Red, White, and Greens

Spring begins when the farmers at the Greenmarket bring their weeds in to sell. They’re marvelous.

Among the very first things to appear at the farmers’ market each spring are the wild bitter greens, especially nettles and dandelions, along with the domesticated chicories and escarole. After the long, depressing inevitability of winter at the market, the greens’ arrival is exciting enough that I can ignore the unsettling fact that I’m spending good money buying the farmers’ weeds. They’re only in season for a month or so, during which I eat them often. The greens’ bitter flavors may have evolved as a defense against hungry insects, but cooks value them for the sharp snap they bring, bitter being the part of the palate we tickle most rarely. I like to wilt the greens in a hot pan with salt, pepper, and a splash of something sweet (like balsamic-style vinegar) or, when I’m up for the full experience, to make an Italian-inspired salad of dandelion greens with chopped eggs and an anchovy vinaigrette. This year, though, I had a great new success: A burst of ambition and a random glance into Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Greens led me to gnudi made with bitter greens (gnudi being basically ravioli without the pasta wrapper). I blanched several large bunches of dandelions, escarole, and spinach and squeezed them dry, then pureed them a cup of ricotta , an egg, salt, pepper and a little fresh-ground mace. I rolled walnut-sized balls in a little flour, poached them until they floated, then baked them in a little tomato sauce with grated cheese sprinkled on top. The bitterness of the greens was fully present but tamed by the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the tomato. I’ll be making those again. Though they are one of spring’s great treats, bitter greens can get a little intense when eaten too frequently. Fortunately, by early June, there are lovely, soft new lettuces on the stands in a large range of sizes, shapes, and colors. Their tenderness is overwhelmed by robust salad dressings like my standby, which involves grated shallot and Dijon mustard. Instead, I’ve been whisking together salt, pepper, and good olive oil with verjus, the gently acidic juice of partially-ripe wine grapes. The verjus offers just a rumor of fruity roundness and brings out both the sweetness and the earthiness of those first lettuces of summer.

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