In most parts of North America, gardeners aren't harvesting bumper crops of edibles just yet, but many folks do have an abundant supply of early greens already popping up. That, of course, leads to the age-old gardener's problem of what to do with the extra harvest.
Well, if you're in such a situation and are tired of simply boiling up the leafy vegetables, try using them in a variety of dishes: You may be surprised to find that the nutritious potherbs will blend well in salads, casseroles, and even desserts! As an example, we've put together a light, satisfying meal which features several spring greens recipes. All use spinach (one of the most popular early vegetables), but you can very easily substitute mustard, beet, or whatever other spring greens your garden might be producing now.
Tender, crispy spinach is the star performer in one of the best salads around. To make four hearty helpings of the dish, wash and dry about a pound of greens, then tear them into bite-sized pieces. Add 1/4 pound of raw, thinly sliced mushrooms, and a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, before tossing the salad with a light dressing such as sweet-and-sour or oil-and-vinegar. (If you'd like to dress up the vegetable salad a little, you can mix in two or three sliced hard-cooked eggs or sprinkle a handful of whole wheat croutons over each bowl.)
This dish — the Italian version of a vegetable omelet — contains the tried-and-true combination of greens and eggs. First of all, steam 1 cup of freshly picked and chopped spinach leaves, and place the cooked greens in a large mixing bowl. Then — in a separate bowl — mix together 3 eggs, 1/2 pound of grated Monterey Jack cheese, 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, one finely minced clove of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil. Add the cooked spinach to this mixture, stir it well, and spice it up with a dash of salt and pepper.
After you've thoroughly blended all the ingredients, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy iron skillet. Pour in the batter when the pan starts to sizzle, and — as soon as the frittata begins to "set" — gently lift the omelet's edges with a spatula to let the uncooked central portion run onto the pan. When all the egg has cooked (but before the "pancake" becomes dry), fold one half of the frittata over the other and turn it out of the pan onto a plate. (As an alternate cooking method, you can simply bake the dish, at 350°F, for half an hour, then brown it for a couple of minutes more under the broiler.) This savory spinach treat tastes wonderful "as is," cut into wedges and served to four hungry folks, or perhaps with a little more grated Parmesan used as a topping.
Granted, the notion does sound a bit strange, but greens can be used to prepare a sweet course for your spring meal, as well. This particular recipe is a variation on an apple pie that has long been popular among the citizens of the French city of Nice. Its unusual blend of flavors will have spinach lovers lined up for seconds. To make the Gallic dessert (which serves eight), you'll first need to peel 6 medium-sized cooking apples. Core the fruits and slice them thinly, then cut each sliver into small (about 1/2" on a side) pieces.
Next, combine 1/4 cup of raisins and 3 tablespoons of dark rum in a saucepan. Allow the mixture to boil for 2 or 3 minutes, then set it aside to cool. Meanwhile, cook and drain about a pound of fresh, chopped spinach. Combine the vegetable with 1/4 pound of shredded Jack cheese, 2 well-beaten eggs, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of chopped walnuts. Complete the filling by stirring in the rum-soaked raisins (drain them first, if necessary) and the diced apples.
To prepare a crust for the pie, spread two tablespoons of apricot jam evenly over the bottom of an unbaked pie shell (an eight- or nine-inch whole wheat or wheat germ crust will work best with this recipe). Then pour in the filling and cover it with a top crust. Use your thumb and forefinger to seal the edges of dough all around the pie, prick several air holes in the top with a fork, and bake the French confection for 30 minutes at 375°F. When the crust is golden brown, pull the pie out of the oven, dust a little cinnamon on it, and serve it piping hot.
Every gardener knows that a healthy crop of spring greens can be all but overwhelming at times ... but — using just a bit of imagination and experimentation — you'll be surprised by the delicious fare you can whip up from your early-season bounty. So don't just boil those greens. Put them into a variety of tasty — and nutritious — dishes!
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Spinach Niçosie recipe is based upon a dessert from The Quick and Easy Vegetarian Cookbook by Ruth Ann Manners and William Manners (copyright © 1978 by the authors). It is reprinted by permission of the publisher, M. Evans and Company, Inc.