Good King Henry and Spring Greens with Feta Cream Sauce over Pasta

left to right: chives, nettles and Good King Henry

left to right: chives, nettles and Good King Henry

Who could resist an edible green that tastes like spinach and also happens to be an easy-to-grow perennial? One that can be eaten as an asparagus-like sprout in early spring, as a cooked green until autumn frosts, and whose seeds (like those of its cousin quinoa) can be used as a grain in winter?

But many gardeners and local food lovers have never heard of Good King Henry, (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) a member of the spinach and beet family also known as Lincolnshire spinach, fat hen and perennial goosefoot (Chenopodium, its family name, means goose foot). Happily, Good King Henry is becoming better known, perhaps because nearly every book about permaculture and perennial vegetables mentions it.

I first discovered Good King Henry in the Fedco catalogue ten years ago; they still sell it for all of $1.30 a packet. Good King Henry seed, like that of many perennial plants, likes to be fooled into thinking it has been through winter before it will sprout. The trick is to “stratify” the seed by tucking it into a plastic bag along with a little moist potting mix, then popping it into the refrigerator for a few weeks. When the seed is returned to room temperature, it thinks spring is here, and comes up. Sometimes it takes two trips to the refrigerator before perennial seeds wake up; I’ve learned to be patient and ever-optimistic when trying to start finicky plants.

For years my home-grown Good King Henry, though it has a reputation for being a garden thug and over-running its neighbors, looked wan and spindly. Turns out I planted it in too sunny and dry a spot. When moved to a place with half a day of shade, it quickly began filling up the bed. Luckily I’d planted it alongside mint, another garden thug, and the two plants seem to have called a truce. Good King Henry also drops lots of seed that sprouts readily when exposed to the natural temperature fluctuations of a garden, so if you want to keep it in check, harvest the flowers (which are edible).

A bed of Good King Henry and mint

A bed of Good King Henry and mint

Like its cousin spinach, Good King Henry contains a great deal of oxalic acid, enough that eating it raw might make your stomach hurt and your teeth feel stripped of enamel, so it is always cooked. In early spring, its unexpanded sprouts are picked at about 5 inches tall and and then steamed like asparagus (hence another of its nicknames, “poor man’s asparagus”). In Europe gardeners blanch the sprouts by piling the Good King Henry bed with a deep layer of mulch in fall. When the white tips poke through in spring, the mulch is pushed aside to reveal harvest-ready blanched sprouts.

Both the leaves and flowers can be eaten, steamed or blanched first to remove some of the oxalic acid. Use Good King Henry in any recipe that calls for its relatives, spinach, chard and beet greens. Or use it to replace wild greens, such as nettles and lamb’s quarters (another relative).

I have never harvested the seeds of Good King Henry to use as a grain, but I’ll give it a whirl this fall and report back. If you’d like to try them, keep in mind that like unprocessed quinoa, Good King Henry seeds are coated with bitter saponins and must be soaked and rinsed to remove them before being cooked.

Here’s a delicious way to use Good King Henry, a simple sauce made of spring greens cooked with garlic and olive oil served over pasta along with a contrasting silky sauce made of feta and cream. If you’re avoiding fat, skip the cream and just crumble a little feta over the top of the greens and pasta. And if you’re avoiding dairy, omit the cheese altogether. In any case, serve the pasta with a slice of lemon to spritz over the top – it adds just the right something.

Spring Greens with Feta Cream over Pasta

Spring Greens with Feta Cream over Pasta

Pasta Topped with Spring Greens and Feta Cream

  • 1/2 pound pasta of your choice
  • 1 recipe Spring Greens, below
  • 1 recipe Feta Cream, below
  • the rind of 1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped (optional)
  • red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 lemon, washed and cut into eight slices

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Divide it between four plates. Top each serving with Spring Greens, then drizzle Feta Cream over the greens and pasta. Top with a sprinkling of chopped preserved lemon and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, if desired. Place a few slices of lemon on each plate, if desired, for diners to squeeze over the pasta to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves four.

