Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Horta, or Cooked Green Salad



Three kids. One at school, one at kinder, one at childcare. I've come to think of their educational experience as three breeding grounds, since for months now we've been continually sick with colds, gastro, strep throat and other minor but annoying illnesses. As a result, I'm on the lookout for food that is simple to cook and bursting with vitamins; and a few weeks back, in the newspaper's gardening page, I stumbled across horta.

I learned that horta is Greek for wild greens. While horta may be used in pies and salads, the word most usually refers to greens stewed and served with olive oil and lemon juice. A flick round the internet suggests that many people primarily use spinach, but it was traditionally made with whatever was available: beet leaves, dandelion, chicory, sorrel, radicchio, rocket, endive and other greens both wild and cultivated. The gardeners in the article make horta out of amaranth, wild thistles and stinging nettles.

The concept is simple – just stew and dress the greens – but, while I already did this with beet leaves and rainbow chard, it never quite occurred to me to broaden the net. Now I've made horta using spinach, dandelion and warrigal greens, and I love it. Mature dandelion leaves are quite bitter, but young inner leaves stewed with beet leaves make a tasty lunch.

On one occasion I used coarser greens: a few leaves of black kale combined with rainbow chard and large turnip tops. Because the turnip leaves were very bitter I added a slosh of red wine from the open bottle on the bench and stewed it until the wine had been completely absorbed and all was tender. The final mix was still strong, but the wine had softened the flavours very pleasingly.

Taking my inspiration from the gardeners in the article, I've eaten horta alongside bread and olives, using the bread to soak up the juices at the bottom of the bowl; other times, I've made it more substantial with a bowl of cooked and dressed chickpeas on the side, or a couple of poached eggs.

Not only does it taste good; each bowl feels like a vitamin pill. Sad to say, for all the horta I've eaten I'm still pouring snot – but it could be worse! In any case, I feel healthier every time I eat it. What follows is not a precise recipe, nor do I claim authenticity; think of it, like the gardening article, as nothing more than a pointer in the right direction. A-tishoo!

Horta, or Cooked Green Salad
- greens (spinach, beet leaves, warrigal greens*, turnip tops, radish tops, stinging nettles, amaranth, sorrel, dandelion leaves, fat hen or whatever else grows in your garden. Use one type or a combination – experiment!**)
- herbs such as mint and parsley, if you wish, chopped
- olive oil
- lemon juice
- salt, pepper

Wash the greens well and remove any tough stalks. Warm a wide skillet, add a drizzle of olive oil, and drop the greens, water still clinging to the leaves, into the skillet. Cover, and allow to wilt. Spinach will take a few minutes; large beet leaves, ten minutes; tough kale, about half an hour. Keep an eye on things, and add extra water if necessary to prevent the horta from drying out and sticking. (For a completely inauthentic approach, add a slosh of red wine to coarse bitter greens to soften the flavours.)

When the greens are soft, tip them and any remaining cooking liquid into a bowl. Add chopped herbs, if you're using them, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to finish. Season if required. Serve with olives and sourdough for a light meal; or serve as a side dish to a larger meal.

*Warrigal greens (aka New Zealand spinach and tetragon) MUST BE BLANCHED before use. Drop them into a pot of boiling water, cook for a minute with the lid off, then drain well before adding to the horta. The leaves contain high levels of oxalates which can cause a tightening of the throat, nausea and worse when consumed in large quantities. Blanching breaks down the soluble oxalates and also some of the salts; leaving the lid off the saucepan prevents condensation from falling back into the saucepan. Discard the blanching liquid.

**If you're experimenting with combinations of leaves, think about flavours, textures and cooking times. For example, mustard greens will obliterate most other flavours, so are best kept separate. Kale will need far longer in the pot than soft baby spinach – either combine leaves of similar textures only, or cook the greens in stages, beginning with coarser leaves and adding more delicate greens near the end.

One final note: To point out the obvious, if you don't know it's edible, don't eat it. And if you're gleaning horta from a public space, be certain that the area hasn't been sprayed and wash it well. There are many dogs in Melbourne.

The recent Age article (by Denise Gadd, in the A2 on 27 November 2010) doesn't appear to be online, but you can read more about horta in Melbourne here. This all reminds me of an interview on Gardening Australia with Lolo Houbein, author of One Magic Square, about her experience as a famine survivor, organic vegetable gardener and voracious eater of leafy greens. The presenter asked her what happened if the leaves were attacked by insects. Lolo said, 'Then you get holes. And you can eat holes.' Terrific advice for a home gardener! Sadly the transcript doesn't do justice to her delightful gentle manner.

(Local: greens, herbs, olive oil, lemon juice.)

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