Kale, chard, and other greens from the greenhouse.
A neighbor in my village built an amazing greenhouse last year. Cold air comes up from the bottom and cools it in the summer. In the winter it’s 80 degrees and climbing inside when it’s freezing outside. No wonder he put a bed in there – who wouldn’t want to be warmed by the sun heated room when the night digits plummet to 6 degrees? The problem is that the greenhouse has been so successful that Scott, who built it, has far more greens than he can possibly eat. This means that I, along with other people and two goats, have been the happy recipient of big bags of kale, chard, beet greens, spinach, arugula, and Romaine lettuce. These leaves glisten. They glimmer. They glow. And they are all as soft as flower petals. We enjoy them in soups, salads, braised, even in smoothies. Then I get to go back for more. To have fresh produce in winter is an unexpected joy and I am now seriously bent on putting up a greenhouse of my own.
When it comes to delicacy and cole crops, I have never really put the two together. It’s almost as if they wanted a blast of cold air to toughen up a little. I plunged them in cold water, then dried and refrigerated them thinking that would give them a little more backbone, but it didn’t. Not that there’s anything wrong with these greens just the way they are. They’re surprising, but I’m thrilled to have something from as close as down the road and picked as recently as this morning. This is food that’s alive!
Two weeks ago in Davis, California, I came across their opposites, you might say, while shopping at the farmers market. I bought a pound of mixed greens: kale (four different kinds), savoy cabbage (that January cabbage again), some chard and other brassicas. No protection had been offered these babies. They’d been outside growing through the California rain and chill, growing thick and tough and strong. Unlike the greenhouse leaves, these were so tough and bouncy that for a moment I actually wondered if they’d become tender in the pan? I took them back to my sister-in-law’s house and braised them with garlic and my brother’s olive oil and in fifteen minutes they were tender and succulent and so, so, very good. The greenhouse greens, cooked the same way, were also very good, but it was interesting to see the difference that actual weather makes in strength. The greenhouse greens collapsed to a soft, tender little mound. The field greens did too, but not nearly as much, and you could certainly discern one leaf type from another. If you were from another planet, you might think that you were looking at two entirely different mixes of vegetables. And in a way, you would be.
I gave the field grown greens another try and used them in a salad of cabbage and kale, finely slivered and tossed with the same good olive oil I had been using with the greenhouse greens. They started out tough, but ended up toothy-tender, and because they were strong leaves from the get go, they were good the next day, too. The greenhouse salad was soft, the leaves didn’t need to be slivered at all, it was best eaten as soon as it was tossed, and it wanted a softer oil and less acidic vinegar than those from the out-of-doors. But was one better than the other? They were different, and I’d be happy with either.
If you like kale salads, make your favorite and include some of that crinkly cabbage in it. And don’t shun those greens that are as thick as soft cardboard. They’ll be fine.
Kale and cabbage salad in a bowl by Robert Brady.
Radicchio in the Garden
At the store we just see the red heart in the center, but in the field we see the other leafy material that is part radicchio, too. The outer leaves, which are green, often lie open, the purple ones next tier in that are also somewhat opened, then finally there’s the tighter purple-red head in the center, looking something like a cabbage, only smaller. Radicchio, however, is not a cabbage, but a chicory, closer kin to lettuce, Jerusalem artichokes, and salsify —all members of the daisy, or aster family, Asteraceae. All of the plants in this family produce flowers that are daisy like in form. During the summer radicchio doesn’t look so interesting in my garden, but the minute the weather turns cool, it starts to turn that seductive dark purple red that makes it irresistible. As dramatic as radicchio is in a salad, I adore it when it’s seared in a skillet and covered with Gorgonzola or another blue cheese. As it’s color fades to brown, its flavor swells and sweetens. I add the cheese once the wedges have been turned then let it soften and ooze into the leaves. Freshly cracked pepper finishes the dish and maybe a little splash of aged red wine vinegar. It’s the winter food I eat often and adore each time I do.
Seared Radicchio with Blue Cheese for 2, or even 1
1 head of radicchio di Chioggia (about the size of a grapefruit)
Slices or small chunks of blue cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the radicchio into 6 or 8 wedges, keeping them joined at the base so they don’t fall apart. But even if they do, don’t hesitate to use them.
