In the previous installment, “Gay greens: the big two”, I looked at arugula (UK rocket) and radicchio, with an excursion into chicories — especially (curly) endive and Belgian endive — and an appendix on cruciferous vegetables. Now on to a wider set of greens.
From the earlier posting:
In my Columbus OH household, the residents had a name for a particular category of foodstuffs, especially as salad ingredients: gay greens, taking in, for instance: arugula (or rocket), radicchio, watercress, mâche (or corn salad), fennel, (curly) endive, Belgian endive, flat (or Italian) parsley, and basil (especially the fancy varieties). (Sprouts of all kinds are hippie greens.) The association with queers comes primarily from these being fashionable foodstuffs, connected in many people’s minds with fancy cooking, adventurous dining, and foodie enthusiasm — activities that are also associated with gay men. Plus the widespread attitude that green salads are “unmanly” food: Real Men eat red meat, not green salads.
(The association of these foodstuffs with queers will no doubt come as a surprise to many Italian-Americans, not to mention actual Italians, who are accustomed to them as everyday ingredients.)
Now to watercress, mâche, mesclun, fennel, and three plants that fall on the line between (in ordinary culinary vocabulary) greens and herbs: flat (or Italian) parsley, basil (especially the fancy varieties), and chervil.
Watercress. From Wikipedia:
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), is a fast-growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. It is a member of the family Brassicaceae [so, another cruciferous vegetable], botanically related to garden cress, mustard and radish — all noteworthy for a peppery, tangy flavour.
Note the genus name Nasturtium (Latin ‘nose-twister’) — used as a common name for quite a different plant, an ornamental flower that is also edible and is sometimes used as a garnish in salads. I’ll write about nasturtiums in another posting, on two plants (nasturtiums and geraniums) that mark the transition from spring to summer and also have common names that serve in addition as genus names for distinct species.
(One of my standard Saturday — family — breakfasts at the University Cafe in Palo Alto is their prawn salad, which comes with generous amounts of watercress. Yes, a gay salad. My other standard breakfast there is the salade niçoise, which is made in their version with thin slices of lightly grilled tuna, very nearly raw, and lots of capers as well as niçoise olives — so, another kind of gay salad. You might be wondering why I have salad for breakfast. The short answer is that Saturday breakfast comes three hours after I rise for the day, so it fills the slot of brunch in my schedule.)
Mâche. From Wikipedia:
Valerianella locusta is a small dicot annual plant of the family Valerianaceae. It is an edible salad green with a characteristic nutty flavor, dark green color, and soft texture. Common names include corn salad (or cornsalad), lamb’s lettuce, mâche, fetticus, feldsalat, nut lettuce, field salad and rapunzel. In restaurants that feature French cooking, this salad green may be called doucette or raiponce, as an alternative to mâche, by which it is best known.
… History: Corn salad was originally foraged by European peasants until Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, royal gardener of King Louis XIV, introduced it to the world. It has been eaten in Britain for centuries and appears in John Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. It was grown commercially in London from the late 18th or early 19th century and appeared on markets as a winter vegetable, however, it only became commercially available there in the 1980s. American president Thomas Jefferson cultivated mâche at his home, Monticello, in Virginia in the early 1800’s.
The common name corn salad refers to the fact that it often grows as a weed in wheat fields. (The European term for staple grain is “corn”.) The Brothers Grimm’s tale Rapunzel may have taken its name from this plant.
Leaves in #2, flowers in #3.
I grew mâche in my Columbus OH garden, but in the hot summers there it had a short growing season.
Mesclun. Gay greens often appear on menus under the name baby greens, referring to a mixture of young greens — lettuces, radicchio, sorrel, mizuna, mâche. spinach, endive, escarole, chicory, arugula, mustard greens, and/or Swiss chard. One of these mixtures has a name of its own:
Mesclun … is a salad mix of assorted small, young salad leaves which originated in Provence, France. The traditional mix includes chervil, arugula, leafy lettuces and endive in equal proportions, but in modern iterations may include an undetermined mix of fresh and available lettuces, spinach, arugula (rocket, or roquette), Swiss chard (silver beet), mustard greens (Dijon’s Child), endive, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche (lamb’s lettuce), radicchio, sorrel, and/or other leaf vegetables.
The name comes from Provençal (Southern France)—mescla, “to mix”—and literally means “mixture”.
In Hawaii, similar greens are grown in the region of Waimanalo on the windward side of Oahu. Because of their origin, a similar salad mix called “Nalo Greens” is popular in Hawaiian cuisine. (link)
Fennel. Now to a plant that’s used both raw in salad (much like celery, but more tasteful and classier) and cooked as a vegetable. From Wikipedia:
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a member of the family Apiaceae (formerly the Umbelliferae). It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean but has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on riverbanks.
