To My Boys,
This menu was done with a unique intention. In April of 2017, I began a garden at your school to highlight native plant species that are sustainable food sources but are also otherwise known as weeds. I kept a brief log of how the soil was conditioned to mimic the native landscape in our area, how and when I planted the seeds, how often they were cared for and the growth progress. The end product was this menu so that I could highlight that these “weeds” that so many saw as a nuisance to their gardens were actually valuable assets to our diets and could be incorporated into a variety of cuisines.
The plants that I used were: purslane, dandelions, wild mustard, and amaranth. I had also planted some berry plants but they never took and I will probably have to experiment with them more to get them to grow in this environment. These plants were planted from seed in raised beds. But because they “grow like weeds” out here, they required extremely little care. I really just watched them grow. There was also some pigweed growing nearby on it’s own and so I incorporated that into the recipes as well. And the inspiration for their use came from Indian recipes that have long incorporated these plants into their cuisine as well as some recipes from the Mexican community that I have been working with at the community garden who have also been using these plants in their cuisines for generations because of the high nutritional content.
High nutritional content is key here. Extremely high nutritional content. Purslane, that we all relentlessly tear out of our gardens every spring has one of the highest contents of omega-3s. Even the pigweed that I found nearby and seems to be the bane of existence for many midwestern farmers is a prized plant in Indian cuisine because of it’s high Vitamin A content. I have bought dandelion greens for a few dollars per pound in the past which are also chock full of Vitamin A and C. So are Mustard greens but Amaranth has an astounding amount of Magnesium and Calcium. These “weeds”, grown in a controlled environment (far far away from pesticides and chemicals), are valuable to a healthy diet and could really hold the key to sustainable agriculture one day. Easily cultivated, adaptable to many environments, sturdy, reliable, drought resistant, and delicious. Think of the potential boys. Think outside the box. Especially when it comes to food.
So, back to the menu. I wanted to highlight the flavor but also show the versatility of each plant. Although I stuck close to Indian cuisine the flavors could easily translate to other cuisines. The Amuse Bouche were Amaranth and Onion Pakoras. The Amaranth leaves were just begging to become fritters. When you crack a leaf it actually smells like a fritter (to me). I couldn’t think of anything else that would be so perfect for it to be incorporated into.
The Soup I made highlighted the mighty mustard green which is actually a staple food in Punjab. This green is one of our most prized crops and we usually make saag from it but here I wanted to steep the flavor in a deep earthy way so I made a Mushroom and Mustard Greens Broth. Whatever leftovers I had your dad slurped up in minutes and then ate all the solids from the broth. It was that good.
The salad had to incorporate the purslane leaves because they taste like cucumbers! They are crunchy and sweet and I enjoyed just munching on them whenever I went to check on the plants. The Purslane Salad also had carrots to complement the flavor and a mixed herb dressing from the herbs in our garden at home. This also served as a palate cleanser as we moved into more dense flavors.
The Entree was Dandelions Greens & Brown Butter Rice. Dandelion Greens can be bitter at times and I wanted to round out the flavor with some buttery brown rice. The result was just perfect. The sautéing with the butter completely took out the bitterness and just left the greens tasting like a slightly spicy, flavorful green. I added chickpeas for some contrasting texture.
The Main Dish was Purslane & Gooseberry Raita with Fenugreek Paronthas. I brought the purslane back here with the mighty gooseberries that I found in our friend’s yard not too far from your school. These were some of the berries I had tried to grow but they didn’t take. They’re supposedly native to this environment and they are doing very well in our friend’s yard. Slightly tart and slightly sweet, I wanted to use them like a tomato is usually used in a raita. And the purslane took the spot of the cucumber that is traditionally used. The fenugreek I used was from our garden and I wanted to highlight it as well because it is such an easy herb to grow and you can also let it go to seed and then use the seeds. I have grown sprouts indoors from it as well and it is just such a powerhouse of nutrition.
The palate cleanser, Anise Hyssop and Lemongrass Ice, was made from Anise Hyssop which I have grown for years because of it’s history with the native landscape here and also for it’s medicinal values. This lovely sweet herb/plant grows into a giant bush and attracts just about any pollinator you can imagine (including gorgeous humming birds). But I found a plant growing on it’s own on the school grounds but wasn’t sure if it had come into contact with any chemicals so I just used the hyssop from our garden. But this herb is definitely one that is easily grown, a perennial, native to the Midwest and extremely valuable for it’s health benefits. I threw in some lemongrass because I had an abundant amount of it and thought it would bring a nice, bright citrus flavor to the ice.
The dessert was so beautiful for this menu. Lavender and Honey Kulfi was made using a sweet cream recipe and although I used the lavender we have growing at home, I do think this is a lovely herb that is also a perennial and does not require a lot of care. Therefore making it a great candidate for a sustainable food garden.
Last but not least, what look like chocolate jalapeños in the picture are actually Chocolate Candied Mint Leaves. I took mint from our garden at home and dipped them in melted chocolate and then sprinkled some sugar crystals on top. Mint is so important to our garden at home and as so many know, it can just grow and grow and grow without you doing a thing. It will take over your garden but we have never had that problem because if you guys aren’t eating all the leaves off the plants like goats then I am using it all up for tea, ice cream and scaring off critters from around the house.
I loved making this menu because I was deeply invested in the ingredients I was using. I had grown the key ingredients from seed and had watched them grow and then incorporated them into recipes that I had developed specifically to highlight them. I hope you make these recipes and discover ways of using these plants in your own recipes later on. Mother Nature has so much to offer us and when we work with her and work in awe of her, its amazing what benefits we reap.
With lots of love,