Warm salad for a chilly spring day

by Danielle Charles

I can’t explain to you how this happened, but somehow, April and March have switched places. March, normally drizzly and cold and still struggling to escape the grasp of winter, was full of warm days with bright sunshine – some days that were even positively hot and summery. Grass grew and leaves unfurled, plants sprouted, flowers bloomed. Rather than anxiously awaiting the appearance of those first tender little dandelion leaves and the first sweet tasting wild ramps as I usually am in March – I was past all that before it even began, thinking it must be about time for strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus. It was eerie.

But now that we are moving into April, it is for all respects, March again (or March as it should’ve been). Each day is as cold and overcast as the day before. Snow flakes fall and sometimes threaten to stay around like unwanted house guests. Warm weather seems distinctly out of one’s grasp. The very thought that in March I was wearing sandals and summer dresses, that we ate crisp salads every day out in the sunshine, and that – dare I say it, I was sometimes even hot and near to cursing the warmth – seems like a dream that could not possibly have happened. Those thoughts are more like visions of the future than they should be memories held under the domain of March. It seems I have gone backwards in time rather than forwards.

But it is back to cool and careful spring again, so here we are. Doesn’t it seem like all those plants who came rushing out of their shells in that summery sunshine are now frozen in mid-step, holding their breath and hoping that winter won’t see them – won’t know how easily they were seduced by the warm caress of spring? I feel a little like them too. I can’t seem to go back to the idea of my winter self – but just the same I’m not quite ready for all the crisp radish and fresh mint that I was craving in that early spring heat. I need something half way between.

This salad embraces that idea I think – lots of vibrant vegetables barely wilted so they retain a bit of bite – smothered in a warm garlic and chile infused oil with earthy olives, tempeh and caramelized onions tucked in to keep one grounded and not sprouting out too prematurely. The top gets a little breath of freshness though – a hint of the bright sunshine and warm days to come – with a little lemon zest. The best part is that this salad utilizes one of the very first spring wild harvests to come to the table – little tender baby dandelion leaves – sweet and bitter both. The ability, after months of cold and snow and brown parched earth, to walk out and eat something growing right out the back door has always felt like a miracle to me, just in the way that warm breezes, bird songs and all the other forgotten spring treasures do when winter begins its retreat.

You’ll notice that many of the things growing this time of year have a hint of bitterness to them. Bitterness awakens the digestive tract and helps to move out stagnation – so whether the plants do this purposely for us or not I can’t say – but there could be no flavor more perfectly suited for adapting us to spring. I wrote an entire article on just how imperative bitterness is to our health that you can read here if you like. Anyhow, if you haven’t graced your palate with this neglected flavor before, I urge you try it now on these cold spring days, when it could never be better suited. It satisfies deeply, like it were nourishing you to the very depths of your roots.

I hope you have a delightful Easter – I like to think about it being a celebration of re-birth in the widest sense – a celebration for spring. In some ways, I’m glad that the cold has come back for a little while yet, because it really emphasizes the miraculous tenacity of those first spring flowers, of those tender little green shoots emerging from the earth.

A Warm Salad of Bitter Greens, Broccolini and Tempeh with Garlic Oil

Adapted from a recipe in Skye Gyngell’s A Year in my Kitchen. Use wild dandelion greens if you have access to them, if not organically cultivated dandelion greens can usually be found in most well-stocked grocery stores.

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • pinch of sugar, salt and black pepper
  • 1 bunch broccolini
  • 1 small head radicchio
  • a few good handfuls of dandelion leaves
  • 1/3 cup kalamata olives
  • finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

For the tempeh:

  • 8 oz tempeh, sliced into thin rectangular strips
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons tamari, or to taste

For the garlic oil:

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Start by preparing the garlic oil. Warm the olive oil in a saucepan and then add the garlic and chili. Let it sizzle for about 30 seconds and then turn off the heat. Let sit for at least 30 minutes before using. You can re-heat just before serving.

While the oil is infusing, prepare your onions. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Add the balsamic vinegar, the pinch of sugar, salt and pepper, and stir well. Let the onions cook for a good 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are a glossy deep purple and sticky sweet.

While the onions are cooking, bring a well salted pot of water to boil (for the broccolini) and begin to prepare your tempeh. Heat another skillet over moderate heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add as many strips of tempeh as you can fit so that they are not overlapping. Splash a tablespoon of tamari over the tempeh and then roll the pan around so that the liquid is evenly distributed. Cook for several minutes, then flip and cook on the other side until well browned. Continue with the rest of the tempeh.

Meanwhile, trim up the broccolini by cutting off the woody base of the stems and trimming any larger pieces into smaller bits. When the water has come to a full boil, plunge the broccolini into the water and cook for 2 minutes.

Drain the broccolini and place in a bowl with the dandelion greens and radicchio. Drizzle a little of the warmed oil in and toss with a little salt and pepper to coat the greens. Scatter over the tempeh, olives, caramelized onions and a little salt and pepper. Drizzle over the remaining oil along with the squeeze of lemon juice and garnish with the lemon zest. Serve at once on warm plates.