For the Spring Greens:

  • 1 bunch Good King Henry or spinach (about 10 ounces)
  • 1 smaller bunch wild greens, such as nettles (harvest with gloves to avoid stings), lambs quarters, dandelion greens, etc. or chard or beet greens (about 6 ounces)
  • 1 bunch fresh chives (about 2 ounces, more if desired), cleaned and chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • hot red pepper flakes, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Put the lid on a large pot of cold, salted water and bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, pull the leaves and flowers from the stems of the Good King Henry and wash in a bowl of cold water. Do the same for the other greens – if using nettles, be sure to wear gloves to harvest and prepare.

Blanch the greens in the boiling water for a few minutes, until they turn bright green. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the greens from the hot water and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. Remove them from the cold water, squeeze them to remove some of the moisture in them (but not until they are completely dry). With a chef’s knife, chop the greens a bit, then set them aside.

In a large, non-reactive skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the chives and garlic. Let them cook until the garlic is getting soft, then add the greens and lower the heat a little. Allow the mixture to cook until it is heated through, but not dry, then stir in the lemon juice. Add hot red pepper, salt and black pepper to taste. Serve hot over pasta with Feta Cream.

For the Feta Cream:

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 ounces feta, crumbled

Bring the cream to a simmer in a small pot over medium-low heat. Stir in the feta and let the mixture bubble for a minute, until the feta begins to dissolve in the cream and the mixture thickens. Serve hot over pasta with Spring Greens.

Ramps, Asparagus and Dandelion Greens Pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate perennial vegetables. Plant them once, take care of them by weeding, watering and feeding the soil around them with good compost, and they’ll return reliably year after year. Many of these perennials are among the first edibles of spring, which seems to make them taste even more delicious to winter-weary taste buds.

dandelion greens

dandelion greens

Some perennial spring vegetables don’t even require planting. Dandelion greens, chicory, sorrel, and, later in spring, lambs quarters and nettles, are all wild plants that are abundant self-seeders (aka, weeds). All of them are best picked young and tender, before they’ve flowered (with nettles, be sure to wear gloves, to avoid the stinging hairs that are destroyed in cooking).

Many of these “weeds” are so delicious that vegetable breeders have come up with more refined versions sold through seed catalogues. Two of my favorites are super-cold hardy Italian Red Dandelion (it’s actually chicory) and Good King Henry, a member of the weedy Goose Foot family that tastes like spinach and can be harvested from early spring into fall.

Asparagus, unlike perennial weeds, takes a bit of work. It likes lots of good compost and requires watering all summer, or it won’t be productive year after year. Too, you have to keep grass from growing in amongst the shoots, and war with the dreaded asparagus beetle, which can wreak havoc.

One method of achieving both weed and bug suppression is to interplant asparagus with parsley and dill, which can out-compete grass and which asparagus beetles hate. The herbs are also a good use of space, providing a season long crop even after the 4th of July, when good gardeners let their asparagus grow into full, tall ferns to gather energy for next season.

purple asparagus

purple asparagus

It’s not too late to put in an asparagus bed this year, though you won’t be able to harvest any juicy spears until a few seasons have passed and the bed has filled in. Though asparagus can be grown from seed, the most productive plants are male clones (they don’t go to seed) bought as 2 or 3 year-old roots. Two widely available and good choices are “Jersey Supreme” and “Purple Passion.”

ramps and dandelion greens

ramps and dandelion greens

Ramps, if you’ve never encountered them, are a wild native woodland allium, related to both onions and garlic and tasting a bit like both. They’re happy at high, cool elevations, in the kind of moist mixed woodlands where trilliums and golden seal grows beneath maples and beeches, and can completely carpet the early spring forest floor. It seemed likely that ramps would grow around here, but though I scoured our woodlot every spring, I could never find wild ramps growing in it.

