Spring brings Asparagus, Onion Weed, and Nasturtiums to the plate

Spring in Auckland has crept up and surprised me – I really didn’t see it coming.  It seems just a couple of weeks ago that the gracious Plane trees lining our streets gave us an open view to the sky.

Plane Tree archway down Picton Street, Ponsonby

Newly clothed with green they lean together to create the charming archways that are a feature of Auckland’s leafy suburbs.  The trees leafing up, longer days, and packed garden centres are clues that there is definitely a change of season.

I know spring is here when asparagus arrives.  Asparagus is the first vegetable of the new growing year.  Price wise, now is a good time to eat asparagus as there is plenty at the markets and in the shops.

Another spring time resident on our property, and most likely in yours, is often cursed by gardeners as a nuisance.  For me wild onion or onion weed is a spring onion alternative and it’s free! To harvest, use a fork (unless the ground is very soft with rain) otherwise you will fail to get the small bulbs out. Eating them is a most satisfying way to keep your wild onion weed under control.  They take a little time to wash and sort but they are really tasty.

The onion weed with its distinctive clusters of white flowers marked with fine
green lines.  You can eat all parts of this weed, the small onion bulbs,
the stems and the flowers .  Test that its not a decorative bulb by running
your hand down the stem and it will smell of onion.

Spring inspires us all to get back into salads. Here’s a way to make one bunch of asparagus go a long way.  This salad could be a satisfying lunch on its own or a wonderful side to the first barbequed sausage of the season.

My Risoni salad as photographed by my daughter Tansy with a proper camera

Risoni Asparagus Salad with Onion Weed and Nasturium Flowers

This salad because can fool you. It’s made from Risoni (pronounced ree-soh-nee) and while it could be mistaken for rice, it’s actually a type of pasta. It’s also known as risi (Italian for rice) and is sometimes referred to as orzo, although this tends to be slightly larger.  Risoni in Italy is often used in soups.

 I really like to use Risoni for  salads – because it looks like rice but has a smooth soft texture that takes up the flavours of olive oil, herbs and lemon to create a salad that is eaten with relish in our house. 

I was missing my old glass lemon squeezer so Peter found me this
wonderful kitchen tool, its a lemon squeezer, zest and fine grater all in one..
its so useful and only cost $5


One bunch of asparagus (or as much as you like)
juice of a lemon
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
3/4 Cup of Rizo pasta
a handful of walnuts chopped
Preserved lemon rind finely chopped (optional but really gives this salad a lift)
About 1/2 cup of chopped onion weed bulbs and white part of the stems
Salt and Pepper
Generous bunch of herbs chopped- whatever is available
Alternatively if you have some pesto you could add 1-2 tbsp (to taste)
Cos or any lettuce leaves

On the base of risoni build up the flavours with herbs or pesto, spring onions
or onion weed, chopped nuts (optional) and then add the lemon juice and
olive oil to taste and then add sliced up asparagus.

Cook the risoni pasta as you would any other dried pasta – with plenty of well salted water.  I use 3/4 of a cup of dried pasta and this made plenty of salad for 3.  Once cooked (don’t overcook it or it will all stick together and not free flow) pour into a sieve and run cold water through the pasta to separate.

While the risoni is cooking, also cook the asparagus.   You could oil them and simply grill them, but for this recipe, I prefer to cook them in a high sided pan in salted boiling water until “just” cooked. It only takes 1-2 minutes.

Make sure you don’t include the end woody bits.  I simply bend the asparagus holding the stalk end until it snaps.   It breaks in the place where the stems are soft.   You may think what a waste but you don’t want to chew on woody asparagus.

Take out of the hot water immediately and spread out on a tea towel to cool quickly. This will ensure the asparagus remains a good green.

You can use more parsley and herbs for this
recipe than I did here as I was restricted by the
quantity available.  Two tablespoons of parsley
per person gives you your daily vitamin K requirement.

