Photo by Carol Ann Sayle
Ah, our spinach, kale and lettuces are now gone for the season. Seeing the spinach yellow overnight after the first 95-degree day is seeing a door slam shut on the "cool" season. This happens, of course, around the first part of May every year, thus you'd think we'd be calm about their departure.
But seeing the actual grief on our customers' faces never makes us happy, and over the years, we've had to come up with other salad options, other greens that are as good raw as they are cooked. And being a bit lazy, we've looked around our own farm.
When we acquired this five-acre farm in 1992, with its disintegrating historic farm house, the fields had returned to their roots, so to speak, and were heavily populated with weeds, both native and imported ones. The Johnson grass, originally introduced to feed cattle, we've managed to banish to the edges of the farm, but the native plants that are edible by humans have earned our respect over the years, and we protect them where we find them.
When we first noticed that the chickens favored lambs quarters and amaranth, we perked up. Hmmm...we thought, maybe these can replace winter's leafy greens.
One day Maria, my helper, and I were clearing out the "weeds" from a bed in order to plant cucumbers. She started bunching some of the plants and explained that it was quelite which is Spanish for wild greens in general. I decided to bunch some for Larry and me, and wow, after chopping them and sauteing them with onions and garlic, we were hooked! The weed was amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), specifically "pigweed amaranth," a plant that grows nearly everywhere in the world, and is unfortunately a major pest in conventional agriculture and thus a target for herbicides. It is not the seed grain amaranth, whose big head of seeds can be milled as a flour, but the leafy variety that is eaten before it flowers and seeds. It is rich in vitamin A and calcium.
The next plant we tried was lambs' quarters, a member of the spinach family. Tasting mild, but nothing like spinach, this plant comes in two colors on our farm. One variety has light powder pink accent leaves and the other has crimson accent leaves. Both are delicious either raw or cooked.
The third plant we discovered was purslane. We use the native variety that grows in the moist soil near our "official" plantings and we also buy in seeds for a more upright variety that is easier to bunch. Both are regular "power foods," containing omega-3 fatty acids, copper, and melatonin.
These three natives, plus perennial French Sorrel, form the basis for our summer greens at the farm stand market. We have laughed every time a customer says in surprise, "You mean we are going to eat weeds?" Yep, and you know, we think it's wise to eat plants that share our environment, plants that basically have been mainstays of the world's societies for many years. After explaining their good qualities, most folks are willing to give them a try, even though some of them have been pulling them out of their flower beds for years! Now many look forward to summer's greens, even if it means they are eating "weeds."
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