Coat a cast iron skillet or grill pan with olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the wedges of radicchio and season with them with salt. With the pan being hot but the heat only medium-high, cook until the wedges are browned on the bottom, then turn, adding a little more oil if needed and another few pinches of salt. Lay the cheese over the top, season with freshly ground pepper, and cover the pan. Cook until the leaves are browned all the way through and the cheese has softened, a matter of a few minutes. Remove to a plate and eat as is, or with a dash of vinegar. You can eat this over polenta, too, or with pasta, and it’s delicious paired with roasted winter squash.
Savoy Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
(Also known as January King Cabbage, Cavalo Verza)
This cabbage is still small, but you can see what a huge mass of leaves are involved in creating a head of cabbage. Savoy cabbages have savoyed leaves, which mean that they’re crinkly and bubbly. And gorgeous. A single leaf looks like a faience plate. As the name January King suggests, this is a royal winter cabbage. Indeed, I find it sweeter than the smooth leafed storage cabbages and it is always my choice whenever possible. The leaves are stunning when blanched then rolled around a filling. When simply cooked and sauced, the leaves have a light and airy feel due to all those crinkles. Some savoy cabbages lean towards the red end of the color chart. Those you find outside of the garden will be stripped of all those outer leaves.
Savoy cabbage is in the Cruciferous family, often called The Cabbage Family.
January Cabbage Salad with Blue Cheese and Mustard Vinaigrette
Serves 4 to 6
The crinkly leaves of January cabbage, or Savoy cabbage, are not as dense as storage cabbages. Thinly sliced into ribbons, they make a fine salad that’s delicate enough. I mix the cabbage with romaine lettuce and red butter lettuce, or whatever I have around, for a mix of textures and colors. Amounts are of course, quite flexible.
4 cups thinly shredded (sliced) Savoy cabbage
2 cups thinly sliced Romaine
2 cups thinly sliced red butter or other lettuce
1 large shallot finely diced
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or aged red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons smooth mustard
5 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
Blue cheese, thinly sliced or crumbled, ½ cup or more
Combine the sliced greens in a spacious bowl and refrigerate until needed.
Make the dressing. Cover the shallot with the vinegar, add ½ teaspoon salt, and let stand for 10 minutes. Mix in the mustard then whisk in the oil. Taste on a piece of cabbage leaf and adjust, adding more of anything that’s needed.
When ready to serve, pour the dressing over the greens and toss well with your hands. Add the blue cheese and toss once more so that it’s mixed in with the greens. If the rest of your meal has been light, or if this is your meal, add some roasted walnuts as well.
How could this be? I forgot all about baps, once my favorite little roll, until a friend wrote saying how she use to relish the breakfast baps at Café Escalera years ago. Hardly anyone came for breakfast but a few diehards, even though I managed get out warm baps practically before sun-up. I thank her profusely for prodding my memory of those tender, yeasty rolls. They were the perfect breakfast bread and they certainly provided one of the nicest way to greet the day—golden round baps, warm from the oven, tender inside but crusty outside, a saucer of homemade jam along side, maybe some thin slices of a good cheddar, a bowl of coffee. Indeed, a good breakfast. Plus “bap” is such a funny, odd word, and fun to say.
Marion Cunningham told me about baps years ago. She loved them, too, and thought they were indeed the just about perfect for breakfast, although she thought many things were, in fact, perfect for breakfast. She included a recipe in her little masterpiece, The Breakfast Book, saying in her head note, “This is the Scot’s breakfast roll. Crisp-crusted, soft-centered, and well buttered, a friendlier roll you’ll never meet.”
Imagine. A friendly roll. That’s so Marion. And it is true of baps.
And I think a friendly roll might be just what’s needed right now. January is always a long hard month. It’s too cold to be lured by the seed catalogues (minus-1 yesterday morning!). Our tea-party governor’s address to New Mexico doesn’t cheer, nor does the NRA. I’m tired of food and thinking about food and almost even cooking, except, now that baps have been brought up, maybe, just maybe, I’ll make up a batch. Not today, but maybe tomorrow. I’m out of yeast and they call for a lot.
