Tonic, Cold Frames
and Hoop Houses
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
photos by Michael Piazza
The idea of spring tonic runs deep in the folk wisdom of many coldweather cultures. Such homemade medicine, a backwoods brew of various herbs and plant leaves, roots and barks, is reputed get the blood coursing, like sap in trees, to clear out winter’s stodge. We may laugh at these bracing concoctions, but usually they contain hefty doses of vitamin C and other healthful nutrients. In Europe, restorative bitters, as they are called, are taken on their own or in cocktails as digestifs, while in this country they have been marketed as patent medicines as well as brewed for home use.
Country people have a long tradition of finding plant ingredients in the wild, creating whole festivals, for instance, on the Appalachian ramp of early spring. The ramp is an elegantly beautiful wild leek with a bouquet that reeks of garlic on steroids. We near Boston have ramps too in woodland areas, but tend to go to our local farmers markets instead. We’re not likely to find poke, sassafras or nettles there—traditional ingredients of spring tonic—but we may find sorrel, Swiss chard, rhubarb and dandelion greens.
What these early edibles have in common is an acidic, sour flavor that awakens us from winter’s slumber. indeed, the name sorrel comes from the word sour: This delicate green leaf packs a lemony punch that makes it perfect for creamy soups and fish sauces. Many of these spring greens—sorrel, spinach and rhubarb included—contain oxalic acid, which is safe in small quantities where their piquancy is welcome. (but be sure to eat only the stems of rhubarb, as the leaves are so high in oxalic acid that they can be harmful.) Some also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which acts as an antioxidant in our bodies.
In northern New England’s cold climate, hoop houses, cold frames and greenhouses give farmers an advantage in the changeable weather of early spring. Tender young greens haven’t enough time to grow deep roots, but are shielded from wind, rain, snow and sleet while the glass or plastic protection creates a sunny microclimate. These structures are easy and cheap to build.
On a recent visit to Natick Community organic Farm, Liz Keohan showed me around the greenhouses of this nonprofit farm. She showed me the trays of greens that are sowed on flats and picked 30 days later for their mesclun salad mix. An intern was working on them during my visit; when the weather warms up she and other interns will transplant them outside where they’ll grow faster. When the greens are picked and washed, Liz told me, children in several programs at the farm dry them in a giant spinner, a job they love. As we walked through the greenhouses, I was mesmerized by the array. Along the way, i picked a tiny leaf here and there: exquisitely beautiful, unmistakable in their individuality. Here is a partial list of NCOF’s salad green mix, most of which i saw and probably tasted:
- Delicate pea shoots
- beet tops, in glossy deep maroon
- Silvetta, a wild arugula with deep-lobed leaves that look like tiny ferns, and pungent flavor
- Cushiony toscano kale, “to give weight to the mix,” liz says
- Green Frills mustard, aptly named and burning hot
- Claytonia, aka miner’s lettuce, appealing for its juicy, crunchy succulence but little flavor
- bright lights chard in startling colors
- Merlot lettuce, even more beautiful “when you see the sun on it,” liz says: wavy leaves, fringed edge and truly wine-colored
- Purple mizuna, far more delicate than that mixed into supermarket mesclun
- broadleaf cress, bright green with little teeth around the edges; “its bite develops,” liz says
- Curly cress with peppery flavor
- broadleaf cress, ditto
- Ruby Streaks mustard with lacy leaves in burgundy and yellow-green stems
- Yunkina savoy cabbage
- Red and winter kale
- Collard greens in miniature
- baby broccoli leaves grown specifically for the salad mix
- Frisée chicory with frizzy leaves
- Red-veined sorrel, named for its sour taste
- nasturtium with its pungent peppery flavor
- Parsley, a biennial
- Spinach, which thrives here in the colder months
- Mâche, or lamb’s lettuce, called Rapunzel in German, whose irresistible leaves set the fairytale in motion
- Dill volunteers
Root vegetables such as parsnips, beets, carrots and turnips are not grown in hoop houses, cold frames or greenhouses. These hardy vegetables can be harvested in fall and overwintered in root cellars, so growing them in shelters would be a waste of precious space better used for leafy greens. Parsnips alone can stay outside in the ground until spring and, in fact, become sweeter when subjected to cold temperatures. They look like white carrots and share the leafy umbrella canopy of cousins parsley and carrots. Parsnips have yet to catch the imagination of Americans, but their delicate flavor is a balance of sweet, nutty and zingy flavor, with herbal overtones and elusive complexity. What a great spring tonic!
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 28 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on “John James Audubon’s Tastes of America” is in the Spring 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@ gmail.com.