Sunday, June 27, 2010

A 2 Part Tale of 2 Plants in 2 Countries with 2 Recipes: Purslane-Tomato Salad (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με Γλιστρίδα) and Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad/Salsa (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με «Άγριο Σέλινο»)


In Greece, friends and relatives are endlessly curious about Alaska. We’re quizzed about daylight, animal life, cost of living, how many thousand miles we live from family. Every exotic Alaskan detail is examined and catalogued.

Back in Alaska, a vast land peopled largely by recent transplants, we describe life on a Greek island in a small village filled with relatives (family roots on the island go beyond reach of transmitted memory). We divert Alaskans with stories of family intrigues, open-handed generosity, and island bureaucratic snafus.

Greece and Alaska could not be more different. Yet, in both places, I shop for groceries, forage for wild edibles, and cook with abandon.

A friend of mine recently asked whether a dish cooked in a Greek kitchen tastes the same when made in Alaska. The simple answer: no.  The same recipe tastes different in Greece and Alaska because the ingredients aren’t the same in the two places.

For example: Greek tomatoes have more flavor, as do Alaska spinach and lettuce. Wild greens available in Greece don’t grow in Alaska and vice versa. American and Greek flour, butter, and eggs all bake up differently. Similar differences are found with virtually every ingredient. In both countries, I use the same basic recipes, but the results always vary, sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly.

No matter where one cooks, the key to a good result is tasting what you are making as you are make it. No one should ever blindly follow a recipe (even mine), no matter how trusted the source. The flavors of vegetables, herbs, spices, meats, cheese, fruits, you name it, all change subtly from purchase to purchase and day to day. The only way to compensate for these changes, and to generally adjust a recipe to please your palate, is to taste.

Two articles with recipes follow that illustrate this point. Part One was written in Greece last summer. It’s about purslane, Portulaca oleracea, a weed growing rampant in much of the world (including North America, but not Alaska). I combined the purslane with tomato to make a cooling salad.

Part Two is about a recent gathering expedition for beach lovage, Ligusticum scoticum, in Alaska. Using the Greek Purslane-Tomato Salad as the starting point, I tweaked the flavors to accommodate my Alaskan ingredients.  I served Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad with grilled king salmon; loaves’ herby freshness and the salad’s tart dressing nicely complimented king salmon’s richness.

Part One: Purslane-Tomato Salad in Greece

For years, our yard in Greece was a wasteland of weeds.  Every year on arrival we whacked down the tangle and borrowed a truck to haul away several loads of debris.

Our messy yard contrasted sharply with the carefully tended gardens of family, friends, and neighbors. Cousin Effie has an especially green thumb.  Most of her yard is paved over, but her narrow strip garden holds an impressive collection of flowering plants.

A couple years ago, Effie was sighing over her lack of a vegetable garden.  Since she lives only a few blocks away, and we are in Alaska for most of the year, we suggested she use our yard.

Now, when we arrive in Greece, we open the gate to a healthy, green garden, both decorative and edible, instead of a jungle. We planted roses and a bottle brush tree.  Effie and cousin Tzani have surrounded them with smaller, flowering plants. Blue jasmine from Tzani and a sweet-smelling white-flowered vine climbs the neighbor’s wall. What were tiny rosemary starts are now bushes.

This year the vegetable garden includes eggplant, okra, green beans, summer squash, tomatoes, mint, and celery.  The eggplants are heavily laden with fruit.  We pick them only when it’s time to cook (or gift eggplants); their texture and flavor are dramatically better than any supermarket eggplant available in Alaska.

While in the village, we take over weeding and watering the garden.  This year, purslane and crab grass were the most dominant weeds. While crab grass is purely an annoyance, purslane makes a tasty edible green.

Purslane has been used in Greece throughout recorded history.  Hippocrates, Galenus, and Dioscurides documented its many medicinal uses.  In the kitchen, it’s used raw in salads, mixed with yogurt, added to soups, served with meat or fish, and pickled for winter salad.

In Greece, purslane is best harvested by June or July, at which time both stem and leaves can be used. In September, stems are too tough to eat, but leaves still taste great.

This year, our first day back on the island, we drove to the main town to shop for basics. The day was a scorcher; we returned home hot and tired.  I wasn’t in the mood to cook and, after a day spent under the relentless Greek sun (at least to an Alaskan), didn’t want to eat more than a salad.

While I cut vegetables, Steve collected a colander full of purslane from the garden. Its succulent, slightly sour leaves, combined with sweet tomatoes and tart lemon juice, made a refreshing salad, perfect for a hot day.