It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses and, along with the similar-tasting anise, is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Florence fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen, bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable.
… The word “fennel” developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl. This came from the Old English fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum, the diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning “hay”.
… Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice, brown or green in colour when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking, green seeds are optimal. The leaves are delicately flavoured and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp vegetable that can be sautéed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw. They are used for garnishes and to add flavor to salads
The whole plant in #5, the flowers in #6, and the seeds in #7.
I’m very fond of fennel in all of its forms, but some people find the flavor too strong, and I have one friend who detests the texture (of celery as well as fennel). Taste is variable.
Flat parsley. On to a plant that most commonly is used, chopped, as a garnish or herb, but in one of its forms makes an excellent salad green or even cooked vegetable:
Parsley or garden parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a species of Petroselinum in the family Apiaceae, native to the central Mediterranean region (southern Italy, Algeria and Tunisia), naturalized elsewhere in Europe, and widely cultivated as an herb, a spice and a vegetable.
Where it grows as a biennial, in the first year, it forms a rosette of tripinnate leaves 10–25 cm long with numerous 1–3 cm leaflets, and a taproot used as a food store over the winter.
Parsley is widely used in Middle Eastern, European, and American cooking. Curly leaf parsley is often used as a garnish. In central and eastern Europe and in western Asia, many dishes are served with fresh green chopped parsley sprinkled on top. Root parsley is very common in central and eastern European cuisines, where it is used as a snack or a vegetable in many soups, stews and casseroles.
… The two main groups of parsley used as herbs are curly leaf (i.e.) (P. crispum crispum group; syn. P. crispum var. crispum) and Italian, or flat leaf (P. crispum neapolitanum group; syn. P. crispum var. neapolitanum); of these, the neapolitanum group more closely resembles the natural wild species. Flat-leaved parsley is preferred by some as it is easier to cultivate, being more tolerant of both rain and sunshine, and has a stronger flavor (though this is disputed), while curly leaf parsley is preferred by others because of its more decorative appearance in garnishing. (link)
As for flat parsley as a cooked vegetable, here’s a family recipe that I am deeply fond of, for Lamb and Parsley Stew (Mostly Parsley):
6 Tb butter
4 lg. bunches parsley (3 qts. chopped) OR MORE
16 scallions, chopped
3 lb lean lamb, cut into 1-in. cubes
salt, bl. pepper ground to taste
chicken broth to cover
5 cups canned kidney beans, undrained
1. In heavy, 4-qt. pot, heat 4 Tb of the butter, add chopped onions and parsley, cook until parsley is dark green
2. In lg. skillet, heat remaining butter, add meat and brown lightly, season with salt and pepper. Combine with vegetable mixture in pot and add broth to cover, juice of 2 (or more) lemons, and quarters of a third. Cover, simmer until meat is almost tender –- 1 to 1½ hrs.
3. Add kidney beans and correct seasoning. Continue cooking until lamb is tender. Serve with pilaff Greek style, or plain rice.
Basil. From Wikipedia:
Basil, or Sweet Basil, is a common name for the culinary herb Ocimum basilicum (pronounced /ˈbæzɪl/ or, in the US, /ˈbeːzɪl/), of the family Lamiaceae (mints), sometimes known as Saint Joseph’s Wort in some English-speaking countries.
Basil, originally from India, but thoroughly familiar to Theophrastus and Dioscurides, is a half-hardy annual plant, best known as a culinary herb prominently featured in Italian cuisine, and also plays a major role in Southeast Asian cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the cuisine of Taiwan. Depending on the species and cultivar, the leaves may taste somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, often sweet smell.
There are many varieties of Ocimum basilicum, as well as several related species or species hybrids also called basil. The type used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (O. X citriodorum) and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), which are used in Asia. While most common varieties of basil are treated as annuals, some are perennial in warm, tropical climates, including holy basil and a cultivar known as ‘African Blue’.
Several varieties of basil in #9, including curly basil and purple basil.
I grew many different varieties of basil in my Columbus garden — but always lots of ordinary sweet basil, for making huge amounts of pesto (just before the first frost cut down the plants). On pesto, see this posting.
Chervil. That brings me to a third plant that straddles the line between salad green (it’s a traditional component of mesclun) and herb, and also has some gay cachet. From Wikipedia:
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), sometimes called garden chervil to distinguish it from similar plants also called chervil, or French parsley, is a delicate annual herb related to parsley. It is commonly used to season mild-flavoured dishes and is a constituent of the French herb mixture fines herbes.
… Sometimes referred to as “gourmet’s parsley”, chervil is used to season poultry, seafood, and young vegetables. It is particularly popular in France, where it is added to omelettes, salads, and soups. More delicate than parsley, it has a faint taste of liquorice or aniseed.