This is my 100th post, and while I had planned to write a long, personal story and recipe to note the event, I’ll keep it for later because I want you to go out into the fields this week and look for these greens — if you’re lucky enough to live where they grow. In the Northeast U.S., they are perfect for picking for only a few more days. Right now they’re so tender, you could eat them raw.
In his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons noted how the first sign of spring would be not the robins on the lawn, but the Italians who would swarm out from town to gather winter cress from fields and ditches. Here are a few lines from the book, originally published in 1962:
“The suburban dweller seldom bothers to identify the plant which the immigrants are so eagerly collecting. Such knowledge is strictly for squares. He is satisfied to refer to it merely as “some weed the Italians eat.” We have come to a poor pass when we think that allowing ourselves to be bilked because of our own ignorance contributes to our status. And still we think we have a mission to teach the rest of the world “the American way.” Heaven forbid this kind of thinking. We do have some things to teach, but we also have many things to learn from other cultures. Unless we realize that cultural exchange is a two-way street, we shall fail, and much of the ancient and precious wisdom now residing in the simple peoples of the world will be lost.”
My husband discovered a field not far from our home where these greens are as prolific as weeds. We set out on Saturday for our foraging expedition and came home loaded with bags and bags of them. There’s nothing like getting something for free. Especially when it’s nutritious, healthy and abundantly growing in fallow fields.
We were overflowing with mustard greens. We gave some to friends, others I blanched and put in the freezer. Some we ate very simply by boiling, then draining and tossing them in some olive oil, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. On Sunday I went a little fancier, adapting a recipe that Mark Bittman posted in the New York Times last week. The recipe uses broccoli rape (sometimes spelled broccoli rabe) instead of the wild greens and it could be adapted for many different vegetables. But the wild mustard greens really made it special. We were licking the bowl to extract every ounce of goodness.
For two people:
1/3 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup bread crumbs, preferably homemade
a couple of shakes of red pepper flakes, or to taste
wild mustard greens, a couple of large handfuls, or about 1/2 pound
salt, freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese
1. Put 1/8 cup of olive oil into a large skillet over medium-low heat. When oil is warm, cook garlic just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add bread crumbs and red pepper flakes and cook until bread crumbs are golden. This will take about five minutes or so. Remove and set aside.
2. Cook mustard greens in boiling water until soft, about five minutes. Drain well.
Bittman tells you to cook the pasta in the same water, but I would not recommend doing this with the wild greens, since the bitterness remains in the water.
3. Boil the pasta in salted water in another pot.
4. Meanwhile, add the remaining 1/8 cup of olive oil to a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the mustard greens and toss well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and bread crumb mixture and mix well.
5. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a little of the water. Toss pasta in the skillet with the mustard greens. If necessary, add a little of the pasta water. Adjust seasonings and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.