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Kitchen Garden: Taste of spring



Can taste buds have spring fever? Most gardeners have caught what Emily Dickinson called “A Little Madness in the Spring.” They’re salivating over catalog descriptions of juicy tomatoes and melons as their windowsills overflow with seedlings.

In the old days, this period was called the “hungry gap.” Produce in the root cellar had seen better days, the potatoes sending out white tentacles, the beets sad and spongy. Even when days warmed, it was a while before the garden yielded much sustenance. In modern life, the store satisfies our hunger, but not necessarily our taste. If you’re lucky, you have a cold frame filled with arugula and lettuce and a garden bed of overwintered spinach is putting forth young leaves. But if your horticultural life is still at mud stage, your palate deserves something supernally new and fresh, a zingy flavor to kick off spring. For this job I nominate cress.

Garden cress (Lepicium sativum) is an ancient plant, also called common cress or peppergrass. A brassica, related to cabbage and mustard, it has an assertive flavor, a quick burst of perky spiciness without cabbage’s strong earthbound quality. You can taste the color green even with eyes shut. If any crop can be described as “springing” from the soil, this one can. It often germinates within 24 hours and you can start snipping it with scissors in 10 days when it’s an inch and a half tall — an ideal size for garnishes and salads. Cress can be sown directly in the garden in moist soil, but it needs to grow quickly. For this, an indoor flat of soil-less seed-starting mix is best, and if you’ve been starting transplants you already have equipment at the ready. Broadcast the seeds thickly, so that they come up as a tiny lawn of slender stems, topped with miniature leaves.

One of my earliest gardening memories is growing cress in a sunny window. My sisters and I were fascinated by the green fuzz that magically appeared, the herbal scent that filled the room, the intriguing flavor. I still associate that taste with childhood, as many do. Cress has always been a great kids’ crop. My Northern Irish friend Pauline Boyce recalls the classic combination of mustard and cress, common in Europe and the British Isles. Garden cress was sown in a ratio of 2 to 1 with wild white mustard (Sinapis alba), a plant often grown for mustard seed. Pauline’s mum made successive sowings on pieces of flannel, setting them atop a kitchen cabinet for warmth until they germinated. Abroad, you can still buy live mustard and cress in “punnets” (small containers), but it now usually consists of rape (Brassica napus), a fodder crop also known as “hungry gap kale.”

There are several types of garden cress — some finely curled, some broad-leaved. John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds offers several varieties including one called “Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled.” Johnny’s Selected Seeds has “Cressida,” which sprints upward so eagerly you can almost see it growing. Many other plants also are called cress, including watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and the Barbarea species (B. verna and B. vulgaris), called winter cress or land cress to distinguish them from watercress. These survive the winter and are wild-gathered in spring for tender greens, as is meadow cress (Cardamine pratensis). Somehow, I’m not tempted by “hairy bitter cress” (Cardamine hirsuta), or by C. piscidium, known as “fish poison.” However, the entire diverse group has long been valued as antiscorbutic — a dose of vitamin C to ward off scurvy in a cold winter when not much is fresh, or after a long voyage at sea. (Some are actually called scurvy grass.) I wouldn’t disdain any, were I to wash up in distress on the shores of Tierra del Fuego and find them growing.

For a spring salad, though, I’ll take Lepidium sativum in my punnet. Given plenty of light and moisture it can be snipped until about 6 inches tall. It does fine as sprouts, eaten right after germination, but I wouldn’t use a sprouting jar. The result, writes Joy Larkcom in “Salads the Year Round,” is “an evil-smelling, stagnant and gelatinous mass.” It’s those fresh, fragrant leaves I’m after. I might also sow some in a week or two, right in the ground between rows of carrots or leeks, as a quick crop. Or in early fall, just to try novelist Annie Proulx’s recipe for chopped apple, minced cress, oil, vinegar and rose petals. Right now, if you have cress, you might stuff little handfuls of it into sandwiches and add it to deviled eggs. In each season there is a crop for everybody, and this one is for the impatient.

 

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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