Baps are not only friendly, but, as Marion pointed out, they’re Scottish—and that’s my heritage, at least in part, and my husband’s in full. No wonder I was once especially keen on baps—it’s genetic. But I don’t believe you have to have a drop of Scottish ancestry to enjoy these little rolls. (Plus I never saw them in Scotland when I went there.)
Here is Marion’s recipe. She calls for lard, for it’s good “barny” taste, so if you use it, do here. Otherwise, sneak in some salty Irish Kerrygold butter. Serve them warm with that special jam you’ve been saving and saving. If you’ve got the winter blues, now just might be the time
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup warm water
3 (yes!) packages dried yeast, but cut back if you want to (I do at 7000 feet altitude)
4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ cup lard or soft butter
½ cup warm milk
1/ cup warm water
Dissolve the sugar in the water and sprinkled over the yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.
In a larger bowl mix together the flour and salt and rub in the lard or butter. Add the now bubbling yeast, the milk and water and mix together with your hands to get a soft dough. Cover and let rise until doubled, about an hour.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until smooth. Divide into l6 pieces and shape into a ball. Put the balls on a greased sheet pan and set them aside to rise for 30 minutes while the oven warms.
Heat the oven to 400’F and bake the baps until golden brown. (I brush mine with a beaten egg, but you don’t have to.) Serve them hot from the oven. The picture is irrelevant, but meant to say that one day summer will be here.
As on other plants, the (older) leaves turn yellow or fade, but the younger tips stay sagey green all winter.
Sage with winter squash is my winter equivalent to basil with tomatoes. Carrots with thyme. Artichokes with Tarragon. It’s a combination I have a hard time getting away from, which is good because winter squash is coming on and my sage plants – bushes really – are full and glorious. Not surprisingly I’m thinking about both squash and sage and, coincidentally, how good they are together, and how many months they’re going to be with us.
Sage is a plant I’m especially fond of, not just culinary sage, but many others. Cleveland. Jerusalem. Pineapple. Mexican sage. White sage. There are sages with powerfully fragrant leaves and flower bracts stacked one above the other with little mint-like blossoms of blue, purple, yellow—even red— bursting from their calyxes. I’ve just brought my more frost-sensitive sages indoors where they thrive in the sun and give off their desert-sagey smells. While the sages (Salvias) are not the sagebrushes of the desert, (the Artemisia genus of another family), they do share some similar properties, namely that rough, resinous perfume.)
Though not quite as dramatic, culinary sage is no slouch, either. A mature plant is round and bush like with soft, silver-gray leaves. In the spring its violet flowers are almost sweet smelling, but not quite. There is a hint of mint, the family (Labiatae) to which sages belong, but it quickly disappears when blooms fade with the rising temperature of summer. But by fall it’s aromatic oils have turned muscular and complex, both savory and a little sweet at the same time, and that’s when those hard-skinned but sweet squash are around. I think they need each other, the squash and the sage.
I roast cubes of squash with garlic and sage. I chop sage leaves and cook them with onions until golden when starting a squash soup; I fry the leaves in olive oil until dark and crisp, then use them to garnish that soup once it’s finished, I also scatter them over seared wedges of Musquee de Provence squash or Delicata, or a galette made from Marina de Chioggia or butternut squash fried in olive oil. (No squash here, but I adore a pasta that’s tossed with handfuls of sage leaves crisped in olive oil with nothing more than salt, pepper and some good Reggiano.) Fried sage leaves give a textured edge to the tender squash as do breadcrumbs crisped with minced sage in olive oil or ghee then scattered over a winter squash risotto, puree, or another squash soup. However you use it, sage brings the sweetness of winter squash, which can be considerable, into balance, dragging it down to earth. To me, it’s hard to imagine squash without the tempering influence of sage. But then, rosemary and juniper are good, so is the bracing freshness of parsley, and pepper and pepper flakes, garlic, and so much more. Gorgonzola cheese spread over hot crostini and floated in the soup, below, is the best. What can I say? (I tried to post a recipe but it came out too strange. Will try again in another post.)
