Many of us who grow food gardens also grow for extraordinary flavor in our food. Some herbs provide extra zing or unexpected flavor, and some foods do that as well. Other foods just provide texture and nutrition, depending on spices for flavor.
One flavorful leafy vegetable is sorrel. Known botanically as Rumex acetosa, it’s native to grasslands throughout Europe and in parts of Central Asia. Each country in which it’s native and those where it has been introduced (such as in Southeast Asia and America) have a different name for it. In America, some call it spinach dock because of the slightly savoyed appearance of the leaves, or narrow-leaved dock. It is perennial, with a fairly long tap root.
The flavor is said to be “sour” by some, lemony by others. It adds flavor interest to otherwise bland salads. For culinary purposes, it’s also pureed and used in soups, and often used in stews and “pies” such as Greek spanakopita. There is a more ornamental variety available, with red veins, but its flavor pales in comparison with garden sorrel. French sorrel has smaller leaves than garden sorrel, but its flavor is even more intense.
Sorrel grows as a rosette of leaves, then sends up a flower stalk in early summer, with reddish flowers. The lemony flavor is due to oxalic acid, which may be mildly toxic to some folks.
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Another flavor enhancer, especially of salads, is land cress. Many of you know that watercress has some zing to its flavor; land cresses do, too. Land cresses such as Upland, Crinkled and Rishad, or Garden, are far easier to grow than watercress, but have a similarly spicy flavor, nutritionally loaded with vitamins A, C and K, plus minerals.
Cress, picked young, is often used in sandwiches, soups and salads. Leafy cress grows to less than 12 inches in height before bolting to flower in our area. Arugula, or rocket, is another salad flavor enhancer.
Those of us who love cilantro really love it, while many others with different taste physiology abhor it. It is a cool-weather plant, bolting to flower and seed in hot weather. The seeds are useful as spices known as coriander. Thus cilantro is sometimes known as green coriander.
In Southeast Asia, they have no shortage of hot weather, but they use cilantro roots in many of their foods. In Mexico they often use culantro (completely different plant) in its place, or in some areas the “weedy” Pepicha. Pepicha is a delicious hot-weather substitute for cilantro, but frankly it’s the hardest seed I’ve ever tried to germinate. Richters in Canada and Johnny’s Selected Seeds in U.S. sell seeds (Johnny’s spells it Pipicha) that look like wimpy dandelion seeds. Last year I grew a few plants, but this year I haven’t been able to germinate a seed. When I find the secret, I’ll share it with you.
Another substitute for cilantro is quillquiña, also known as killi. It has an upright growth to about a meter or yard, and is said to taste like a combination of arugula, rue and cilantro. In my opinion, it’s not as delicious as Pepicha.
Chopped Sweet Cicely leaves impart a mild anise flavor to fruit salads. Another flavor enhancer is fennel leaves. They’re especially good with fish. You could use either the herb fennel or the leaves of the vegetable (bulbing) fennel.
There are more flavor enhancers we can grow, but I’ll cover those in another column.
Send gardening questions to email@example.com or Gardening, the Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.