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Nothing like fresh spring tonic

Anna Naeser

By the time the crocuses are blooming I am beginning to crave fresh greens, though there’s still plenty of last summer’s bounty preserved in the freezer to feed us until June. We rarely fix green salads in winter because even organic so-called baby greens compare poorly with the memory of what we grow ourselves. The first harvest is cause for a celebration. On April 13 this year, I noted in my calendar: first spring tonic salad! Gerry found dark green Taraxacum officinale, (OK, OK, dandelions), and red orach seedlings, Atriplex hortensis “Rubra” in his vegetable garden, to which I added a few lettuce and spinach leaves from the greenhouse. The garlic and shallots were beginning to resume growing, so I cut a few green shoots. I snipped tiny spears of chives, flat-leaved garlic chives and culinary thyme sprouting along the porch. I pinched the emerging tips of French tarragon and lemon balm, oregano and various mints, growing here and there in the flowerbed. Celery-like lovage, already a leafy foot tall in its protected location against the greenhouse, yielded a handful of pungent leaves.I ferreted out a token bit of salad burnet near the peonies and sorrel that had survived the winter in a pot against the house wall. Since my rosemary is a houseplant, it yields sprigs from its branches all year, but I added a few of those, too, for the scent as much as the taste. The herbs go into the salad bowl whole, not minced or something to appear as little green flecks in a salad dressing or decorating a mound of romaine like sprinkles on a cupcake. Along with the greens, dressed with a simple vinaigrette, they are the salad. Voila! Spring tonic salad! Red orach is an annual that grows like a weed; indeed it resembles the weed lamb’s quarters. It reseeds vigorously, carpeting the vegetable garden. It is my favorite green, though the triangular leaves and stems aren’t green at all, but a lovely red-purple. It’s much tastier than radicchio or arugula, though I admit I am a fan of neither. Lightly steamed or sautéed just until it wilts, it melts in your mouth, more delicate and tender than spinach. I like to eat it with a touch of my homemade dill vinegar or salt. Though orach is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world, I’d never heard of it until I took a class from an unorthodox small-scale farmer who grew it for high-end Aspen restaurants in her dome greenhouse along the Crystal River. That was back in the days when mesclun was an exotic word, before “baby greens” became a restaurant and supermarket staple.A dandelion, grown in rich garden soil, forms a beautiful symmetrical clump with large, tender leaves and improves every year. It needs a tad more cooking than red orach, and makes a nice addition to a stir-fry. Most vegetable and herb plants change dramatically when they make flowers and go to seed or bolt. The dandelion leaves were harvested weeks ago, when the first buds appeared just above the soil and the ribs of the narrowing leaves coarsened and became very bitter.They were blanched in boiling water, plunged into cold water, drained, packed and put in the freezer. This week Gerry harvested the red orach, which was just about to flower, to make way for planting tomatoes, squash and so on. The orach stem elongates, shooting up a seed stalk 3 feet tall, becoming unpalatable by altering everything but its color: size, shape, texture and taste. In the flower garden it is a very ornamental annual. The orach foliage joined the dandelion greens in the freezer while the stalks and roots went into the compost to be recycled for next year. In a cool, wet spring, cool-season vegetables, including greens, can last for months before they bolt; in a hot dry one, even with irrigation, they come and go in a flash. A few prime orach and dandelion plants are selected to reproduce every year. No need to collect the seeds. For the price of two seed packets decades ago, and a free gust of wind, the garden is a self-perpetuating source of a few of the most delicious, nutritious and productive food plants, at the time of year when they are most needed and appreciated. Now this is my idea of perfect fast food. Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband, Gerry, and dog, Maggie. She would love to hear about your garden at annasgarden@sopris.net or at mail@aspentimes.com with “Anna’s Garden” in the subject line.


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