So Many Choices
An Educational & Personal Reflection from the Ashbridge Estate
By: Kate Hamilton
One of the joys at the Building Roots urban farm is – paradoxically – our small space. We have to pack our vegetable impact into a few hundred square feet.
That means no plants that hog space like corn and winter squash.
And head lettuce grows soo slowly: a couple of boxes of lettuce isn’t much to show for two months in the beds! Kale is also low-impact: people are tired of it by now, and it’s comparatively inexpensive to buy.
What makes sense for us is greens that aren’t in every supermarket and that add variety and interest to a plate. There’s a wealth of choices that could find a place in almost any home garden. Many have special benefits – they’re highly nutritious, or perennial, or make use of vertical space, or are ready to harvest in a short time.
Callaloo is one of the tall plants. It’s in the amaranth family; some amaranths, such as quinoa, are grown for their seed; others as ornamentals; and many for their greens. Young leaves are used around the world, in a wonderful range of recipes.
There are green-, gold-, red-, and purple-leaved varieties; the purple is said to be a favourite in Greece, where it is steamed and served with an olive-oil-and-lemon dressing. Harvest tender side-shoots; it will branch and deliver more young shoots.
The smaller lamb’s-quarters is also an amaranth and edible. Its leaves are very similar to huauzontle leaves (also spelled huazontle), another amaranth and a fine summer substitute for spinach – spinach prefers cool weather, huauzontle thrives in the heat of July and August. Red huauzontle holds its colour through brief blanching (30-60sec). Young bud clusters in late summer can be steamed like rapini or broccoli florets.
The short perennial Good King Henry was used for centuries as a home-garden green. Once it’s established, you can lightly harvest new shoots in spring to cook like asparagus; then let it recover until mid-summer and lightly harvest the leaves to cook like spinach.
Purslane is another common garden volunteer that’s been eaten for millennia, with good reason: as well as other nutrients, it’s high in Vitamin E and is one of the rare plant sources for an essential omega-3 fatty acid. It’s a succulent in the portulaca family, and not perennial here – but it self-sows readily. I like to add leaves from a few stems to a mixed salad; in some foodways it’s cooked like spinach or used in soups and stews; the ‘net has a recipe for purslane dal.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.) is another wild volunteer that has been eaten around the world for millennia. Its distinction is a bright lemony taste. A few leaves can really perk up a salad! Most tart plants – like rhubarb, and garden sorrel below – get their tang from oxalic acid, which is bad for you in large quantities but not a problem in normal quantities (spinach, grapefruit, and chives, and rhubarb also have some). The variety at the farm has shy yellow flowers.
Garden sorrel or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is a leafy perennial cultivated for centuries. It’s high in vitamins A & C, and in potassium. Use young tender leaves in salads; puree or cook older leaves. Sorrel is an ingredient in classic burek and spanakopita; the French use it in sauces for fish; the Romans used it as a meat tenderizer. Also lovely to chop a little onto egg salad or fresh green peas.
A widespread use still is sorrel soup, with a dollop of sour cream. Sorrel is a very early green, so this is a traditional spring dish, welcome and revitalizing after a long winter of grey days and root-vegetable stews. In Toronto we have lemons year-round, and Vitamin C in pills from the drugstore, but that wasn’t the case even eighty years ago; make a spring bowl of sorrel soup to acknowledge our good fortune.
Perilla is in the mint family, like its relative shiso, but its taste is more like aniseed (think: a very refined licorice). Some say it’s on the border between basil and mint; I say it’s on the border between greens and herbs. There are green- and red/purple-leafed varieties. Chop a few leaves to add to a salad or fish; include in a stir-fry; use larger leaves as a wrapper for rice-and-tidbits; put some in a stew to give depth and balance; make a pickle; make a tea.
Anise hyssop is also in the mint family and with a light anise flavour. (Hyssop is a different herb.) Bees love the beautiful spikes of purple flowers from late June through fall! I love to chew a couple of leaves on a hot day at the farm: they’re a bit sweet, and refreshing. It makes a nice tea, and works with any of the uses for perilla. Unlike perilla, anise hyssop is a (short-lived) perennial, so once it’s established you – and the bees – have it for a few years.
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is an aromatic, ferny-leafed hardy perennial herb in the carrot family. Like anise hyssop, it’s lightly anise-flavoured, but much sweeter. Its white flowers are an early treat for bees, but cut the flower buds if you want to harvest leaves all summer. Leaves wilt quickly, so you won’t find them in supermarkets.
Fresh leaves of sweet cicely are a fine garnish for salads, soups, and omelettes, excellent as a tea, and are used as a sugar alternative or supplement in fruit salads, with tart fruit such as rhubarb or sour cherries, and in low-sugar jams. They can also be chopped into tempura batter, and are said to make a delightful addition to leek-and-potato soup. I’ve used chopped leaves to brighten up a canned-sardine sandwich.
Well, I’m straying into herbs now; at the Building Roots urban farm we grow a lot of herbs too, so they’re best left to a separate post! The greens above are just what we had at the farm last year – there are many more you can try. I’ve grown molokhiye in the past (an edible variety of jute), mehti (fenugreek, a delicious green that’s very easy to grow), Ethiopian kale (it has a slight mustard tang), and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), among others.
With any new food, take just a little at first, to be sure it agrees with you. For herbs especially: look up any cautions with respect to any health conditions you have. Use reputable sources such as webMD and formal studies of foodways and botany. Many folk uses were “faut de mieux” – for lack of anything better or more effective.
And that brings me around to where I started: so many choices! The typical North American diet is low on phytonutrients, so here are two fun challenges –
Eat from eight plant families every week
Add a new green to your plate every month
Here are the main families that have edible species, plus the formal family name to help with looking them up.
(The ending –aceae– just means it’s a family name, pronounced Eh-see-eye.)
- Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae)
- Aster family (Asteraceae)
- Cabbage family (Brassicaceae)
- Carrot family (Apiaceae)
- Grass family (Poaceae)
- Mint family (Lamiaceae)
- Onion family (Allaceae)
- Pea family (Fabaceae)
- Polygon family (Polygonaceae)
- Portulaca family (Portulacaceae)
- Squash family (Cucurbitaceae)
- Tobacco family (Solanaceae)
This page has a handy chart of some foods in these families.
The first challenge isn’t hard, but it’s fun to keep track. The tobacco family includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (yes, those are in the same botanical family: you can tell by the flowers). The grass family – wheat, oats, barley, rice, corn. The onion family – onions, garlic, chives, leeks. The wide world of peas and beans are one family…. That’s four families already!
Greens are more of a challenge. You won’t find molokhiye in that chart, or rau ram, or mehti … and you won’t find those in Anglo-European supermarkets either. You can find out about them on Wikipedia, recipes on the net, the vegetables at farmers’ markets and in non-AngloEuropean groceries and supermarkets – and maybe in your garden or on your balcony?
In Toronto we have a wealth of food at our command – in all of Canada only Montreal, Vancouver, and Brampton can compare.
Photo credits: Callaloo, Lamb’s quarters, Good King Henry, Purslane, Wood sorrel, Garden sorrel, Perilla, Anise hyssop, Sweet cicely