Finally, a few years ago, I took matters into my own hands and ordered a shipment of mature ramps from Ramp Farm Specialties in West Virginia. Owner Glen Facemire only ships his bulbs in February and March (seeds are available all the time), so when he heard that New Hampshire had a big snow storm brewing just as he was putting my ramps in the mail, he gave me a call to talk me through how to care for his “babies” until I could put them in the ground (it turned out that a couple of window boxes in a cold frame did the trick).

ramps in window box and cold frame

ramps in window box and cold frame

The ramps arrived huge and healthy, and now, a few seasons later, are beginning to spread both where I’ve planted them in the woods, and in the more cultivated sections of my garden. They’re particularly happy growing under the shade of the grape arbor. Though you can buy 3 dozen ramps for $24.75, the most economical way to order them is 1000 bulbs for

ramps growing under a grape arbor

ramps growing under a grape arbor

$194.00 (shipping is free). I’d suggest splitting an order with friends and scouting likely locations this summer (you’ll want to try several spots to be on the safe side). Do order early, so you don’t miss out, and be prepared with window boxes and a cold frame, just in case.

Early spring vegetables fresh from the garden don’t need much in the way of preparation. All of them are delicious cooked fast and hot with olive oil or with chopped bacon. They’re also perfect stir fried along with fresh spring chives, a bit of ginger and a little soy sauce combined with water or orange juice. Ramps and asparagus can be lightly tossed in oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed in a grill basket and cooked briefly on the grill.

Below you’ll find a recipe that combines dandelion greens, ramps, and asparagus cooked with bacon as the topping for pizza. Though the pizza dough needs a full day to rise (or overnight in the refrigerator), once it’s ready, the recipe goes together in a snap. Feel free to substitute store-bought dough if you’re short on time. Too, feel free to leave out the bacon if you’re a vegetarian, and to substitute in whatever fresh spring vegetables you have on hand. Spinach or escarole would be delicious.

And if you’re only feeding two people, divide the topping recipe in half. Store the extra pizza dough in the refrigerator in an oiled plastic bag and use it later in the week. It will be good for several days.

Ramp, Dandelion and Asparagus Pizza

for the dough:

  • scant 4 cups flour (can be up to ⅓ whole wheat)
  • ¼ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (can be up to 2 teaspoons, if desired)
  • 1½ – 1¾ cups water (if your water is chlorinated, use spring or filtered water)

for the topping:

  • 4 slices thick bacon, cut into ½ inch chunks
  • 1 large bunch dandelion greens (about ½ pound), trimmed of roots, well washed in cold water and chopped
  • 1 large bunch ramps (about 10), trimmed of roots, well washed and chopped; or use 6 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large bunch asparagus (about 1 pound or more), trimmed, washed and chopped
  • 1½ pounds fresh mozzarella, broken up into chunks
  • hot red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper, to taste
  • good olive oil for drizzling

For the dough, combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the water (you will need the larger amount if using whole wheat flour) and stir well with a spoon until well combined – do not knead. If the mixture seems too dry (it should be quite sticky), add a little more water to incorporate all the flour.

Cover with plastic and set on a cool counter to rise. If it is very warm or you’d like to use the dough more than 18 hours later, place in the refrigerator. Allow the dough to rise until doubled – if it’s warm this will happen in about 12 hours, if it’s very cool, in about 18 hours.

When ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 450-500 degrees (my oven doesn’t go to 500 – use the higher heat if you can). If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack.

Divide the dough into 4 balls. Lightly oil them with olive oil, cover them with plastic and set aside on the counter to rise and soften while make the topping.

Heat a large skillet and add the bacon if using (otherwise, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and continue with the greens, below). Cook the bacon until it is beginning to brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, pour off most of the fat, and return the skillet to the heat. Add the dandelion greens, ramps or garlic, asparagus and bacon pieces, if using. Cook, stirring, until the greens are wilted and tender. Season to taste with hot red pepper, black pepper and salt (you may not need any salt, depending on the bacon). Remove the greens from the pan and set aside.

Turn the oven to broil to super-heat the pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, place a large aluminum sheet tray in the oven to heat (do not use a tray that has a non-stick coating as it will burn).

Stretch the dough either by rolling with a rolling pin (you’ll need to use flour to keep the dough from sticking) or with your hands to a very thin, approximately 12-inch rough circle. Place the round on a well floured pizza peel (if you have one), or onto the back of a well floured aluminum sheet tray. Cover the dough to within about 1 inch of the edge with ¼ of the greens and then ¼ of the mozzarella (leave spaces between the pieces of cheese). Drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil.