Next chop up your herbs.  I use whatever herbs I have around – parsley, I nearly always use, and on this occasion added some fresh mint that goes really well with asparagus, a little fennel and coriander.  In the summer tarragon and basil are great additions too.

Put all the ingredients together, adding the oil and lemon juice last and to taste.  You may not need to use all your lemon or you may want more.  It’s so important to taste your salad to ensure you have a good balance of flavours.

I served this salad on a bed of mini cos lettuce that gave a crunchy contrast to the soft flavourful risoni.
I added two of my favourite edible flowers nasturium and calendula petals. Both these plants are flowering now and I find their bright colours make for a happy and tasty salad.   Nasturtiums are also called Indian Cress.  The flowers give a peppery bite to the salad.

I discovered a great blog and will try this recipe  Garden Betty’s Nasturtium Pesto
when I find enough nasturtiums.
Photo from Mens Health.co.uk that I liked.

Asparagus is a powerhouse vegetable and I discovered a great description of the health benefits of this first vegetable of spring on   UK Mens Health in an article titled “Four Reasons to Eat Asparagus”
They also have recipes and suggest using asparagus in risotto…I whole-heartedly agree.

In spring at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin everyone waits in anticipation for the asparagus from Palmerston.  It’s sought after because it is so fresh. There is no comparison with the asparagus you buy from shops.  Asparagus quickly deteriorates, eating its own sugars, so to taste the sweetest asparagus you need to grow it yourself, or buy directly from growers, or at a farmers market.

Peter seeking shade and smelling the pelagonians
at Auckland Botanical Gardens

It’s Labour Weekend.  Traditionally this is a time to plant your potatoes and other spring crops.   Do take some time out from work to just stop and enjoy the warmth, soft colours and birdsong of spring.

Onion Weed – just as good as spring onions

 Onion weed I use to curse as a gardener – then I discovered I could eat it and I have changed my attitude.   I now think of recipes that I can use when I weed this invasive plant.   All of the plant can be eaten.   The flowers – a  pretty white with a green line –  are similar to the spring bulb snowdrops.

The onion weed flower – you can eat it

It does escape into the cultivated garden and it can easily be pulled like a spring onion in this situation.   But its favourite habitat is under trees and you will need a spade to harvest them there.

Lili the cat is not at all interested in the onion weed around her

You will need to hose or soak the onions in water to get rid of all the excess soil, and there is usually a thick and slightly slimy skin over the older bulbets, but these come away quite easily to reveal something similar to spring onions.

Onion weed harvested and ready to used like spring onions

In summer the tops die down but underneath the bulbs, usually the size of marbles, can be dug up and pickled like cocktail onions or sauted whole.  Like onions they have a papery tough first skin but if soaked in water this can easily be removed.   I haven’t pickled them yet but perhaps I will give it try later in the year.

How I use onion weed in a foragers salad….

Left over Cabbage & Lentils with my Foragers Salad using Wild Onion Weed

When I am working in the garden I keep aside any tasty thinnings and edible weeds to be used for a lunch salad.   Yesterday I had collected a wild parsnip, horseradish root, miners lettuce, rocket, Southland pea and broad bean shoots.

I reheated the lentils, bacon and cabbage leftovers and put it on toast.  I then added the collected greens and grated parsnip (yes fresh parsnip is quite delicious grated raw).   I had some leftover whipped cream in the fridge so I added the finely grated peeled horseradish root, half a dozen pickled nasturium seeds (you can use capers instead), chopped chervil, a squeeze of lime juice and seasoned with salt.  This made a wonderful peppery-cream dressing.   On top I added chopped previously collected and prepared  wild onion, with the flowers of the wild onion, broad bean and the “purrrple” Southland salad pea.   I drizzled this with some hemp oil – but a good olive oil or my favourite avocado and lime oil would be just as delicious.  It looked and tasted a treat – fresh and nourishing.

