Thursday, August 6, 2009

Quelites and Halophytes

Why I want you to eat more weeds

My grandmother was an avid gardener. I remember fondly how she would rattle off the common names of the weeds in her garden. They had such charming names like chickweed, lamb's quarter, sow thistle, goosefoot, sheep sorrel, and pigweed. The entire barnyard was represented. For years, I thought she would just make the up the names to entertain me. In Mexico, there is a generic term for all these weeds. They call any edible weed a quelite (pronounced kay-lee-tay). These plants have been eaten for generations, the pigweed is amaranth, the goosefoot is quinoa, two of the great indigenous staples of the Americas. Other quelite plants include purslane, epazote, huanzontle, spearmint, chamomile, dandelion and nettles.

This summer, I have been buying weeds from two farms, Ayer's Creek Farm and Dancing Roots Farm. Anthony & Carol Boutard sell a quelite mix at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, and Shari Sirkin at Dancing Roots graciously delivers amaranth, quinoa and purslane by the pound. If you've been eating at Park Kitchen this summer, the truth is you've been eating weeds all along.

I have had a sprouted bean salad on the menu for a few months. This may be the most nutritious dish on my menu right now. The summer version has cucumbers, hazelnuts, quinoa grains and raw greens (chenopodium quinoa), and anise hyssop (a delicious summer herb). The quinoa and hyssop come from Dancing Roots Farm. I serve the salad on a plate sauce I call fromage fondue, a fresh goat cheese rendered into a sauce by melting it with cream and emulsifying it with olive oil. The salad is dressed with a preserved lemon vinaigrette and garnished with a snack I call quinoa crunch, basically a tuile and deliciously addictive.
Lambs quarters (chenopodium album) are a close cousin of quinoa. It has a number of common names, like "fat hen." It can be used in the same way. Young leaves can be eaten raw, more mature leaves should be lightly steamed or braised. In Michoacan, they gather them as they begin to flower, breaded and fried and served with mole.
My summer fruit salad of peaches and blackberries is accompanied by pecans, purslane, and goat's milk feta from Juniper Grove. This firm and briny feta is perfect with the fruit. The Chester blackberries and purslane come from Ayer's Creek. Purslane (portulaca oleracea) has a succulent, fleshy leaf on a sturdy, but edible stem. Depending on where you live, you may see it at the market as verdolagas, its Spanish name. This salad is dressed with a peach brown butter vinaigrette. You can order seed from Territorial or Johnny's.

One of my favorite weeds to cultivate is nasturtium (tropaeolum majus). The entire plant is edible, the seed pod, the leaf and the flower, it is beautiful and very easy to propagate. The seeds can be salt cured like capers, and the leaves have a peppery arugula flavor. I serve it with a smoked sturgeon salad, smoked and thinly sliced with raw zucchini, pickled shallots, and red currants, on a red currant conserva. This dish is inspired by Swedish cuisine, although I really thought about the intertwining of the thin ribbons of fish and zucchini, and just designed the accompaniment around that idea.

Perhaps my most popular summer salad is the refreshing beet and watermelon salad, with pickled watermelon rind, amaranth (amaranthus retroflexus), dried chile vinaigrette and grated Redmondo, a firm, aged goat cheese from Juniper Grove. The beets, amaranth and chiles are earthy and savory, the watermelon and sweet rind pickle are juicy and fruity, the cheese is only mildly salty, and mildly firm. It could be my kind of dessert, though no one has ordered it that way.

What about the Ocean's weeds?

Anyone who knows my cooking knows that I have been strongly influenced by Japanese cooking. I have often used seaweeds in my dishes with seafood, tomatoes, cucumbers, or mushrooms. It can really cover a lot of ground. In more recent years, I've learned about salt tolerant plants, or halophytes, foraged along the coast in salt marshes and rocky cliffs. Some of these plants are now cultivated, like agretti (salsola soda), also known as barba di frate (Monk's Beard). This plant has a pleasant texture, slightly crunchy, a little sour and slightly bitter. As with most halophytes, it is good with seafood. I serve it sauteed with pattypan squashes, baby octopus and arabbiata sauce, which is Italian for "angry" sauce, defined by a healthy hand of garlic and chiles. You can order seeds from Seeds of Italy or Johnny's (It is actually not the same plant as saltwort or okahijiki, as it is known in Japan, but similar enough to be used with the same treatment).

Another halophyte that I use on the menu is marsh samphire (crithmum maritimum), which has many names (salicornia, sea beans, glasswort, criste-marines, pousse-pied, as well as marketing names like sea asparagus or sea fennel). This plant is usually foraged along the coast, and it is naturally very salty. At Park Kitchen, I blanch it in boiling, unsalted water before using it in seafood salads, or with potatoes and vegetables. Many people love to pickle it, but I personally have never enjoyed the flavor of halophytes in vinegar. Our sea beans are being served with a chilled salad of grilled razor clams, tomatoes, peppers and creamy, new crop fingerling potatoes.

One of the most mysterious plants on the menu right now is ficoide glaciale (mesembryanthemum crystallinum), which originated in southern Africa, and has been popular among the French chefs of haute cuisine for many years. It was then that I first encountered this plant in a French cookbook. Not surprisingly, the only place I know that sells seed is La Societe des Plantes (If you can't read french, you may have trouble maneuvering this site). I buy this special vegetable from Viridian Farms, who are the only people outside of California that I know who are selling it. As you can see in the photograph, its leaves are covered with cell walls filled with water. It is sometimes called ice plant or glacier lettuce, very crisp, crunchy and refreshing. Texturally, it reminds me of watermelon. I serve this with salmon and a rice porridge made with sesame and sweet walla walla onions, accompanied with a salad of cucumbers, wakame seaweed and ice plant. Then the entire dish is sprinkled with furikake, a sesame and spice mixture full of textures, colors and flavors. It is also great in textural salad presentations.

And why am I eating this?

Early in my cooking career, I happened upon many a book about herbs and medicine. Samuel Thayer's "Edible Wild Plants" and Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" were probably the first big inspirations. In fact, it all started over a bowl of Grape Nuts cereal when I was a young lad, and I saw Euell Gibbons on a tv commercial. He seemed so cool by the campfire, gathering weeds and berries and eating the same breakfast cereal that I ate. Wow! He was James Dean and Gandalf in the same moment.

Once I started cooking as a professional, I encountered the book that brought all these ideas together and inspired me at a very formative time in my career. I was cooking at a french restaurant, and my chef introduced me to this book (now out of print) by Michel Bras (and it was in this book that I first encountered the plant ficoide glaciale, page 220). He describes the inspiration of foraging for ingredients, and using unusual plants for their unique flavors. His plating style was very clean and classic, simple yet elegant and mysterious. Back in 1996, I think this book more than any other singular influence inspired me to become a chef.