Purslane-Tomato Salad (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με Γλιστρίδα)
Serves 2 – 4
If you don’t have fresh purslane, see the recipe below for Beach Lovage Salad and follow the recommended substitutions there for a fresh, cooling summer salad.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes, 1/2” dice
1 1/2 cups cleaned purslane leaves
3/4 cup diced cucumbers, 1/2” dice
3/4 cup diced red onions, 1/2” dice
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint

Make the dressing: Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Make the salad: Toss all the ingredients together. Drizzle with the dressing and toss again. (You may not need all the dressing.) Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed.

Beach Lovage and Chocolate Lilies

Part Two: Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad in Alaska

Nearing the spring equinox, by June’s second week Anchorage was enjoying almost 20 hours of daylight. Winter doldrums were a distant memory; the whole town was in a good mood.

Sunday we woke early. Sun streamed in the window, warming our faces. The sky was clear bright blue. Staying in bed wasn’t possible. We headed out to find a beach where we could harvest wild plants.

After making the circuit of possible foraging sites, we finally came across a field of beach lovage (Ligusticum scoticum).  Also known as Scotch lovage, sea lovage, wild celery, and petrushki, beach lovage grows on sandy beaches along the coasts of Alaska, Canada, and the Northeastern United States.

Beach lovage is easy to identify with its three-lobed leaflets and smooth, reddish-purple stem.  It’s best harvested before flowering.

One caution: Beach lovage is in the Umbelliferae family and its flowers are similar to those of relatives like carrots, parsley, and dill. However, water hemlock, a poisonous plant is also in the Umbelliferae family, and has similar flowers but very different leaves. As with all wild foraging, be certain you know what you’re gathering and be sure to follow the forager’s primary rule: “when in doubt, throw it out.”

The flavor of fresh beach lovage is unique and wonderful. The closest approximation would be to mix celery, parsley, and a little lemon zest, but there is still a missing flavor, the hint of wild bitterness that makes beach lovage special.

Although the flavors of purslane and beach lovage are not at all the same, both have a tart freshness that can't be purchased in a supermarket. As I tossed about ideas for using the beach lovage, I kept thinking about the Purslane-Tomato Salad we'd had last summer. With that in mind, I started mixing and tasting, adding cucumbers, then more mint, then more lemon juice, a little of each at a time, until the balance of flavors was correct for beach lovage - and for our palates.

In the last two weeks, I’ve used beach lovage in a risotto that was devoured by guests, a lovely topping for pan-fried halibut, and delicious halibut cakes.  The best way I served beach lovage was in the modified version of my Greek Purslane-Tomato Salad.

Beach Lovage-Tomato Salad/Salsa (Ντομάτα Σαλάτα με «Άγριο Σέλινο»)
Serves 4 as a salad, or 8 as salsa for serving with fish
If you don’t have beach lovage, substitute 1/4 cup minced parsley, 1/4 cup minced celery leaves, and 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (or 3 Tbsp. minced parsley, 1 Tbsp. minced lovage, and 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest).

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes, 1/2” dice
1 1/2 cups diced cucumbers, 1/2” dice
3/4 cup diced red onions, 1/2” dice
1/2 cup minced fresh beach lovage leaves
3 Tbsp. minced fresh mint

Make the dressing: Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Make the salad: Toss all the ingredients together. Drizzle with the dressing and toss again. (You may not need all the dressing.) Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed. 

This post is included in Weekend Herb Blogging compiled by Chris from Mele Cotte.


chris said...

Wow! I love stopping by...I always learn something new! What a great post. Thanks for being a great addition to this week's WHB! ;)

Maria Verivaki said...

lovely ideas

sometimes foraging can't offer a complete meal to us, but it often adds that extra dimension in our food to make it taste so much more zesty - as you said, you can't get that flavour from store-bought food

Marija said...

Amazingt! I never knew that purslane is edible. I have it in my garden in the countryside. Definitely will try it.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Big fan of the purslane, but have never heard of beach lovage - and I grow regular lovage in my garden... Does the stuff grow wild here?

Laurie Constantino said...

The beach lovage distribution map for North America shows: USA (AK, CT, MA, ME, NH, NY, RI), CAN (BC, LB, NB, NF, NS, NU, ON, PE, QC). So looks like not in California. Despite sharing a name, it tastes a lot different from garden lovage.

Unknown said...

Your recipe looks amazing, so simple but tasty. Do you ever come across "vliti" here in the uS. It's my favorite green.

frabala said...

Woh!!! How much greek is that!!!

brii said...

ciao Laurie, I grow levisticum officinalis (garden lovage?) . I adore the perfume and the taste of it.

will try your recipe.