Edible flowers decorative and tasty – broadbean, Southland salad pea and wild onion flowers

I am introducing you to my wild weed and flower salads.  I love to create these to add colour, texture and a nourishing freshness to the standard lettuce salad.   This may be intimidating for some of you at first.  I suggest you slowly add these vitamin and mineral packed gems into your family’s diet as it takes time to introduce people to something different.

I have been adding flowers and herbs into salads since the 1980’s, and have gained confidence in what looks and tastes good.   I remember back then our friend Ian said, “I didn’t think I would be eating a flower arrangement for dinner!”.  I think he thought I was a little loopy putting viola and borage blooms and calendula petals into a salad but now it’s common that restaurants add edible flowers and herbs.  

I intend over time to introduce you to many more herbs, wild plants and other edible parts of vegetables not usually used, e.g. broad bean green shoots and flowers.   I hope you try the humble onion weed – leaves, bulbets and flowers.

In celebration of the winter cabbage

Today I harvested the last of my cabbages.  I planted six in late autumn and it has been my most successful year yet for cabbage growing.     This success I believe is down to planting late to avoid the aphid and white butterfly and digging in plenty of sheep manure as they are big feeders.   I am lucky to live on the Otago Peninsula so can use seaweed – a  magic mulch!    This week I purchased from the Dunedin farmers market a $5 bag of Havoc bacon pieces thinking this could be a great addition to my final cabbage.    This recipe adds lentils to the cabbage which gives the dish a rich earthy flavour and a satisfying dish.   If you prepare the lentils ahead of time it only takes a jiffy to make at the rush hour of dinner.

It’s from one of my favourite books “Riverford Farm Cook Book” introduced to me by my  neighbour Rob.    Riverford farm is one of the largest organic growers in the UK and each vegetable or fruit has a chapter with a number of recipes.   Being English the plants they grow are very similar to our southern NZ growing conditions.

Cabbage recipe with the addition of bacon and onion weed decorated with borage flowers

Braised Cabbage with Lentils Chilli & Coriander  -Serves 4
3 T olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 chilli chopped (you could leave out if children are eating this)
500g cabbage 
Juice of half lemon
1 T chopped coriander
Salt and pepper
For the lentils:
10g puy lentils (I used green French lentils)
2 garlic cloves peeled
1 T olive oil
Cook the lentils – put in pan with whole garlic and enough water to cover.  Bring to the boil then simmer for about 30 min or until tender topping up with water if needed (esp needed if cooking on gas) – Drain then season well and mix in olive oil. (This can be done ahead )
Heat oil add onion, garlic and chilli then cover and sweat for 5 min until softened, add shredded cabbage and season well.    Cook over high heat until wilted, stir in lemon juice, lentils and coriander.

Adding bacon and celery (if you like) at the time of cooking the onions

My additions to the original are chopped up bacon pieces (equivalent to 2-3 slices of bacon), and chopped celery (because I have it growing and it adds great flavour) at the stage of cooking the  onions, garlic and chilli.   
With the addition of onion weed which is just like spring onion
At the very last minute I added the chopped coriander along with some finely chopped onion weed – my foraging addition to the recipe. 

My cabbage was small and compact – I was surprised to see it weighed exactly 500g! But if you only had a little cabbage you could add a mix of other greens like silverbeet, kale, the crinkly dark green cavolo nero (Itailian kale) or sliced brussel sprouts.     Last time I baked some potatoes and used this dish as a side but it can be a stand alone main, especially with the addition of spicy sausage or bacon.   It would also be delicious served as a bed of green with fish. 
Its always a decision when it comes to taking that last plant.   I harvested some of the cabbages when they weren’t fully matured so avoided having too many cabbages ready at once.    When just cooking cabbage quickly I like to add fennel seeds and cook it in butter.  But this recipe today was a true celebration of my last cabbage of winter 2012. 
Onion weed as good as spring onions….. my next posting