Sage is an easy plant to grow. Buy a small one and soon it will be a large one. It will also drop seeds and make more plants. And a further bonus is that sage leaves make a calming tea. Just pour near boiling water over them, let them steep for 10 minutes or so, then sip and inhale its now soft perfume. Why not have it with a piece of pumpkin (aka winter squash) pie, while you’re at it?
It’s September and that means that there’s still more gearing up to do before my new book, Vegetable Literacy, goes to press. We’ve just been through the first round of copy edits, always a hard (2-week) moment because I never have any idea how many mistakes it’s possible to make. It’s been vetted by my ethnobotanist friend, Jay Bost, for glaring errors in the plant department, and I’m hoping I’ve caught them all. I’ve been though the photoshoot with Christopher Hirscheimer and Melissa Hamilton – great grueling fun. I cooked nearly 50 dishes in a short week and of course the weather couldn’t have been hotter or more miserable during that time. Fans were whirling everywhere. I’m working on the introduction, and thinking about all the people I want to thank, people who helped with their wisdom, experience, encouragement. Then there are references to reveal. Writing a book is never just writing a book. All of this is a big part of it. And in the meantime, everything else recedes to the back and slips away. Birthdays. Meetings. Taking my pooch to the groomers. I honestly can’t wait to clean my office.
While I love a task, I’m ready to change gears. It’s fall. Leaves are starting to yellow. The buzzards are getting ready to fly back to Texas or wherever they spend the winter, and the garden is starting to falter here and there —one bean plant giving up the ghost, a squash deciding it’s had enough of all this production, the amaranth starting to redden.
But the tomatoes! That’s what’s getting me through these final weeks. It was a hard year for vegetables, especially the tomatoes, but now they’re coming around and they are what I want to eat. Every day. Twice or thrice. Thick slices of beefsteak typse with avocadoes. In BLTs with lean bacon from the farmers’ market, or pasta tossed with an assortment of every kind of tomato, uncooked, chopped and covered with olive oil, capers, olives, garlic, herbs. Or salt roasted little guys over ricotta and grilled eggplant. To be fair, there are plenty of shishito peppers, eggplants, Romano beans and chard, among other good things to eat. But when you have a good tomato, it doesn’t take much more to have a meal.
I know we all know that, now. Everyone’s writing about tomatoes, picking them, buying them up at the farmers market, putting them up, and eating them like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t. And the great thing is you don’t have to be in the end stages of writing a book to enjoy them to the point of having a daily swoon or two, and I hope you’re doing just that, even if all you’ve got are the little ones.
I just sent off a piece to Zester Daily on road food. It was inspired by my own long road trips from New Mexico to California, a great find in a gas station, and Elissa Altman’s blog (see www.poormanfeast) where she recently bemoaned the pitiful offerings available when driving between Hartford and Maine. Also, I noticed that the latest Sunset magazine was all about the great places you can eat on the road in the West, that is if you’re anywhere remotely near urban areas or on the coast. If you’re a traveler on 1-40 and 1-5 it’s a different story. It’s bleak, and there’s next to nothing out there. I’ve had a long time to find that out.
Over twenty years of driving back and forth between my home in New Mexico and my family’s home in Northern California, I’ve found places here and there where you can get a good cup of coffee, a decent breakfast, an okay meal or better. Even though I bring a cooler of food with me, I want to get out of the car at a certain point, stretch, and be in a room with people while eating a meal. Knowing a few good options is valuable. I’ve got my own little list, but I’m sure others do, too. I thought I’d start by naming my own resources and adding to them any others that readers want to contribute. This is about survival and happiness, not about finding a gourmet meal in the hinterlands that’s worth a special trip, though we could have that category too.
Your finds are welcome and they can be from anywhere, not just the West.
Macy’s on Beaver Street for great coffee and decent, even healtful food.
Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar on N. San Francsico St. (Downtown), for contemporary, farm-to-table and really good food! It’s small. Call first.
On the downtown strip that heads east, there’s a little coffee shop on the left where they make an excellent cappuccino.
On one of the cross streets there’s a large restaurant that serves a decent breakfast. And there are other places to eat as well. Lots of Mexican food.
