Don’t forget to celebrate spring.
We are socially distanced, we are staying home, but it’s still in the air: that unmistakable sweetness. There are buds on the trees and blossoms opening. Few things feel more hopeful than new growth. That’s why it’s time to plant something. Specifically: herbs.
If you’re not (yet) a gardener, I really encourage you to try it, this year in particular. There are so many studies that show gardening is good for mind and body, reducing stress and anxiety, boosting mood, promoting better sleep, and improving cognitive function, among other delightful outcomes. (They had me at reducing stress and anxiety.) It just feels good to get your hands in the dirt.
For a cook, having a ready supply of fresh herbs is a game changer. In the summer, particularly, I put handfuls of them on and in everything, as many kinds as I can at once. At the last restaurant I reviewed Before This, Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, chef Rachel Miller served dishes influenced by Vietnam, all festooned generously with herbs. Dill was in almost everything. I relate to this.
In coming days, when we can’t get to the market and we’re low on produce, I feel like herbs might save us. Snipping some parsley, mint, or cilantro over a dish makes everything feel fresher. Look, there’s something green on the plate!
You don’t need a yard, just a sunny sill, a few pots, a bag of potting soil, and the seeds of your choice. Planting is a satisfying solo project or a good one to share, particularly with kids. In a month or two, depending on what you plant, you can have a flourishing herb garden. (Something like rosemary takes a while to grow, but a fine-leaf basil variety like Piccolino matures in 40-45 days, and the leaves are so little and cute you don’t even have to chop them.) In a week(ish), you’ll already have little baby plants poking their heads out of the soil. There’s that new growth, a little bit of hope right on the windowsill.
If you’ve got room enough for a container garden, you can also grow tomatoes, chiles, bush beans, summer squash, even beets. Just make sure to check that varieties are suitable for containers before planting. For me, I think this is going to be the year of the leaf lettuces, which grow quickly in shallow pots and can be planted every couple of weeks for a constantly renewing supply. It may not be enough to keep me in giant salads, but a little pile of tender leaves dressed in vinaigrette with a few sliced cherry tomatoes or cucumbers on the plate at least makes me feel like I’m eating my vegetables.
Anything crunchy or bright will help things feel fresher. Other things you don’t have to grow that are good to have around: Radishes, which last a long time and look pretty on the plate, whether sliced into thin rounds or moons, batons or a fine dice, or fat little wedges. Pomegranates, whose seeds confer the glamour of rubies. Snap peas, which you can cut on the bias so a few go a long way; sprinkle into salads or pasta for a bit of crunch and greenery. Toasted, salted pumpkin seeds or chopped pistachios, for similar reasons. Lemon wedges, on the side of the plate for squeezing, or zest sprinkled on top: a hit of brightness for the eye and mouth. Capers and cornichons, two icons of refrigerator jardom, for chopping and adding wherever you want sharp, briny pucker.
Here is a simple dish that incorporates a few of these and is also really flexible, so you can adjust it for what you’ve got on hand. It starts with soba, the Japanese buckwheat noodle, but you could also use whole-wheat spaghetti. You could make it with basil instead of mint, edamame from the freezer instead of sugar snaps, feta instead of ricotta salata. Add some garlicky sautéed shrimp, if you’ve got a bag in the freezer. (The frozen raw ones are good, and quick to defrost. Much of the shrimp we buy was previously frozen anyway.)
Soba is often served with a soy-based dipping sauce, but this version merges with Italian pasta al limone. It is served cool, so it’s a perfect dish for warmer weather, which I’m determined to stick around for. You be determined too, OK? We’ll eat it together, sitting close, all of us side by side on the porch. I can’t wait.
Soba al limone
8 ounces dried soba noodles
Zest of 1 lemon, divided into 2 equal portions
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup snap peas, cut on the bias into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, torn
5 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba and cook according to the directions on the package. When it’s almost done, put a colander in the sink and add a few ice cubes. Drain the soba into the colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water, stirring the noodles and ice cubes together with your hands. When the noodles are rinsed and chilled, leave them to drain in the sink along with any unmelted ice.
2. While the soba is cooking, in a large mixing bowl add half of the lemon zest plus the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Whisk until thoroughly combined. Remove any remaining ice from the soba, give the colander a good shake, and add the soba to the bowl. Add the snap peas and toss well.
3. Divide soba among 2-3 bowls. Over each serving, sprinkle mint, ricotta salata, and lemon zest to taste. Drizzle a little olive oil and grind some more pepper on top, if you wish.
Other things to try
- This grilled vegetable and rice salad with fish-sauce vinaigrette and plenty of fresh herbs from chef Zakary Pelaccio. It’s great for grilling weather, but you can also use your broiler to similar effect. You can leave out the okra; I usually do. It’s great as a side dish, but I’m also very happy eating it by itself.
- This Julia Turshen recipe that uses radishes in an unexpected and delicious way. It’s from the cookbook “Small Victories,” a great one for anyone getting (re)acquainted with the kitchen, filled with interesting lessons and variations.
- This garlicky chicken with lemon-caper-anchovy sauce from Melissa Clark. If you make it once, you’ll make it a thousand times.
Question of the day: What ingredient do you really wish you’d stocked up on a few weeks ago?
Thinking of you, good people.