We are in the season called the Hunger Gap.
This is the time of year when you can feel that spring is right around the corner, when birds start singing before you wake up and buds appear on the tips of bare branches. Nowadays we think of this as a hopeful time of year–we probably won’t have to shovel snow again this season, our favorite tender plants made it through the winter, we can start pulling out those short-sleeved shirts we packed away last fall. But historically this was the hardest time of year, when the food stores set aside in the fall began to dwindle, and before the early crops appeared in the warmth of April or May.
If you are a year-round gardener or farmers market shopper, then you know about the Hunger Gap. You pounce hungrily on any leafy green in sight; you think you see asparagus growing out of the corner of your eye, and when you turn…it’s gone. The markets are full of root vegetables and cabbages, and even winter squash are beginning to go the way of the dodo.
But in the midst of the dreary, cold gray of winter, the signs of spring are more than just a fantasy for those who know where to look. May I introduce you to Stellaria media, often known by its less-appealing name: chickweed.
Chickweed is one of those plants that most of us don’t realize we know just from walking around town. It crops up in mulched city beds and covers forest clearings in a swathe of tiny green leaves, often found in close proximity to its bosom friend, miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). Chickweed is like nature’s apology for winter; it arrives early in the spring, when the weather is still cold, and is a superior source of vitamins, including A, D, B, and C, iron, calcium, and several other trace minerals. Its one of the easier plants to identify, with its tiny ‘mohawk’ row of hairs along the stem.
I’ve read that cooked chickweed tastes like spinach, but I’ve never tried it that way. I prefer it in its purest form: raw, with its refreshing, ‘green’ flavor that adds tenderness to any salad. I personally think it tastes best when picked seconds ago, in a sun-dappled forest meadow, with the rushing sounds of a snowmelt river nearby, but it still does well when purchased from a farmer and eaten indoors, as I did this weekend.
After several weeks of roasted vegetables, hot soups, and hearty bean dishes, I was craving something fresh and light and, dare I say, springy. This salad certainly hit the spot, and when I went to bed that night, asparagus stalks and fiddleheads danced through my dreams.
I like my salads to have bite, so I mixed the mild chickweed with an equal part arugula. I was excited to find this dressing recipe, which I changed slightly, because it uses one of my favorite homemade condiments: preserved lemons! You can also make this dressing with lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt to taste, but it won’t have the same fermented tang preserved lemons give.
1 large handful stellaria + 1 large handful arugula (enough to make 4 servings)
1 small, slightly underripe pear, diced
Blue cheese crumbles for topping
Lemon Poppyseed Dressing (adapted from Pickle Me Too)
2/3 C olive oil
1/3 C honey
3/4 of a preserved lemon, peel and flesh, chopped
1 small shallot, chopped
2 T preserved lemon brine
1 T poppyseeds
1 t spicy mustard
Place all dressing ingredients in a blender and combine. Season to taste (your brine may be of a different salinity from mine).