Green Magic in the Kitchen: Cooking with Spring PlantsPat Crocker April 1, 2022
From ancient times, the spring season has been greeted with ceremony and rituals along with the gathering of all fresh, wild edibles, which were inevitably green (since most plant activity begins with green buds and shoots). In fact, all of the common greens we see in stores and markets today have their origins in wild plants native to Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Americas.
For example, from the common wild colewort plant of Europe, selective breeding produced Brussels sprouts, our common cabbage, broccoli, and kohlrabi.
But where does the magic come into our consciousness? The ancients saw magic in the cycle of life, the seasons, the celestial movement, and the phenomena of life and death. It was likely that the mystery of the green pulse pushing up through the brown earth caused the search for meaning in all growing things. Religious rites, folklore, myths, and spells are almost as ancient as the herbs, potherbs, vegetables, flowers, and trees themselves. So it’s not a stretch to assume that some of that primal knowledge has survived in our collective consciousness to this day.
In fact, the sacred aspect of plant wisdom – or green magic – is part of every native or aboriginal belief system. Some scientists, in particular James Lovelock, are taking the view that Earth creates and maintains precise environmental conditions favourable to its existence (the Gaia theory) and is a living organism, interconnected and interdependent. In short, Earth and all living things are miracles of life – and that is what I call pure magic.
For me, the magic is most vibrant in spring, when life is being renewed and the outer world is greening. The astringent, cleansing action of greens is particularly valuable after the winter season of feasts, vegetable scarcity, and fasts. Even more importantly, their inherent goodness (greens are low in fat and high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) makes it seem as though they work miracles on the body.
“Come to the mountains, and we will show you the way of the past, and the future. We will show you the plants of healing, the plants to paint with, and a place meant only for you to sit and listen for your songs, your strength. We will let you look into nature, as it really is, not what you see it to be! Here you will learn how to be who you really are. Making this journey will give you a high that nothing can compare to, for I can give you all the things that are needed to take care of you and yours.”
– Listener of the Wind, Kenneth Cooper, “Gaia’s Hidden Life: The Unseen Intelligence of Nature”
Magic Spring Greens
ARTICHOKES (Cynara scolymus): are the unopened flower buds of a thistle plant. The tender inner tips of the green bracts are considered a delicacy. While they do take some effort to trim and prepare, artichokes are a good source of iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin C.
ASPARAGUS (Asparagus officinalis): is a tall, feathery leaf perennial plant that grows well in northern climates. In the spring, when temperatures rise above 55°F (13°C), it sends up stalks from the thick roots. As the stalk emerges and meets with sunlight, the colour turns from white to purple-green as the chlorophyll is activated. An excellent source of the B vitamin folate, asparagus is also a good source of dietary fibre, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Ed. note: For a recipe on how to roast asparagus, visit: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/214931/oven-roasted-asparagus/
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale): The best time to collect wild (pesticide-free) dandelions is right now, before the flowers arrive and the bitter quality of the leaves intensifies. You get one more chance in the fall, when fresh foliage appears, but their off-the-chart levels of vitamin A and vitamin C, along with vitamins B and E, potassium, magnesium, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, proteins, resin, iron, sulphur, and zinc make for a great spring tonic. Dandelion leaves stimulate the body to eliminate waste and toxins.
FIDDLEHEADS (Matteuccia struthiopteris): are the unfurled fronds of the Ostrich Fern, found growing in the wild along the northeastern U.S. to Newfoundland, and west into Michigan. The season for fresh fiddleheads varies from region to region and year to year, but generally they begin to appear in markets around the beginning of May. I do not recommend canning fiddleheads because the result is soft and brown, but freezing is an excellent way to preserve them.
Dr. Richard Béliveau, director of the Molecular Medicine Laboratory of the Charles-Bruneau Cancer-ology Centre at Montreal’s Sainte Justine University, and author of the bestselling book Foods That Fight Cancer, says: “Studies done in our lab indicate that (their) nutrients make fiddleheads one of the most antioxidant vegetables out there and they can play a significant role in hindering the growth of cells that lead to several types of cancer.”
SORREL (Rumex acetosa): If your local market gardener is growing greens, chances are they will have sorrel because it is a perennial. Often puréed as a sauce for fish, sorrel can be used wherever spinach is called for in recipes. Sorrel delivers potassium, vitamin A, iron, vitamin C, and plenty of chlorophyll to the body.
Caution: the sour citrus tang of both spinach and sorrel is due to oxalic acid in these greens. Be sure to cook sorrel and avoid mature leaves or refrain from eating sorrel if you have kidney problems.
SWISS CHARD (Beta vulgaris cicla): Like a rainbow, the ruffled, spear-shaped Swiss chard leaves display their red, white, pale green, gold or pink ribs. The ribs are often cooked separately from the leaves, which range from deep forest green to apple green or dark crimson tones to yellow-tinged. Regardless of the variety, chard is a good source of beta carotene, vitamin C, and some B vitamins along with iron, potassium, sodium, and magnesium.
How To Cook Fiddleheads
Gather wild foods from areas of abundance, leaving most of the colony to reproduce naturally. There are some organic farms with fiddleheads in cultivation and it is preferable to purchase from ethical growers than from wildcrafters who do not respect the ways of wild plants. Try to use fiddleheads as soon as you get them because their nutrients are lost over time in storage. Rub the outer brown covering off and swish fiddleheads in cool water to remove sand or grit. Cook in simmering water or steam for about 3 min. or until crisp-tender.
