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.

Spring Moussaka, Two Ways

a baking dish of spring moussakaIt’s always a gamble, planting seeds in late fall in hopes of having a harvest in early spring. In the middle of last August, I sowed three long rows of Scarlet Nantes and White Satin carrots. By September, they were growing well; that is, until the deer came along and chomped them to the ground. After that, I kept them out of sight under fabric row cover.

over-wintered carrots in spring

over-wintered carrots in spring

And when the top few inches of soil finally froze, I spread a layer of straw over them several inches deep.

Timing the straw-spreading is tricky. Too early, and the ground doesn’t freeze until deep winter, creating a cozy home with a well-stocked pantry for voles and mice. Spread it too late, and you wind up with carrot-sicles that turn to mush in the spring thaw.

Last week, when the snow was finally off the garden, I peeked under the straw; this year I got lucky. There they were, all three rows of frost-sweetened carrots, nary a one nibbled by rodents. In another part of the garden, the parsnips, too, have been spared this year, and are super-sweet and tender. As soon as they begin to sprout they’ll grow woody, so now is the time to eat them. Under a glass-windowed cold frame, the radicchio and endive I cut to the ground last autumn, are sending up fresh growth from their roots and will be ready to harvest in late April or early May.

In my unheated greenhouse the mâche and kale that have been providing us with salads all winter are starting to bloom, to the delight of hungry honey bees, and will soon go to seed. I’ve begun to harvest the cold-loving greens I seeded inside in January and planted outside in February, along with the radishes and pea shoots I direct-seeded two months ago. Here and there, volunteers are sprouting up – parsley and fennel, lettuce and poppies, red shiso and dill.

In the greenhouse, too, the perennials, like dandelion greens, rhubarb, Red Venture celery, chives, and chervil, that took a little time off during the coldest weather, are now are big enough to pick. At this time of year we can also harvest small heads of cauliflower and broccoli, planted as sturdy small plants in September. These die back almost to their roots in winter, and miraculously reappear as soon as we get more than ten hours of light a day.

purple cauliflower in early spring

purple cauliflower, grown in an unheated greenhouse over the winter

Looking for a way to use up my carrot and parsnip harvest, I found a recipe in Leanne Kitchen’s beautiful cookbook, Turkey: More than 100 Recipes with Tales from the Road, for a moussaka made with veal and rich in roasted carrots. Because I have a mixed crew to feed in my house, some vegetarians, some carnivores, I decided to riff on Kitchen’s recipe, making two baking dishes, one with fresh purple cauliflower instead of meat, and another in which locally raised grass-fed beef replaced the veal. And because I had parsnips to work with as well as carrots, I used both.

The results were delicious – the creamy layer of lemon-scented béchamel sauce is a perfect foil for the tomato and roasted vegetable enriched bottom layer. Too, this dish, though it takes some time to put together and is probably best saved for a weekend project, is not only crammed with the vegetables we’re all supposed to be eating more of, but is also economical to make. The pound of ground beef in the meat version will feed six people easily, and cauliflower, even if it isn’t locally grown, is abundant and inexpensive at this time of year.

If you don’t want to make both versions, feel free to cut the béchamel and roasted vegetable recipes in half, and use whichever base, meat or cauliflower, you prefer.

Two Spring Moussakas

  • Lemon Béchamel Sauce (recipe below)
  • Roasted Carrots and Parsnips (recipe below)

    spring moussaka

    spring moussaka

  • Meat Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • Cauliflower Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • olive oil for the bottom of the baking pans

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use about 1 tablespoon of oil to grease the bottoms and sides of two baking dishes (anything approximating a 13 inch oval or an 8×11 inch rectangular dish will work).

Pour the meat base into one dish and the cauliflower base into the other dish. Spread them out evenly. Sprinkle half of the roasted vegetables over the meat base and the other half of the roasted vegetables over the cauliflower base. Spread half the béchamel over the meat and roasted vegetables and the other half of the béchamel over the cauliflower and roasted vegetables.

Place both dishes in the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, turning at least once so the tops brown evenly. The moussakas are done when they are bubbling and browned in spots here and there on top. Serve hot. This can also be reheated the next day in a low oven or microwave.

Each moussaka serves 4-6 people.

Lemon Béchamel Sauce

  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 7 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • grated rind of one large lemon or 1½ small lemons (use organic if possible and wash well before grating)
  • 4 egg yolks, whisked together lightly in a bowl
  • several gratings of fresh nutmeg or 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the milk either in a microwave or on the stovetop until quite warm. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan. When the butter has melted, whisk in the flour. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, stirring often.

Whisk in the milk about 1 cup at a time, whisking until the mixture is smooth after each addition. Continue heating over medium-low heat, stirring almost constantly, being careful not to burn the bottom of the pot. Alternate between a wooden spoon that scrapes the mixture from the bottom (where it will thicken more quickly) and a whisk, to smooth the sauce. When the mixture has thickened and is just beginning to simmer a little, remove from the heat and whisk well to smooth.

Temper the yolks by pouring about 2 cups of the hot sauce into them, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the pot, whisking constantly. Whisk in the lemon rind, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Cover with a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper placed right on the surface of the sauce to keep it from forming a skin. Set aside while preparing the rest of the moussaka.

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips:

  • 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the carrots on one sheet tray and the parsnips on another. Divide the olive oil between the two trays, strip the leaves from the sprigs of thyme and divide between the trays and sprinkle both with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables to coat well with oil, thyme and salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes stirring the vegetables and turning the trays once or twice so they cook evenly. When the vegetables are softened and browned here and there, remove from the oven and set aside.

Meat Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat and mixing it with the onions and garlic. When still a little pink but mostly cooked, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

Cauliflower Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small head or 1/2 large head cauliflower, washed and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the cauliflower and cook, mixing it with the onions and garlic. When the cauliflower is beginning to soften, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

Crunchy Quinoa Chicken

This recipe is based on one in Maricel E. Presilla’s great cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina. 

Crunchy Quinoa-dipped Fried Chicken Fingers with a spicy soy sauce based dip

Crunchy Quinoa-dipped Fried Chicken Fingers with a spicy soy sauce based dip

It’s an interesting use of quinoa – as the crust on fried chicken fingers. They are delicious,especially with the dipping sauce, and they stay crisp for a long time.

I tried two ways of cooking the chicken – frying it in hot oil, as well as baking it in a hot oven on a well-oiled sheet tray. I prefered the traditionally fried chicken, but baking did work as well; just be sure to flip the chicken halfway through cooking so it browns on both sides. Continue reading