Open the oven door and slide the pizza from the peel onto the pizza stone. If you are not using a pizza stone, carefully remove the hot sheet tray from the oven, sprinkle it with a little flour, then slide the pizza from the overturned sheet tray onto the hot sheet tray and return it to the oven.

The pizza will cook very quickly – in about 2-4 minutes, depending on your oven. If the pizza begins to burn (a few black spots are desirable, but not an over-all char), turn the broiler off, but leave the oven temperature at 450-500 degrees.

You may need to slide a spatula under the pizza and turn it, or turn the sheet tray, so that it cooks evenly. It is done when the edges are well browned, and black in spots. Remove from the oven, slide onto a cutting board, and cut up and serve immediately.

Repeat with the other three pieces of dough. Serves 4 generously.

Eggs from Pastured Chickens: Amazing

What to do with lots of fresh eggs: Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringues with Fresh Greens and Lemony Herb Dressing and Boston Cream Cupcakes

The flock of Black Jersey Giant hens I share with my sister-in-law has just turned four, and they’re still laying more eggs than our two families can absorb. Getting rid of the excess is no problem, though – actually quite the opposite.

Black Jersey Giant Hen

Black Jersey Giant Hen

Okay, I’m going to brag a little here; forgive me. Our eggs are really good. Our chickens are true free rangers, spending most of the day outside eating bugs and greens. The proof of their excellent diet is in the egg yolks, which are calendula orange, so bright that when I make cakes with them, the batter looks as if I’ve dyed it with yellow food coloring.

It turns out, according to several studies done by Mother Earth News, that the average egg produced by pastured chickens contains 7 times more beta carotene than the average conventional supermarket egg, hence the brilliant yolks. The studies also show pastured chickens produce eggs with ⅓ less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, ⅔ more vitamin A, twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and between 4 and 6 times as much vitamin D.

Here are two egg-rich recipes. The first is for a whites-only nut and cheese meringue cracker that’s a delicious contrast to spring greens. The second recipe is a good way to use up the leftover yolks, Boston Cream Cupcakes, light enough that you’ll want to eat two, but rich enough that you should probably only eat one. The pastry cream recipe makes more than you’ll use filling the cupcakes, but it’s delicious on its own or topping fresh berries or stewed rhubarb.

Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringues with Spring Greens

Goat Cheese Gouda and Pecan Meringue with Spring Greens

Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringue with Spring Greens

  • ½ cup pecans
  • 2 ounces goat gouda, grated (about ½ cup)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne or hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
  • 4 large egg whites
  • tiny pinch of cream of tartar
  • a mixture of fresh spring greens, washed and dried, about 8 cups total
  • Lemony Herbed Salad Dressing (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a half-sheet tray with parchment paper; butter and flour the parchment. Set aside.

Place the pecans, cheese, salt, and peppers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the nuts are finely chopped. Be careful not to pulse so much the mixture turns into a paste.

In the bowl of an electric mixer whip the egg whites and the pinch of cream of tartar using the whisk attachment until the whites form soft peaks. Fold the nut mixture into the whites carefully, trying not to deflate the whites completely.

Spoon the batter evenly into 8 spots on the prepared parchment, leaving lots of space between the spots. Use a spoon to flatten and spread into approximately 4 inch wide rounds – don’t let the rounds touch.

Place in the oven – if your oven has a convection fan, turn it on as it will speed the cooking process. Cook the meringues until they are just golden brown, about 25 minutes. Turn off the oven, but leave the meringues in it and leave the convection fan on.

After 1/2 hour, remove the tray from the oven and allow the meringues to cool completely. To serve, place each meringue on a plate. Toss the greens with the dressing, then top each meringue with greens. Serve immediately, before the meringues get soggy.

Serves 8.

