Category Archives: Salads

Nasturtium delight

Nasturtium – Tropaeolum majus

I have often taken the nasturtium for granted as I see them scrambling across the rocks in nearby gardens and tumbling down neglected embankments. They are the seeds you give a child when learning about gardens knowing they will sprout quickly and flower well. Once you have planted a nasturtium in your garden you will find it popping up in the most unlikely places in neglected pockets and it loves poor soil. Just add water and it will grow. No wonder the nasturtium managed to travel around the world. Originating in Central and South America then across the Atlantic with the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16thCentury the nasturtium quickly invaded the gardens of Europe and England where it was used to treat scurvy, then back across the Atlantic to the United States where it was grown in the vegetable garden of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. In a letter, he mentions using the nasturtiums in his salads. 

I have been trying to remember the botanical names of plants but as I was not a student of Latin I resort to visuals to remind me and I bless the imagination of the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus who selected the Greek word tropaion from which the English word trophy stems, because he thought the rounded leaves resembled shields and the curved shape of the flower that of the helmets worn by Trojan warriors. These battle trophies were hung on a pole by the victorious Roman soldiers. The common name of nasturtium was given in recognition of the ‘nose-twisting’ flavour of the mustard seed oils that the plant contains. 

Although they aren’t a showy plant as compared to many, the nasturtium has been popular with many painters and artists including Clarice Cliff who adorned her fabulous ceramics with brightly coloured nasturtiums. I wonder how many generations of children have pored over Cicely Mary Barker’s Alphabet Flower Fairy series in which the ‘N’ Fairy is a boy sitting in a nasturtium lower cap using a leaf for an umbrella and shoes adorned with nasturtium seeds. Cressida Campbell an Australian artist has used the nasturtium with its curving trailing lines in her beautiful wood blocks.

Once I started looking seriously at the nasturtiums growing around my neighbourhood I realised that the flowers come in lovely shades of orange, lemon, yellow, salmon and red that contrast against the bright lime green leaves. There are also variegated leaves and dark green almost black leaves that I am on the search for. It is easy to understand their attraction to Monet who planted them at Giverny where they spilled out across the pathways in his garden. I now have them spilling out over the top of my pots and popping up all over the place. 

Fortunately, the root system is shallow making them easy to remove as the plant self-seeds easily. It is a fast grower and a very energetic territorial creeper that doesn’t stick to boundaries or fences and I am sure that if I stood still it would cover me. I now have blue plumbago invaded by a yellow flower, and a lemony yellow variety taking over the iris bed. I have draped it up and around a couple of stakes and it is now flowering happily in competition with the tomato bushes that stand beside it. This also takes the pressure off the white gerbera that were being smothered by the profusion of saucer shaped leaves on the stalks which were acting as a living mulch and covering up everything that stood in its path. As I pull it out, I smell the distinctive sweet honey aroma tinged with the spice from the mustard oils. 

It is suggested they are a good plant for companion planting with roses and vegetables possibly because of their spicy oils which are said to repel aphids however, looking at the number of aphids on my rose stalks I am not sure I could grow sufficient nasturtiums to deter these voracious insects.

They don’t seem to have too many pests although I have seen the White Cabbage butterfly hovering around and did spy a beautiful green caterpillar on one leaf.

On the plus side the flowers do attract hoverflies and bees so I hope someone nearby is producing nasturtium flavoured honey. 

They are also a very useful edible plant with the seeds, the leaves and the flowers all being used in my kitchen. I am lucky to garden in the sub-tropics where the nasturtium flowers prolifically even in winter. The leaves and flowers are a rich source of nutrients including Vitamin C and natural antibiotics. I have used the flowers to add gorgeous colour to a simple green salad, the petals have a gentle buttery flavour. 

I have stuffed the flowers and small leaves with goats’ cheese mixed with fresh herbs for a delicious hors d’oeuvre and I am going to collect the seeds which can be pickled in vinegar and substituted for capers.

Once you start looking there are lots of recipes that use nasturtiums including in sauces, pesto and in muffins as well as in beauty products including Hair Tonics. This ordinary fragile plant has opened up an entirely new world for me. 