What better way to enjoy all of the magic of spring greens than in a spring salad? The raspberry vinegar is sweet and sour at the same time, lending a crisp and tart balance to the fresh tastes of the asparagus and artichokes. Of course, you can use spinach and bok choy or cabbage greens in place of the sorrel leaves. As you can see from the photo on page 16, I leave the skin on the first of the season’s baby potatoes.
- 12 small new potatoes or fingerlings
- 1 cup baby sorrel leaves
- 1 cup fresh chopped Swiss chard leaves
- 1 cup cooked trimmed asparagus, drained and chilled
- 1 cup cooked trimmed fiddleheads, drained and chilled
- 1 jar (6 oz/170 mL) canned artichokes, drained
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh chives
- 1 cup Champagne-Raspberry Vinaigrette
- Sea Salt and pepper
1) In a saucepan, cover potatoes with water. Add 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add sorrel leaves and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, or until potatoes and sorrel are tender. Rinse under cool water and drain. Quarter or slice potatoes as desired.2) Distribute chard leaves evenly among four salad plates. Divide potatoes, sorrel, asparagus, fiddleheads, artichokes, onion and chives into four equal portions and pile on top of greens. Drizzle vinaigrette over vegetables, grind salt and pepper over.
In my view, dressings must be worthy of the spring-fresh salad greens and vegetables that burst with fresh-tasting vitality. This sweet-tart and pink vinaigrette, with its own vibrancy, is the perfect match for a green spring mélange. In its simplest form, vinaigrette is an emulsion made from oil, vinegar and salt with no emulsifier used to keep the oil and vinegar from separating. Often Dijon mustard is added along with traditional herbs such as tarragon, thyme, and marjoram.
Creative chefs and kitchen gardeners are now experimenting with different cold pressed oils, fruited vinegars, puréed vegetables and other less traditional flavours to make exceptional vinaigrettes with zing. The ratio of vinegar to oil is usually one part vinegar to three parts oil. When lemon juice is used in place of the vinegar, the ratio would change to two parts lemon juice to three parts oil. In a bowl, whisk together the raspberry vinegar, champagne, mustard, herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisking constantly, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until completely incorporated.
- 3 Tbsp sweet raspberry vinegar
- 2 Tbsp champagne or sparkling white wine
- 1 Tbsp honey Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh tarragon or thyme
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground sea salt
- pinch freshly ground pepper
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or nut oil
1) In a bowl, whisk together the raspberry vinegar, champagne, mustard, herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisking constantly, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until completely incorporated.
Braised Greens with Citrus Dressing
You can use the Champagne-Raspberry Dressing in place of the Citrus Dressing in this recipe.
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 8 small new potatoes
- 1 onion, quartered
- 8 oz/250 g Swiss chard or sorrel
- 1 lb/500 g asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup snow peas, trimmed
- 1/2 cup Citrus Dressing (recipe below)
1) In a large skillet with lid, bring stock to a boil over high heat. Add potatoes. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add onion and simmer for 3 minutes. Add Swiss chard and asparagus and simmer for 2 minutes. Add snow peas and simmer for 2 minutes, or until vegetables are tender-crisp.
2) Drain vegetables. Transfer to a heated serving platter. Drizzle Citrus Dressing over top and serve immediately.
Light and lemony, use this dressing for cooked spring greens, salads and cooked vegetables, as well as in fresh fruit salads.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon thyme leaves
- 1 stalk lemongrass, lightly pounded and cut in half
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- 1 Tbsp pure maple syrup
- 1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
- 2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
1) In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes or until soft. Stir in thyme, lemongrass and stock. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and keep gently boiling for 7 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in maple syrup, lemon zest and lemon juice. Simmer for another 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Remove lemongrass before serving.
2) Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Wild Leek Loaf
Now is the time to be gathering wild ramps or leeks (Allium tricoccum). Be sure to identify wild leeks correctly – wild leek leaves look similar to those of lily of the valley, which are poisonous. Never take more than one dozen bulbs (about one shovelful) of leeks from one patch because they take years to multiply. For the same reason, if you see wild leeks at a farmers’ market, ask about the harvesting ethics before buying.
You can use one domestic leek, split in quarters and chopped for the loaf, as well as whole for the garnish in place of the wild leeks in this recipe.
- 1/3 cup chopped wild leeks; save 6 whole with leaves for garnishing the top
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1-1/2 cups couscous
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 Tbsp garam masala
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 small zucchini, diced
- 8 oz / 228 g mushrooms, chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper
1) Line a 2-litre (8 cup) loaf tin with parchment paper, letting it overhang on the long sides. Lay 1 or 2 wild leek(s) on the base of the tin, set aside in a cool place. Set aside remaining whole leeks for garnish later.
2) In a saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and stir in salt and couscous. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a large bowl.
3) Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp of the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté the garlic and onion for 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Add the garam masala, coriander and red pepper flakes if using. Cook, stirring frequently for 1 minute. Add the remaining oil and cook the zucchini and mushrooms for 7 minutes, or until soft. Let cool.
4) Add the onion-mushroom mixture and the red bell pepper to the couscous. Cover and chill for an hour. Press the mixture into the tin, pressing it in and around the leek on the bottom of the tin. Fold the parchment paper over to cover. Weigh down with food tins and chill overnight.
5) Slice and serve warm or chilled. With greens and other vegetables, this makes a delicious meatloaf alternative.
Pat Crocker's mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat whole food with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson U., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. Her wellness practice transitioned over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook,The Juicing Bible, and her latest books, Cooking with Cannabis and The Herbalist’s Kitchen. www.patcrocker.com