Fresh garden greens started trickling into Anchorage farmers’ markets this morning. In two weeks, the trickle will turn into a flood. Greens of all kinds thrive in our cool maritime climate.
Though cultivated greens are only now appearing, we’ve been eating wild greens for the past month. As soon as the snow melted, dandelion greens insistently pushed their way through the saturated earth and were ready to be harvested. Fireweed shoots, devil’s club, and nettles; chickweed, dock, lamb’s quarters, and shepherd’s purse; all end up in the pot. (For tips on harvesting wild plants, go here.)
Until my husband and I first lived in Greece (1987), eating wild plants never once crossed my mind. I grew up in a family where picky eating was an art form. My father didn’t eat cheese, yogurt, or sour cream. My mother didn’t eat lamb, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, squash, green pepper, and so many other foods I could never keep track. If my parents didn’t eat it, neither did we. Plus I had my own food quirks; raw tomatoes didn’t pass my lips until I was 24.
So wild greens? Not likely. It wasn’t just my family; the concept of eating wild greens didn’t remotely exist in the small Pacific Northwest town in which we were raised. In our world, food came from the grocery store. Food could also come from the garden, but only from seeds that were planted and carefully tended. For wild food, we only knew berries, seafood, and dead animals.
When the first rains came the autumn of our arrival in Greece, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the village. Once the rain stopped, half the village took to the fields, quickly gathering the emerging flush of snails. Over the next week, the dirt roads surrounding the village became peppered with the bent-over backsides of black-clad women, systematically working their way through the fields, gathering an abundance of fresh wild greens.
Though my Greek was limited in those days, I learned by example which greens were tastiest, how to harvest them, and how to clean them. I learned a mixture of different greens cooked together tastes better than a single variety cooked on its own. I learned to love and crave greens of all kinds, wild and domesticated. Most importantly, foraging became a permanent, enriching part of our lives.
These days, we eat greens several times a week, and I regularly post recipes using them.
For the past year, my favorite greens recipe has been Spinach Saganaki, based on a dish we had at Tzitzikas and Mermigas (Τζίτζικας και Μέρμηγκας), a restaurant on Mitropoleos Street, just off Syntagma Square, in downtown Athens. (A tasty place to eat on a shady street, particularly if you’re carrying a heavy load of way too many cookbooks; but that’s another story.) I’ve made the dish with a wide range of different greens, alone and combined, including spinach, Swiss chard, kale, amaranth, nettles, and dandelions; every version has been a success.
Two notes about the name:
1) I like calling it Spinach Saganaki only because it translates in Greek to the perfectly alliterative “Spanaki Saganaki.” Ignore the name and don’t limit yourself to making it with spinach; the dish is delicious with all kinds of greens.
2) I recently described this dish to someone who asked why it had “saganaki” in the name since it didn’t include flaming cheese. In Greek, “saganaki” is a small two-handled frying-pan, and gives its name to a range of dishes that are traditionally served in the pan, including shrimp saganaki, mussels saganaki, and cheese saganaki. As for setting cheese saganaki on fire, I’ve seen it done in Greece rarely, though it’s common in the US. I can’t explain the difference.
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Mix together all the ingredients except the spinach.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the spinach and cook just until it wilts (NOTE: The length of cooking time depends on the greens used. Spinach is done after 10 seconds; tougher greens will take longer.) Drain the spinach, quickly squeeze out any excess liquid, and mix it with the other ingredients. (The recipe may be made ahead to this point.)
Put the greens mixture in a 9” glass pie pan or other shallow baking dish. Bake for 10 minutes. Serve immediately with crusty bread and olives.
Variation: Substitute Peppadew peppers, or roasted red peppers, for the tomatoes. I’ve done this when I’ve been out of tomatoes and it changes the dish entirely, but in a very delicious way. With tomatoes, the flavor of the dish is lighter and fresher; with peppers the flavor is deeper and heartier.
Variation: Substitute wild sea lovage or purslane for the parsley. (I’ll write about wild sea lovage and purslane tomorrow or the next day.)