Now that summer is in full illumination, chefs are creating menus that reflect all that the season offers; bringing a parade of bold and delicious fruits and veggies to savor during these few short months of bountiful summer produce. Farmers markets bursting with colorful, succulent harvests provide inspiration for chefs to create dishes that give vegetables top billing.
A few uncommon greens are cropping up on menus and being reintroduced to the vegetal lineup with new and creative preparations. Not your usual garden variety kale or mesclun mix, these verdant cultivars present unique and distinct properties.
Celtuce is known by many aliases: stem lettuce, asparagus lettuce, celery lettuce and Chinese lettuce. In cooking, the whole plant is used in a variety of preparations. The leaves, which can be slightly bitter and resemble a sturdier somewhat leathery Romaine, can be torn into any greens mix for salad, stirred into a hearty summer minestrone or can be sautéed with lemon, dill, olive oil, pine nuts with a shave of ricotta salata for a bright Mediterranean-style side dish. The long stems, which should first be peeled, look like knobby, gnarled broccoli stalks. Celtuce stalks can be braised, blanched or julienned for raw preparations such as in crunchy coleslaw. Wood-grilling the peeled and lengthwise quartered stems bring out the vegetable’s mildly nutty taste. Celtuce is friendly to most any food it is cooked with. Its mild flavor is enhanced especially when paired with spicy, bold Asian flavors.
Succulent and shrubby agretti, or saltwort or more commonly known as monk’s beard is an annual Italian native being cultivated and sold more broadly outside its Mediterranean roots. The bright, deep green feathery leaves (imagine slightly plumper fennel fronds) have a bright, citrusy and saline flavor and a crisp, crunchy texture. The entire plant is harvested in bunches, much like dill weed. Since agretti is grown in sandy soil, care in prep is required to rid the plant of grit. When the roots are trimmed and the plant is thoroughly rinsed, agretti can be eaten fresh in salads or rolled in sushi. The leaves can be sautéed with olive oil and tossed into a tangle of cappellini with pistachios, olives and asiago or baked into a summer vegetable frittata. Agretti’s slightly mineral flavor also pairs wonderfully with shellfish, especially oysters.
Although known as New Zealand spinach, tetragonia is a flowering plant related to the fig-marigold family. Tetragonia is sometimes called “ice-plant” or Cook’s cabbage-in recognition of Captain Cook (possibly an inspiration for Popeye’s spinach-induced strength?) and his crew who foraged and consumed the plant in its native lands Down-Under in order to defend against disease. This plant is very heat-tolerant, generally unfussy about soil conditions and will grow throughout long, hot summers. In cooking applications, tetragonia is often used much the same way as spinach: in salads, sautés and in roulade fillings. Younger green leaves are preferred eating since as the plant matures, the acidic flavor becomes much more pronounced. Tetragonia can be blanched and made into a brightly flavored pesto, made even more richly complex when prepared with toasted sunflower seeds. New Zealand spinach that has been sautéed with garden chives and roasted chilis combined with smoky lardons makes a wonderful topping for flatbread. For an interesting South Asian snack, fry tetragonia and toss the leaves in sea salt, ground cumin and fenugreek and serve with minted yogurt.
These originally far-flung greens have become easier to source and cultivate with their growing popularity. Each provides a trove of endless possibilities for the summer menu.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events. Contact her at mary@consultingRCS.com or visit the RCS website at www.consultingRCS.com.