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.