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My Sustainable Garden -Chickweed Pesto

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Tiny seedlings are starting to appear in our garden from plants that I let go to seed last year. The fun is in spotting these new plants growing in unexpected places and in being able to identify what they are. I know I have violas, sweet alyssum, petunias and begonias but I have also noticed another seedling spring up all over the garden. Web_chickweed-in-bricksThis last unknown is appearing in my hanging baskets, tumbling over my walls, and in between the pavers. Web_chickweed-basketInitially I nurtured it with water and seaweed emulsion only to have an explosion of growth suddenly start taking over the beds. Suspicion started to creep into my mind as nothing I have planted grows that quickly and I have now realised I am battling a worthy foe. Chickweed!

Web_chickweed-stalksI have been on my hands and knees reaching under the roses, through the hydrangea, around the olive trees and across the brick pavers removing this fragile but tenacious weed and throwing it into the bin. Fortunately it is relatively easy to pull out but little bits still litter the garden probably preparing to haunt me in another 12 months. I have been muttering to myself, asking where did it come from. As I have been growing my own mulch (which is another story) for the past 12 months I doubted that it was from the bag of sugar cane I had used 12 months ago. Web_chickweed_neighbourI didn’t remain in ignorance for long as crouching under the olives I glanced across my neighbour’s neglected backyard and saw a glorious carpet of light green starting right next to my fence. The ground is covered in a tangled mass of stalks, leaves and flowers.Now I had found my source; Stellaria media commonly known as chickweed, winter weed, bindweed, satin flower, satin-flower, starweed, starwort, stitchwort, tongue grass and white bird’s eye.

Web_chickweed-flowerI am trying to make my garden as sustainable as possible and I hate throwing plant material out but this weed had gone to seed and I am not going to put it into the compost bin. As I threw the fourth bag away I started to wonder if it was edible. The name surely has to be a clue; I mean chickweed? I grabbed a couple of handfuls and walked through the forest to see if my son’s chooks would eat it. No problems there and they are still alive as I write. Chickweed is easy to identify with its frill of fine hairs running up one side of its stalk, changing sides at a leaf juncture.

Web_chickweed-and-chookMy father, curious about my frenetic gardening activity, wandered down to see what I was doing. I explained that having identified that this weed was not toxic to humans I was going to put some in our salad. Curious to see what it tasted like he reached down and picked off a few leaves to nibble on.

‘Mum won’t forgive me if you die on my patch,’ I told him. ‘Hey, at 91 years old I have to die sometime,’ he said, munching like Peter Rabbit on the sprigs.
Chickweed is one of those super foods, rich in omega-6 fatty acids and saponins, high in vitamins A, C, D, and B as well as the minerals, calcium, zinc, potassium, manganese, silica, phosphorous, sodium and copper. Web_chickweed-in-mug2It now definitely has a place in my diet both in salads, as an infusion and in pesto. It is also said to be useful as a poultice or tincture for skin irritations and helpful in treating obesity not that this is a problem in our household. I am really quite excited about identifying this plant and am now keen to see what else I can use from my garden’s supply of edible weeds.Web_chickweed-pesto

The chickweed was starting to go to seed and forming stalks which might have made the pesto stringy so I pulled the leaves from the stalks. The pesto was delicious.

Chickweed Pesto

Ingredients:

2 cups chickweed leaves

1 large clove garlic, smashed

½ cup Parmesan, freshly grated

¼ – ½ cup nuts – pine nuts, macadamia or walnuts

½ cup virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh basil leaves

salt and pepper

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Process:

In a food processor, pulse the chickweed and the basil leaves with the garlic until well broken down and blended, scraping down the sides to ensure even chopping. Add the Parmesan and pulse, then the nuts and pulse well. Slowly add the olive oil pulsing all the time. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve on bruschetta, over pasta or as a dip with vegetables.

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A kale salad for a hot summer evening

Kale saladIn Brisbane the summer rains have revitalised my garden but have also contributed to raising the humidity without dropping the temperature. By the end of these steamy days we are all wilting, appetites dulled by the heat and even the traditional rocket and spinach salads look limp and uninviting. This is when I resort to a kale salad that with its sturdy leaves always looks bright green and tempting. I don’t add too many ingredients to a kale salad, as they get lost amongst the strong curly leaves. In fact a simple dressing of lemon and olive oil, with a scattering of walnuts and of course slivers of Parmesan with its slightly nutty sweet flavour is absolutely perfect.

Parmesan is one of my favourite cheeses; I love its flavour and its versatility in cooking. So of course when I found an opportunity to visit a small co-op cheese-making facility in Emilia-Romagna I didn’t hesitate. Our guide was a charming English woman married to a local Italian and she explained the process as we watched.

