Part of this recipe is applicable to any time of year, in any part of the world you live, and it’s great to eat for any meal. The other part of this recipe involves a specific ingredient that’s not conventionally harvested, and only exists at a specific time in a plant’s life cycle. Combined, the earthy, savory and hearty element (chickpea stew) complements the youthful, bouncy and springlike element (flowering greens) for a fully satisfying, complete meal. Yes, a meal can be as simple as that.
I like to buy one exciting, cool, maybe expensive, or rare ingredient at a time, and keep a handy stock of basics at home with which to round it out. It’s an easy routine to make everyday cooking more fun and diverse, without being too overwhelming. This week it was a bunch of flowering kale. There are numerous types of edible leafy greens and herbs that flower at this point of the year — my indoor succulent plants are blooming right now, too. And, well, you may notice the fragrant trees outside. May flowers have certainly appeared. This annual bouquet is not typically thought of as a food lovers’ paradise, and scrupulous gardeners will trim flowers from plants to keep them focused on growing leaves and fruits, usually. Maybe you’ve snipped off the buds of your overwintered kale, broccoli, or chives in the home garden, and wondered if they could be eaten. In short, yes, and it seems increasingly the fashion to. But be wary of those thick stems.
The problem with flowering leafy greens is that although the blossoms are light and delicate, the stems and leaves have usually grown tough and fibrous by this stage, not very palatable. You know the old Lady Macbeth edict to “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent beneath it”? That’s kind of what flowering kale is like. Yet it’s one of the most common types of flowering greens I’ve found available the last couple weeks from farmers at the Greenmarkets. They look pretty enough to put in a vase, but they’re also edible and nutritious. You just have to soften the stems enough.
Grilling seemed the perfect way to do this. Roasting over high heat with a coating of olive oil will work, too. You can also trim off most of the stem, leaving only the more delicate tips before the flowers, and keeping most of the leaves along the way. But I kind of like the rough stems once they get a nice char, and are cut just enough to keep the pieces small and bite-size.
And I like the addition of some smokiness to a chickpea and tomato stew. The toasty, crusty, frizzled blossoms will not only enhance the flavor of this warm, rustic dish but also its texture and overall appearance. My simple chickpea stew required few ingredients and little effort, but it improves when you give it plenty of time to simmer. So if you have the patience, pop open a can of whole, peeled tomatoes and rinse some chickpeas thoroughly if using canned ones, too (dried chickpeas take a really long time to become tender, fair warning). Chop up a little onion and garlic, splash in some white wine, and sip the rest of the bottle while you listen to this savory pot bubble ever so slightly a while. The greens can be grilled at the last few minutes of this; I broke out a grill pan in lieu of an outdoor space with a hibachi. A squeeze of lemon to finish it off with — or not — and this simple, rustic meal is ready. Your flower vases can sit this round out.
Chickpea Stew with Grilled Flowering Greens
(makes 3-4 servings)
1 bunch flowering kale, trimmed of the toughest ends of the stem and chopped to 2″ long pieces
2 8 oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed thoroughly and drained (or substitute 2 cups dried, soaked and fully cooked chickpeas)
1 8 oz can whole, peeled plum tomatoes and its juice, lightly crushed by hand (or substitute with 2-3 fresh plum tomatoes, chopped)
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 bay leaf
salt and black pepper to taste
extra-virgin olive oil
squeeze of fresh lemon juice (optional)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or pot with a lid. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, paprika and bay leaf and stir another minute until fragrant. Add the crushed tomatoes and bring to a bubble (increasing heat to medium-high). Add the chickpeas, and once bubbling again, the white wine and let boil for about a minute. Reduce heat to a simmer, add the water, and cover. Let cook for as little as 20 minutes or as long as 1 hour. To reduce the liquid, remove cover to reach desired consistency. Or add more water if it’s becoming too dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste, remove the bay leaf, and add the optional squeeze of fresh lemon to taste.
Heat a grill pan over high. Toss the trimmed flowering greens with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Once the pan is very hot, arrange the greens evenly across the pan. Let sit for a minute or so, then flip to brown the opposite side. Toss around a bit to cook evenly for a couple more minutes. Taste the stems to see if they’ve cooked enough to your liking. Top the chickpea stew with the grilled flowering greens for serving.
(for 3-4 servings)
2 cans chickpeas (at $1.49 each): $3.00
8 oz. plum tomatoes (at $3.99 large can): $2.00
1 bunch flowering kale: $3.00
1/2 onion: $0.25
3 cloves garlic: $0.10
salt, pepper, olive oil, paprika, bay leaf: $0.50
fresh lemon: $0.35
Three brownie points: Super good for you and your budget, too. You’ll be getting your antioxidants from the leaves and blossoms attached to that bunch of flowering greens, as well as some fiber from the stems. There’s much more fiber as well as protein in the chickpeas, which will fill you up just like a good starch. When using canned chickpeas and tomatoes both, you’ll want to keep your salt addition super low, and the dish will barely need any of it. These canned foods come with lots of sodium, so look for low-sodium varieties if you can.
Seven maple leaves: Very low on the carbon footprint thanks to its being an all plant-based meal. But also, if you or the farmer has been trimming its crops this spring, the rough, flowery stuff is a byproduct of this process. All the better to eat up those garden scraps when they’re as nutritious and appealing as these flowering greens.