Gorging on spring greens
With fresh produce available year round today, it’s almost impossible to realize how much the first edible spring greens were eagerly awaited, and how enthusiastically they were consumed. But it’s not surprising. Think of it: except for those very few wealthy enough to have had hothouses to grow lettuces and fruits, folks who lived in colder climes spent a fourth or more of each year eating only such vegetables as could be dried, such as beans; or kept in cold storage, such as potatoes, pumpkins and other hard-shelled winter squashes; or preserved by salting and/or pickling, such as cabbage, made into sauerkraut. The development of canning made a difference, of course, but canned greens are still a far cry from fresh. I’ve loved spinach since I was very young, but the thought of the canned spinach served at Ball Elementary during my first school years still makes me shudder!
There was another reason folks back then looked forward to spring’s first fresh greenery besides taste. Months of heavy, starchy food made for sluggish digestive systems. Spring tonics were used to, uh, get things moving again. Some took the form of drinks; here in America they often utilized sassafras roots. The original flavoring for root beer, sassafras roots today are no longer used as a tonic or to make delicious root-beery tasting herbal tea because they’ve been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice.
Another form of spring tonic is still around. These days it’s used less as a remedy for winter-clogged digestions than as a celebration of spring, something delicious in its own right: pottage. Yes, I know the name sounds more like it belongs in a bathroom than at a dinner table, but it’s actually just the English version of the more sophisticated-sounding French word for vegetable soups, potage (po-TAJH). Spring pottage is a gloriously green soup made from the first edibles to burst from the earth.
Sometimes cultivated greens were used. Spinach was one of the earliest and most common, along with cultivated members of the onion/garlic family (alliums) and perennial herbs, such as parsley. But those most especially valued as spring tonic ingredients were foraged from the wild. Some of those foraged greens are cultivated nowadays, and some available at early farmers markets. But it’s fun, and peculiarly gratifying, to gather some yourself, especially if you have kids in tow. Whenever I eat spring pottage that I’ve made myself, at least partly from ingredients I’ve gathered or cultivated myself, it’s satisfying on some elemental level unlike anything else. And I feel a kinship with those who have gone before, and understand their joy of consuming the earth’s first spring edibles.
Here are two wild greens that are easily found in central Illinois. Both can also be cultivated.
Dandelion greens – They’ve been used as both food and medicine since ancient times. Those plants with bright yellow flowers that you probably consider weeds were deliberately introduced to the New World by settlers for their tonic properties and because they “encouraged the good-natured workhorse of a weed to excel in another occupation, as a food source for bees,” according to Pamela Jones in her book, Just Weeds. “Dandelion ranks high among honey-producing plants, thanks to its bounteous stores of pollen and nectar.” In warmer weather, dandelion greens become tough and bitter-flavored, but in spring dandelion greens are tender and tasty. Just make sure that your yard – or wherever else you might gather them – hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. Dandelions can be cultivated, but most cultivars are a different species entirely, related to chicories, and grown extensively throughout the Mediterranean. They’re larger and milder, except for spring’s first dandelion greens.
Stinging nettles – “ ’Twas a brave man who first ate an oyster,” Jonathan Swift is famously quoted as saying. But I think the first person to eat stinging nettles was braver still. That individual lived long ago – nettles have been used as medicine, food and more for more than 3,000 years. There’s a recipe by Apicus of ancient Rome for a baked nettle frittata.
Nettles are still in culinary use around the world, from Japan to America and Europe. Nettles really do sting – the “stingers” are not tiny thorns, but are present in a substance that contains formic acid, which is also the “sting” of stinging ants. “Grasping the nettle” is an old-time saying that denotes forging ahead with something you know will be painful. Grasping an actual nettle causes stinging pain that can last for an hour or more. But the instant nettles are blanched, the formic acid dissolves, and the greens become meltingly mild and tender; no spring green is more delicious.
Nettles are easily found – they’re profuse throughout America in all kinds of conditions. They can also be cultivated, but beware – they can be invasive. We planted some several years ago; a couple seasons later, they threatened to take over our garden entirely. We tried to weed them out entirely, which has resulted in our having just enough for our needs each spring – so that’s become what we do every year, and it works perfectly.
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Spring pottage tonic
This gorgeously vibrant green soup is as delicious as it is nutritious. I’ve never used a precise recipe; just simmered a bunch of whatever greens I grew or could find in water or stock. What follows below is meant more as a guide than something to be strictly followed with specific instructions and amounts. I always include at least one or more members of the allium family: scallions/green onions, ramps, green garlic (young garlic with green tops), ramps, chives, garlic chives, spring onions etc. A potato or two adds little extra body. Garnish with a bit of heavy cream or sour cream if you’d like.
- Approximately 8 c. early spring greens, either wild or cultivated
- At least 1 c. chopped white parts of scallions, green garlic, ramps, or other alliums
- PLUS the green parts, chopped and kept separate
- 1-2 T. unsalted butter or olive oil
- 1-2 baking potatoes, about 1 pound, peeled and diced
- 4 c. chicken or vegetable stock, or water, plus additional if needed
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heavy or sour cream for garnish, optional
Heat the butter or oil in a large pot over medium heat, then add the white parts of whatever alliums you’re using and cook until they are softened but not brown. Add the potatoes and liquid, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. Add the greens, including the allium greens, and cook just until they are completely tender. This can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the varieties used, but be sure to not to let them overcook so that the brilliant green color turns khaki.
Immediately plunge the pot into a sink filled with cold water. Stir the mixture so that it cools down rapidly; you may need to drain and refill the sink with more cold water. It doesn’t have to be completely chilled, just cool enough to stop the cooking.
Purée the soup in a blender, immersion blender or food processor. It can be refrigerated at this point several days ahead. Reheat gently before serving and garnish with a spoonful of heavy cream or sour cream if desired. Serves 4 – 8.
Note: this soup is also delicious served cold. I’ve also used leftover soup as a sauce for such things as grilled salmon and sautéed scallops.