Sunday, 27 January 2013

Sonchus oleraceus - Common sowthistle (Ζωχος - Tσοχος)

With money scarce, and many commitments to be met with the meagre amounts we make in a high-needs world, we all like to get something for free. This morning, as soon as I saw a break in the rainy weather, I got into the garden to harvest enough greens to last us throughout the week in different meals. Apart from a hearty-looking red cabbage, I found some chickweed, borage, a few sprigs of wild carrot weed and plenty of tender leafy Sonchus oleraceus, otherwise known as the common sowthistle (ζωχος or τσοχος in Greek).

An overgrown sowthistle
Sowthistle is the commonest wild-growing edible green that you will find in almost all places around the world which receive at least a little sunlight and plenty of rain. It even grows in lawns, and in some countries, it's considered an invasive species (I'd hate to think how they control it - foragers, beware). It's easy to confuse it with dandelion, hawskbeard and hawkweed, and this should not be surprising (or worrying), since all these plants are highly related, belonging to the same tribe, the Chicorieae, which is where we get the word 'chicory' from.  I am pretty sure my harvest is all sowthistle, because I have it growing in all stages of maturity in my garden, which helps in its identification.

Sonchus oleraceus had a variety of medicinal uses in ancient Greece. Various parts of the plant were used to stimulate menstrual flow, alter liver function, stimulate fluid elimination, stall defecation and combat cancer, warts, inflammation and fever.

Sowthistle is a very bland but sweet-tasting green which can be used in a variety of ways by Greeks all over the country: boiled and dressed with olive oil, braised and cooked lightly in olive oil, finely chopped and added to pies. It's used in the same way as spinach. Generally speaking, we don't eat it raw - it is uninteresting and may be bitter in this way. I've seen it used rather like lettuce in Western vegetarian recipes. Because sowthistle is not cultivated and grows in the wild, blanching the leaves is highly recemmended because it gets rid of any chance contamination (eg animals may have peed on it). 

But if you appreciate cooking in the Greek style, you will cook sowthistle and not eat it raw. After clearing the roots of dirt and grit, you then wash your greens well. The next thing I do with any greens that I buy or forage in the wild is to set a large pot of water to boil. When the water starts boiling, I place all the greens in, pushing them down and turning them with a ladle. The water will stop boiling from the addition of cold leaves; when it starts boiling again, I drain away all the water and rinse the greens one more time. This clears away any dirt that you might have missed, and any other contaminants, which you can see resting in the water. Once you've done that, you are ready to use your sowthislte. 

My favorite way to eat sowthistle is to boil it till soft, by placing it in the pot again, poring water into the pot over the greens and letting the pot boil again, till the roots are tender. I don't stir the pot much so that teh leaves don't disintegrate. You will notice how nice your kitchen is smelling as the greens boil. The smell of sowthistle in particular reminds me of my mother's kitchen because sowthistle was a very common green New Zealand and she cooked it often. We would have boiled potatoes and broad beans with it. All the greens, beans and potatoes would be dressed with olive oil, lemon and salt. In other islands like Rhodes, an accompaniment called sivrasi is a must for all boiled horta.

I often hear it said that greens lose their nutrient value when they are cooked intensively, but there cannot be very much truth in this, since Cretans have always cooked their greens in this way and the studies of their longevity rates during times of poverty and little material wealth are due to their eating greens in this way.

An added bonus of cooking Chicorieae is that the water in which they boiled makes an extremely refreshing tes, hot or cold. Remove the greens from the pot and place in a serving vessel. Then strain the liquid in the pot and pour into a bottle. This tea will keep two days in the fridge. It's great with a sprig of mint and/or a slice of lemon.

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