My latest find is Oysters, a Mexican restaurant on Andy Divine Avenue, going south. It’s near a bunch of motels, which is how I know it. It’s hot, the fans creak and don’t do much to cool the place down, but the beer is cold and the people are nice. I wouldn’t order oysters in Kingman, myself, but can be happy with a standard cheese enchilada or shrimp tacos.
I’ve never found a place to eat, but I’m always happy in Needles because I’m finally in California. Anyone?
Ludlow, CA, on 1-40 (Population 10)
You might have to be pretty desperate, but there is a café at this gas-station crossroad. There’s only one and it’s an A-frame and it’s south of the freeway. The waitress wears a long gingham dress and you can’t tell if she’s 45 or 70. She looks pretty weatherworn, and she’s sweet. There’s a guy in an apron who walks around and chats with customers but who doesn’t do anything else apparently. The food is not as plastic as Denny’s, but the pork chops are like cardboard that’s been left in the sun. The last time we ate here we had to listen to “Big Dave” on his cell talk to a would be customer about dry docking his boat in LA during the entire time between ordering and the leaving. We had his conversation pretty well memorized by the time we left.
Why bother, you might ask? Because it’s in the middle of long hard stretch in the middle of nowhere, Barstow is next if you’re heading West, and you might just want to stop.
I’ve never found any place to eat in Barstow so I hope someone else has. Once when we stayed in a motel there we were told we couldn’t have any water because there was jet fuel in the city’s water supply. They loaded us up with bottles of water, but that also meant pretty choices in the local Mexican restaurant were pretty limited. Barstow is huge; there’s got to be somewhere to go. It’s just that by the time I get there I’m too tired to look.
Crossroads at Highway 58 and 395 (Kramer Junction)
If you turn north onto 395 and go a short ways, (matter of yards) there’s a Mexican café on the left that has the most amazing blue walls covered with photographs of food. It’s not that far from Barstow so you can go there for breakfast if you’re heading West. I love to eat there because of those walls, and also I know there’s nothing in Mojave.
The crossroads is intense with trucks coming, going and turning, gas stations, truck stops, and other restaurants, but none of them have these walls and photos.
Boron, Rt. 58
I’d bypass Boron if I have a long driving day ahead because there’s really no reason to go there, but for Domingo’s, which can be most welcome. The food is Mexican, it’s good, and as in Kingman, features some seafood, and Domingo, the man in charge, is there. Given the proximity of Edwards Air Force Base, there’s a good reason for the presence of all sorts of memorabilia from air and space events, photos of astronauts and the like.
Coalinga on I-5, Jaynes Travel Center
I was thrilled to find Baja Fresh in this quiet travel center on I-5. I’ve stopped there for fish tacos any number of times, not at they’re the best in the world, but because they’re good, and the salsas are fresh. On the wall is written in big, cursive letters, “No microwave, no can opener, no MSG, no freezer, no lard.” And it’s a strangely peaceful place.
The goosefoot family of plants, the chenopodiaceae, is one we’re all pretty familiar with even if we don’t know its longish name. It includes spinach, beets, and chard, but also a host of edible wild (and cultivated) plants collectively known as “quelites”. Among them are lambs quarters, magentaspreen, orach, pigweed, and the cultivar, Good King Henry. Quinoa and huanzontle also reside here, as do a number of wild desert plants, like Four Wing Saltbush. All have masses of small edible seeds. Some, like huanzontle, are eaten while they’re still in their flower form. Others, like quinoa, are eaten once the seeds have formed and dried. Some of these are amaranths which used to be botanically closer but are still pretty similar in some respects, especially taste. Below is a bouquet of amaranths from a farmers market in Arlington, MA.
