Monday, 27 January 2014

Winter Greens

Winter greens
I've been living in the galilee for close on 30 years. Over this time, I have seen my neighbours from the villages close to my house walking with bags of something, which they've picked in the fields. I never quite knew what the "something" was, but was always fascinated to find out. Since opening my business, organizing workshops in the houses of those same neighbours that I have seen with the bags full of something, I now have a better idea what it is they're picking in the fields.
The first trick was to identify the different weeds that they'd picked. This in itself was a revelation. Suddenly, at best, things that I'd never given any thought to, proved to be edible. Or worse, things I used to spray with poisons in order to get rid of them, proved to be really tasty. "Roundup" out, wild endive, in.  Za'atar (hyssop) was easy. It grows everywhere, including my back yard, and even I know what it looks like. I have picked it and used it in salads for years. When one of my hosts first brought my guests olesh, I had no idea what it was. I had to look up a few on-line translators to realize that it was wild endive, or chicory. Wild silverbeet, spinach and fennel only vaguely resembled what I'd been buying in the supermarket all these years. And then there's the weeds that really don't have a common English name. Hubeza, translates into English as malva, and the protected  spikey weed called akub only has its scientific name, gundelia, for us English speakers to identify it with. I can't quite imagine little Johnny in Boston saying "oh no, Mom, not gundelia for dinner again"
olesh, or wild endive - before

Olesh - middle

olesh - squeezing out the liquid after cooking and cooling
Olesh, served with fried onion

 You can't imagine the looks I got from my family last winter when I returned from one of my first workshops, strode into the back yard and started picking a green weed that was growing so thickly that you could barely see the grass through the weeds. When I rinsed the garden vermin in the sink, cut it up, cooked it and served it for dinner, my children started to doubt whether this new business was such a great idea. Now, they can't wait for the hubeza to grow in the garden. Who needs grass, anyway?
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the wild equivalents of what I'd been used to buying in the supermarket tasted the same, but so different. That's to say, we can recognize the taste, but with about 3 times more flavor. Of course, a plant that is fed with fertilizers, sprayed with pesticides, grown in a hot-house and picked unripe so it will be "ok" 5 days later when it gets to the supermarket shelf, can't hope to taste as good as it's brother that gets the amount of sun that nature meant it to get, grows where nature planned it to grow and gets fed only what is in the ground in the vicinity of its roots. The supermarket variety might be prettier, but has nowhere near the intensity of flavor. It's not just me saying it. My guests always comment that greens or vegetables that they have previously bought in the supermarket, taste so much bolder when used in the workshop.
I am in no way advocating that we all eschew mass grown and marketed vegetables for the wild variety. This would be an ecological disaster. There are less radical and damaging alternatives. I know the local markets and green grocers in the Arab villages in the Galilee sell the local greens. They are commercially grown, but no GMP, no mass chemical fertilizers and lots of flavor. Even akub, which has been picked almost into extinction, is now grown in the hothouse of a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee.
 I have no idea if you can readily find seasonal, edible vegetables and greens in various places around the western world.  For those that somehow do have access, in season, to local greens and vegetables, I strongly recommend asking the locals how they're prepared and giving them a try.

getting ready to prepare ftir (stuffed pastries) with fresh za'atar

cooking ftir on the saj

ftir - pastry stuffed with wild fresh hyssop

Tabouleh (on left) and wild spinach salad (on right)