The amount of fat is crucial in the production process. The previous evening’s milk from which the fat has been removed to make butter is combined with the fresh morning milk in enormous copper cauldrons. Here it is heated gently and stirred and whey that is rich in lactic acid is added from yesterday’s production to acidify the mixture. The heat is turned off and calf’s rennet is added to coagulate the milk. Curds start forming soon after and are stirred using a traditional tool called a ‘spino’ that breaks the curd into granules.

Separating and draining the 'twins'.

Separating and draining the ‘twins’.

The mixture is reheated to 55°C and cooked for about an hour. The curds sink to the bottom of the vat and start to form a mass. Then using wooden paddles the cheese makers lift the curds in a muslin cradle before a cheese maker expertly slices the mass in half. These ‘twins’ are wrapped in muslin and hung from poles to drain. The whey is collected for the next day’s cheese making or to feed the pigs from which prosciutto is made.

The cheese soaking in the brine bath.

The cheese soaking in the brine bath.

The curds are then transferred to round wooden containers where they are given a unique number, branded with month and year and dairy registration for easy identification.  After further draining the cheeses are placed in long vats of brine where they bob around for 24 days.

Racks of drying Parmesan.

Racks of drying Parmesan.

The final maturation process occurs when the cheese wheels are placed on shelves in curing rooms where they rest for at least a year and up to three before being released for sale. Every 10 days the cheeses are wiped free of mould, brushed dry and turned.  Independent testers determine whether the cheese meets the high standards expected by the Consorzio el Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

This kale salad travels well if taking on a picnic or to a friend’s home and is delicious.

Kale salad with walnuts, Parmesan and lemon.

  • A couple of leaves of kale
  • ¼ cup of finely chopped walnuts
  • Grated rind of a lemon
  • Slivers of Parmesan (or Pecorino if you don’t have Parmesan)
  • olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette
  • Extras: slivers of black olives and sliced green shallots

Remove the hard core and leaf stems from the kale then cut it into small pieces. Pour a small amount of lemon juice into a bowl. Because kale is so tough, which does mean good fibre in your diet, it improves if it is massaged with a little lemon juice and salt. Dip your fingers in the lemon juice and massage the pieces of kale before placing in the salad bowl. This also gives it a lovely colour. You can see the difference in the colour in the first picture where there is a small section of the leaf that wasn’t rubbed. It is much paler.

Kale gets better also if it is allowed to rest for a couple of hours so this salad is even nicer made ahead of time. Sprinkle the kale with finely chopped walnuts and grated lemon. Place slivers of Parmesan over the top of the kale and toss in a lemon and olive oil vinaigrette. I sometimes toss slivers of stoned Kalamata olives and shallots over the top of the leaves. IMG_6360

A Summer squash salad

Our unseasonal hot weather is stretching my imagination for summer salads that tempt the taste buds. Seeking inspiration I rummage through the vegetables in the fridge and came up with what I think is a perfect salad: a marriage of colour and tasty. I served it on the pretty yellow Laburnum Petal plate available at my Maddie & Marie online shop.

The squash and zucchini salad is tempting and tasty.

The squash and zucchini salad is tempting and tasty.

 

I served it on a pretty lemon yellow plate and drizzled a saffron infused vinaigrette over the top. I added a few beans which were also in the fridge but you could use other firm green vegetables such as the stem of asparagus or broccolini. It was delicious.

2 small yellow squash

2 small to medium zucchini

A handful of green beans

A handful of rocket or small English spinach leaves

Slivered almonds, toasted

Fresh parsley

If you have a mandolin this makes slicing easy, otherwise slice the squash and zucchini very finely. Steam the green beans until just cooked. I prefer them to be crunchy. Toss the vegetables together with the rocket or spinach leaves. Sprinkle the toasted slivered almonds over the top with ripped parsley leaves.

 

Easy to make Summer Salad

Easy to make Summer Salad

To make the vinaigrette:

Saffron threads infused in 2 tablespoons hot water

Juice of half a lemon

Light olive oil

1-2 tablespoons tahini

½ teaspoon mustard

Salt and pepper

Blend together the saffron infused water, lemon and olive oil in the combination of ⅓ water and lemon juice and ⅔ oil. Add the mustard and tahini and taste for flavour. Add salt and pepper. The longer you leave this dressing the brighter the yellow colour becomes.

Drizzle the dressing over the salad and serve to gasps of delight.