Sat, May 13, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Summer spinach

Well suited to hot humid climates, tetragon is an excellent green veg to have on hand when other leaf veg is not easily available

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

Tetragon blanched for just a few seconds makes a splendid bed for a variety of meat dishes.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

With the hot weather arriving, the supply of nice, locally grown leaf vegetables is shrinking fast. Spinach has all but disappeared from the market stalls, and many other leafy vegetables have given in to summer’s mix of heat and humidity. This is not to say that they are not to be had, but much of what is available is either imported or sustained by a mix of powerful chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which do not make for an attractive addition to your diet.

As the weather heats up, it is time to look to native species that have adapted to the tropics much better than the main commercial species that fill the vegetable drawer in our refrigerator. Their domination is largely due to familiarity and easy year-round availability, but as is becoming increasingly evident from various studies and newspaper reports about excessive levels of various chemical residues, this convenience comes at a significant cost to both our health and the environment.

I have written about some local “foraged” vegetables in past columns, including bird’s nest fern (山蘇) and fiddle-neck fern (過貓), both widely used in Taiwan’s Aboriginal cuisine and gradually finding their way into the mainstream. Both these vegetables can be off putting due to their unusual appearance, and it must be said that knowledge about how best to select and prepare these greens is essential to making a tasty meal from them. As “foraged” vegetables, the knowledge of the stall owner is also important, as finding the best quality ferns is not always easy. I had thought myself quite adept at picking out good quality fiddle-neck ferns, until I visited a small restaurant in the tiny town of Tafu (大富) in Hualien’s Guangfu township (光復), were the owner procured the most tender shoots of the fern foraged from the vast forest area of Danong Dafu (大農大富). This was a revelation as to how delicious this vegetable could be, offering amazingly tasty results with almost no seasoning at all.

Another “foraged” vegetable that I have recently come across is tetragonia tetragonioides, also called tetragon, New Zealand spinach, sea spinach, Warrigal greens, Botany Bay spinach and Cook’s cabbage. As it is not actually a type of spinach at all, nor for that matter is it a cabbage, we’ll call it tetragon for clarity. As some of its alternative names suggest, Tetragon is closely associated with the voyages of Captain James Cook’s to the antipodes. At the time it was an invaluable aid in preventing scurvy among Cook’s long suffering crew, and the seeds were brought back to England by the expedition’s botanist Joseph Banks. Tetragon is now grown around the world, though it has yet to become a culinary staple.

It is sometimes also referred to, along with other hot weather greens like Malabar spinach (皇宮菜), as “summer spinach” due to its ability to thrive in hot weather. It’s failure to capture the imagination of cooks might be due partly to its appearance, as while its coarse, fat leaves and stiff stem don’t look unattractive, they don’t look particularly appetizing either. But appearances can be deceptive, and tetragon is remarkably tasty, and while not so delicate as young spinach, in some ways it is superior in both taste and texture.

Tetragon is a rich source of Vitamins A and C, is low in calories and is said to contribute to intestinal regularity. It can be eaten raw, though some sources warn against this due to its high oxalic acid content. That said, others laud the slight briny flavor and crunch of young shoots and suggest using it in salads. Sensitivity to oxalic acid varies between individuals, so a little taste test is probably the best way to approach the issue. Or simply blanch the leaves for 30 seconds in boiling water, which solves the problem, and for my tastes, makes it much more appealing to eat. Rapidity is the key, as cooking the leaves too long results in a disgusting khaki mush.

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