One botany book of mine succinctly sums up the goosefoots as a group of rank and weedy plants, which some clearly are. Epazote, the only herb in the family, certainly could be described that way, as can a number of the wild goosefoots that grow around my neighborhood. When I note the summer pollen index in the morning paper, much of it is due to the “chenopods”, the wild weedy ones just going to flower in June
But why goosefoot? Because the leaves are supposedly the shape of a goose’s foot. And they are, sort of. And how do I know? While visiting a u-pick berry farm in the Cuyahoga National Park, a small flock of geese had gathered behind a fence. As my friend and I approached their enclosure they ran towards us, their long necks outstretched, hissing with unbridled menace because while we were proper visitors to the farm, in their eyes we were also likely to be thieves. I asked the farmer if he’d be willing to pick up a goose and show me its foot so I could see its shape. He did so, thrusting a big, orange leathery-looking claw-like appendage in my face. It was a powerful looking foot, but its shape was both broader and simpler than I had expected. It didn’t match up exactly with the shape of the leaves in this family, although it did roughly enough. This webbed foot was rather broad and many goosefoot leaves like spinach and chard, are narrow. Maybe some geese have narrower feet? Still, it is possible to see the resemblance, especially when you think of other leaves in other families that have absolutely no similarity, like artichokes and salsify, two members of the daisy family.
Aside from the one herb, the seeds and the beetroot, the edible parts of this family consist mostly of leafy greens (also reds purples, and magentas), tender leaves that are edible raw when young, cooked when older, and highly nutritious at any stage. There are not nearly as many edibles as in other families, like the cruciferous (cabbage) family or the solanaceae (tomatoes, potaotes, eggplant), but they are all easy to prepare, not difficult to grown, and they pair well with one another in all sorts of ways. The greens of these various plants are essentially interchangeable and taste very much the same, the wild ones being somewhat stronger.
Among them, I’m partial to chard. It grows pretty much easily everywhere. It yields edible stalks as well as extremely handsome leaves. Just the appearance those thick leaves with their bubbled surfaces, not to mention the translucent golden, rose and purple stems of the rainbow variety, make my mouth water, even though chard isn’t as exciting as, say, mustard greens or broccoli raab. It is, however, ever reliable, useful, and can be prepared in all sorts of ways. Just steaming or braising the leaves until they’re tender, then turning them in some good olive oil, sea salt and pepper flakes is a simple act that goes far in the taste department. Chard is always compatible with lentils (in a soup) and potatoes (added to boiled ones or a mash.) My favorite frittata, the Provencale trouchia, is based on slowly cooked chard and onions with basil. Another dish I never tired of is chard cooked leisurely in its own moisture with a few tablespoons of rice and a lot of cilantro, cumin and garlic. You don’t end up with a lot, but the few bites you get are intensely satisfying. Chard can also serve as somewhat neutral but bulk-supplying element when cooked in a soup with stronger tasting but less substantial greens, such as sorrel, nettles, and lovage. It can stuff a crepe or nestle into a lasagna. The combination of eggplant and chard is oddly meaty. The leaves can also be used to harbor fillings. And on and on.
All in all chard is an extremely useful green that can be led in this and that direction depending on its herb or spice companions. And you know what else you can do with it? You can put the leaves in a vase and put them on the table to admire for a day, then cook it. Here’s a recipe from my work in progress, “Vegetable Literacy”.
Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes with Micro Greens Makes 12 3-inch cakes
These can serve as a tidy little nibble for a pass-around, made slightly larger for a first course, or large still for a vegetable main course.
Enough chard to make 10 to 12 cups trimmed leaves
2 pinches saffron threads
1 cup white whole -wheat pastry flour or spelt flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 farm eggs
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons olive oil or ghee
Thick yogurt or sour cream and micro greens
Wash the leaves and cook them in a covered pot until they are wilted and tender but not overcooked, so keep an eye on them and taste them frequently once they’ve wilted. When done, put the greens in a colander and set them aside to cool and drain.
Cover the saffron threads with 2 tablespoons boiling water and set aside.
In one bowl, mix the flour with the salt and baking powder. In another bowl, mix the ricotta, cheese, eggs and milk together. Add the oil, butter and steeped saffron threads, then whisk in the flour mixture.
Returning to the greens, squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop them finely and stir them into the batter.
Heat a pan with olive oil, ghee or butter. Drop batter onto the pan, making small or larger cakes as you wish, and cook over medium-low heat. The batter is quite thick and it will not behave exactly like a pancake. You need to give it plenty of time in the pan and it will still be very moist. Cook over moderate heat until golden on the bottom, then turn the cakes once, resisting any urge to pat them down, and cook until the second side is also well-colored. Serve each with a spoonful of sour cream and a garnish of micro greens.