Spring tonic

When I was a child, one of my favourite fairy tales was Rapunzel. Beyond the tower, beyond the hair, beyond the young man climbing to rescue the sheltered girl from a possessive foster mother, I was intrigued with the plant which Rapunzel’s birth mother had craved while pregnant and was willing to give up her unborn child in order to have access to the patch in the witch’s garden. That plant was Allium tricoccum or ramps, a kind of wild garlic.

I’ve never seen it growing here but when I lived in Ireland many years ago, I used to pick it in the hedgerows on my walk from Eyrephort strand to Clifden. It kept fresh in a glass of water and I’d clip it to add to my daily meal of nettles and mussels. (I was trying to find my voice as a writer and was living on a small island off the Connemara coast. I had no money and foraged as much as I could.) It didn’t surprise me that a woman would crave the green tonic of that plant.

This time of year I crave watercress. For some years I used to gather it in several places around Pender Harbour. But the problem was, I was kind of suspicious about the conditions upsteam from where the cress grew — in one instance, a shallow lake favoured by beavers; in another, the community landfill. But our friends Joe and Solveigh grow it in a pool in their garden and the other night they sent us home with a bag of it. I love its peppery flavour, so bracing and so delicious. Every year I tell myself I need to work out a way to grow watercress here but every year it seems that I get swamped with other chores.

Tonight we had a fillet of local halibut to put on the barbeque and I put some of the watercress in a large bowl with about the same amount of a lovely mesclun I’m growing this year. I have several kinds — one with red mustard, two kinds of kale, and other spicy greens. This one, though, is more nutty: it contains arugula, a few other greens that are mildly flavoured, and little stalks of onion. I sliced about two cups of strawberries into the bowl — not local, not yet, but they were on sale in our local market and have good flavour, unlike the woody berries that we get in winter. And then I made a dressing, inspired by one in an old Bon Appetit magazine but altered enough that I think I claim it as my own. I roasted a head of garlic, brushed with a little olive oil. (I was baking bread today so had the oven on anyway.) Once it had cooled, I peeled the cloves and put them in the blender and pureed them. I added two tablespoons of honey (blueberry blossom honey from the North), two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (from a bottle our friend Jeffrey made from his apples in Powell River), a squeeze of fresh lemon, two tablespoons of apple butter (made from apples bought in Spences Bridge in late August), and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Once that had been mixed well in the blender, I slowly added about 1/2 cup of olive oil. I used perhaps three tablespoons of this delicious emulsion on the salad, tossed it gently, and then scattered a small handful of hemp seeds on top.

The smoky fish, tangy greens, strawberries, earthy hemp seeds, dressing so deeply flavourful that I’m glad I made enough for several more salads: spring tonic!