Lemony-Herb Salad Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (or other mild white vinegar)
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 small clove garlic minced
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons mild oil, such as sunflower
  • the leaves from several sprigs fresh thyme, lightly chopped (about 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped dill

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt and minced garlic. Gradually whisk in the oils, dribbling them in slowly so the mixture emulsifies. When all the oil has been added, whisk in the herbs. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Boston Cream Cupcakes

Boston Cream Cupcakes

Boston Cream Cupcakes

  • Light Pastry Cream (recipe below)
  • Chocolate Glaze (recipe below)

For the cupcakes (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated: The Science of Good Cooking):

  • 2 cups all purpose flour (fluff the flour a bit with the measuring cup before scooping and leveling with a knife – don’t pack it down)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, cut into 12 pieces
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature (put in a cup of warm water if necessary)
  • ¾ cup whole milk, at room temperature (heat a little in the microwave, if necessary)
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla
  • butter and flour to grease the cupcake pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine about 1 tablespoon of softened butter with about 1 tablespoon of flour to make a smooth paste. Use this mixture to grease the cupcake molds evenly and thoroughly.

Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and stir gently with the paddle to combine. Add the butter a few chunks at a time while mixing gently. As the butter is cut into the dry ingredients, add more butter until it is all mixed in. You should wind up with a mixture that resembles coarse cornmeal.

Add the eggs, one at a time, combining well after each addition. Finally, add the milk and vanilla. Beat well a minute or two until light and fluffy.

Divide the batter evenly between the 12 cupcake impressions. Place in the oven and bake, turning once for about 20 minutes. The cupcakes are done when they have risen and spring back when touched in the center. A toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake will come out clean. Try not to over-bake.

Let the cupcakes cool a few minutes before gently lifting them onto a cooling rack. Let them cool completely before filling and frosting.

To fill, cut the top off each cupcake and use a small sharp knife to cut a cone shape out of them – leave enough cake on the bottom and sides so that the cupcake doesn’t fall apart. Fill the cavity with pastry cream, enough so that a little squeezes out the side when the top is replaced. Spread the top of each filled cupcake with some of the chocolate frosting, enough so that it drips down the side. Chill the cupcakes until they set, then serve. Makes 12.

Light Pastry Cream

  • 1½ cups whole milk
  • ½ vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons cold butter
  • ¾ cup cold whipping cream

Have ready a sieve fitted over a clean bowl, a whisk, and a wooden spoon. Place the milk in a medium saucepan. If using the vanilla bean, split it in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Add the bean halves to the milk along with about ⅔ of the sugar. Heat the milk over medium heat until it is just about to simmer.

Meanwhile, place the yolks in a medium bowl and whisk in the remaining sugar. Continue whisking for about a minute, until the yolks are lighter in color and a little thicker. Whisk in the sifted flour.

When the milk is hot, lower the heat beneath it. Temper the egg yolks by scooping out about a cup of the milk and pouring it into the bowl of egg yolks, whisking constantly. Add another cup of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Finally, pour the tempered egg yolks into the pot of hot milk, whisking constantly.

Heat the mixture over low, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Scrape the the pot with the spoon to incorporate the thickening mixture on the bottom back into the thinner mixture on top. Occasionally whisk the mixture briskly to break up lumps. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring constantly, until it just barely begins to bubble; it should be very thick. Pour the pastry cream through the sieve into the clean bowl. Stir the cold butter into the pastry cream until it melts and is completely incorporated.

Place the bowl of pastry cream in a cold bath of ice and water in a larger bowl being careful not to let any of the water get into the cream. Cover the surface of the cream with a piece of plastic wrap to keep a skin from forming on it as it cools. When the pastry cream is cooled, you may place it in the refrigerator for up to a day before proceeding.

When the pastry cream is completely cold, place the whipping cream into the chilled bowl of an electric mixer and whip with the chilled whisk attachment. Whip the cream until very stiff and thick, almost to the point of over-whipping. Fold the whipped cream into the cold pastry cream and use to fill the cupcakes.

Chocolate Glaze

  • 8 ounces good quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or chips
  • ⅔ cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

Combine the first three ingredients in a small pot and heat over a low flame microwave. Stir gently until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is homogenous. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until it has melted and is incorporated. Allow the mixture to cool a little before using to frost the cupcakes. Makes about 1¾ cups.