Weeds, er, Salad Greens

Greenmarket Salad Greens


That’s how my brother’s wife, Connie, refers to salad greens. You sorta have to experience it firsthand to understand the emotion she conveys. Suffice it to say, she utters it in tandem with a toss of the head, a stomp of the foot, and an incredulousness that insinuates, “You don’t actually expect me to eat that, do you?!”

Whereas to me, nothing is so lovely as when those little green things are once again plentiful at the greenmarket come early summer. You can imagine how well she and I got along back in the early days of her and my brother’s courtship.

Thing is, Connie actually nailed it—the weeds part, not the disdain part. Warm-weather greens are often weeds, a hodgepodge of gangly and scruffy and floppy looking sprigs whose beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and whose flavors vary from bitter to sweet, nutty to lemony, surprising to just plain, you know, green.

Come early spring, the array of weeds changes fairly drastically from one week to the next, just as the displays vary from one greenmarket stand to the next. Sometimes the greens are bundled with rubber bands and plunked indelicately in crates, leaving market goers who want to know what they’re purchasing to guess or go make nice with the farmer. Other times the greens are fluffed and spritzed and nestled in pristine pillowcase-lined bins accompanied by charming handwritten signs explaining the Latin name, medicinal properties, tasting notes, and cooking techniques.

A sampling from the past few weeks…

Miner’s lettuce, also known as the far more elegant claytonia perfoliata. Nicknamed for the gold miners who subsisted on it in the mountains of California more than a century ago, it resembles lovely little lilypads the size of a button with a goofy little sprout coming out of the center. A mild-tasting, cool-weather plant, it’s a profuse, if ephemeral, spring delicacy. And it’s a sad, sad day when suddenly one day there are no more crates of it at market.

Chickweed, an oddly fluffy green that sort of resembles overgrown thyme. It has what The Wild Table aptly refers to as spade-shaped leaves and a taste that’s very, very green.

Mizuna seems rather bad-ass on first impression given its rugged, saw-toothed leaves. Its taste, though, is quite tame if picked when young, with just a faintly peppery smack.

Purslane looks and tastes like a succulent, its leaves squishy with oodles of lemony tart omega-3 fatty acids. Golden purslane tastes slightly lighter than the darker evergreen color.

Mache comes and goes throughout the salad seasons, its oversize roundish leaves in floppy little clusters. A mild and muted backdrop to more pronounced weeds, it’s nutty and just plain nice and versatile as heck.

Baby dandelion leaves look and sort of taste like broad blades of grass streaked with violet. Even if you don’t like mature dandelion greens, it doesn’t mean you won’t fancy these.

Spring onions may resemble scallions but they’re not at all the same. These are more curvaceous, with buxom bulbs and oversized greens. Though farmers always promise that they bear a less pronounced bite than standard scallions, that’s not always exactly true. White ones tend to be sweeter than the purplish red ones.

Fava greens are far more fetching than they sound, with a flavor that’s actually rather indescribable. If pressed to say, I’d describe them as more sweet than beany. And far less cumbersome than the pesky fava beans, which require you to shell them twice.

Salsify, or scorzonera, is typically harvested for its twig-like root. But jutting out of the top, just like that shock of hair sprouting from Bert’s head on Sesame Street, are sturdy, grassy, elongated leaves that are almost as mild as mache yet more similar to pansy leaves in taste and texture. (Oh, yes, you certainly can eat your pansies, so long as they’re not sprayed with pesticides.)

I could go on. Chrysanthemum. Nettles. Wild spinach. Those creepy, spidery little crimson things that are too mustardy for me. And more. At many stands, where the greens come already mixed, sometimes you’ll find an occasional sprig of chervil, with its licorice-like lilt. Or pea shoots, which lend a familiar sweetness to a hodgepodge that otherwise could be a little bitter.

And just when you try something and fall for it—maddeningly, dizzyingly, heartbreakingly fall for it—then it goes and disappears for a year. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that’s certain from one week to the next come spring is that nothing’s really certain. Weeds don’t last long in another sense, too. Best to store them in a plastic bag that’s not crammed too full and left slightly open, with a paper towel slipped inside to soak up moisture. Just tuck it inside the fridge for a few hours or, if you must, for up to three days.

As for serving, I tend not to overthink things, simply tossing a mishmash of greens with a dribble of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Sometimes I bury eggs sunnyside up beneath a bunch of mixed baby greens. Or toss some sturdier leaves alongside a rib eye. Or ease a mishmash onto a plate alongside some take-out char-grilled chicken. Or balance a tangle of microgreens atop a bowl of pho and, come morning, toss the rest into an almond milk, banana, and honey smoothie. There are no rules…except that you can rely on them as a conversation starter at the table. Chances are it will be a pleasant conversation, although if my sister-in-law is in the house, there’s just no telling.

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    1. Jared, please let us know what wonderful weeds, um, greens are available in your area. Right now, we are gorging ourselves on callaloo. It is readily available in the stores as well as on the street corner- right out of the farmer’s truck.

      1. Sigh. I desperately miss callaloo from our honeymoon and other times in Jamaica. It has such a short season here. Sauteed simply is how we had it, but Beth, how do you do yours?

        1. The locals here cook it up with onions, peppers, salt cod, and seasonings. You can actually buy it for breakfast at the hot bar in the grocery store. I bought a huge bunch over the weekend and chopped, steamed, then creamed it in a peppery (a few pieces of scotch bonnets) white sauce. Wow!

  1. Thanks for a really good ‘primer’ on weeds which I’ll print and save. If I might, a request: A similar ‘primer’ on ‘greens’, like collard, turnip etc. would be really appreciated. Ella, by the way, has developed a taste for dandelion greens. She searches for them in the yard, then delicately nibbles them right down to the root.

    1. You got it, Casner. Look for it later this summer. You know, our Inca was doing that very thing last night out in Central Park. I’d never seen her do such a thing. Instinct, I suppose…? Although there was nothing delicate about her chomping…

  2. I am a big advocate of “weeds” and often have to fight for my husband not to remove them all from our gardens. Purslane are amazing and make a splendid soup. Just the other day I noticed we have a few growing in one of the flower beds we are redoing and sure enough I carefully removed it and planted in a container. Baby dandelions are just wonderful and in my mind every salad should have a few. Now I learned a lot about others I did not know about (and can see myself inspecting our gardens during lunch break hoping to find more green treasures) and others I did not realize they were referred to as weeds such as the Fava bean which I am growing this year yet partly unsuccessfully as my love for them is shared with the rabbits that keep on stealing them. I DO hope lots of people who have gardens and yards do read this post of yours and think twice prior to killing all weeds they may have. Little some people know they have such amazing edibles right in their backyard. Above all, Happy Birthday!

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