Spring. That lovely time of year when we indulge our desperation to rip anything green from the earth and eat it. The New York Times food writer Melissa Clark knows that desire all too well and is happy to provide home cooks with inspiration for springtime cooking. She talks with Managing Producer Sally Swift about and shares the recipes for three wonderful dishes: Green-Poached Eggs with Spinach and Chives, Crushed New Potatoes and Pea Salad with Mustard Seed Dressing, and Shaved Zucchini and Avocado Salad with Green Goddess Dressing. They are included in Clark’s new book, Favorite Recipes from Melissa Clark’s Kitchen.
Sally Swift: I want to talk to you about spring eating and cooking. In your new book, I was surprised that you talked about a period in your life when you did not eat salads. What was going on during that period?
Melissa Clark: That was a really dark period. That was in the height of the fat phobia days when we were all brainwashed into thinking that fat was bad for you. I've come full circle on that as you know – totally 180 degrees. But, I really believed it. I was afraid to use too much fat in my salad dressing, so I would use nonfat yogurt and nonfat buttermilk, all those horrible things. I would take salad out of the bag – I feel like now you can buy really nice salad out of the bag, but this was over 10 years ago – and it was all kind of wilted. You know when you used to buy mesclun when it first hit the scene? All that red leaf lettuce has a shorter shelf life than the green; it would turn black and slimy. So, after dutifully munching my way through bad salads with nonfat dressings I decided I was not going to do it anymore; I was done with it.
I started eating vegetables in other ways that I could find pleasure with. This was an important moment because it was saying ‘no’ to something that was supposed to be good for me but didn't make me happy, and saying ‘yes’ to a whole other category of vegetables. Luckily, I did come back around to salads but just very different kinds of salads.
Photo: Amy Dickerson
SS: One one of the things I want to talk to you about is Green Goddess Dressing, which is exactly the opposite.
MC: Which is how you should eat your salads.
SS: I think so too. How do you make your Green Goddess?
MC: Green Goddess is green from all the herbs that you put into it. And it's great because you can use any herbs that you have. I think the traditional recipe has watercress and scallions, and tarragon is a big flavor component – you know, very licorice-y. But I just use whatever I have. If I have cilantro of parsley sitting around, or basil is wonderful. And then you want a creamy base. So, you have your bright fresh herbs and the richness of the creamy base, which can be buttermilk, sour cream, mayonnaise or a combination of all of that. Then my favorite part is mashed up anchovies, just to give it that super salty, briny kind of tang. You can do it in a bowl with a whisk if you want to chop up the herbs. But I just throw everything in the blender and it's done in about 20 seconds for it to chop up everything. It turns bright green and it's so flavorful. You can use it on strong, intense lettuces like arugula, or you can use it on mild ones too – it works both ways. It'll bring out the sweetness of a mild lettuce, but it'll also stand up to an assertive lettuce. I find it to be very multipurpose. [Ed. note: see Clark's recipe for Shaved Zucchini and Avocado Salad with Green Goddess Dressing.]
SS: It's very festive too and such a great thing to do in the spring when you have all these fresh herbs, and your chives are still not too onion-y. I also want to hear more about extending the life of a salad dressing, and using it in different areas like on potatoes
MC: Potato salads are great because potatoes are so accepting of all flavors. They're earthy but they're kind of neutral. I do have a thing about potato salad that I feel very strongly about, and that is that you need to have the potatoes warm before you add the dressing. I boil them, and the second they are cooled enough to touch I throw them into a bowl and toss them wildly. For this reason, you always have to have your dressing finished by the time your potatoes are done boiling. Why that's important is because warm potatoes absorb dressing more readily than cold potatoes. Think of anything warm; the pores are open and it can accept a lot of flavors. Now think of a cold potato; it's kind of tight, so it's not going to take in the dressing as readily. And then let it cool, and you can serve it cold. A cold potato salad is a wonderful thing. You can make it ahead and stick it in the fridge. Take it out even two days later, and it gets better as it sets.
SS: You have a recipe for Crushed New Potatoes and Pea Salad with Mustand Seed Dressing. Talk us through that.
MC: That one is so simple. You start with your boiled potatoes. I love to use yogurt in dressings because it gives creaminess but it also has tang. You need a nice, bright tangy dressing especially with potatoes, which need the acidity. And I use mustard seed with that. You can use black or brown mustard seeds, but I wouldn't use the yellow ones because they are super strong. Put them in a dry pan, they start popping like popcorn and they smell great, While they're still warm is when you mix them into the yogurt, and then you mix them with your potatoes, which are also still warm.
There is a special moment in spring where the the new peas are out. It’s actually more like early summer; we think it's spring, but it’s early summer – especially this year. And this is also when the new potatoes are coming in. New potatoes are very different from storage potatoes. They have thinner, more delicate skins and the flesh is nutty. I wish people would get as excited about them as they do when the tomatoes first come up because they're really different and special. There’s a time when the peas and the new potatoes overlap, and you can buy them both together.
And when you cook the potatoes, what's so great about the peas is you just throw them in the same water; you don't have to cook them separately. You shell your peas, throw them into the same water with your potatoes during the last two or three minutes, and then drain everything together. They add color, they add sweetness, and they're easy to incorporate. You can also use frozen peas if that's all you've got because those are pretty good.
SS: They are delicious. And what a great spring dish that is. You know the Scandinavians do all those potato dishes for a reason.
MC: Because they’re delicious!
Favorite Recipes from Melissa Clark's Kitchen by Melissa Clark
SS: That's exactly right. What do you do around eggs in the spring?
MC: We don't think of eggs as being seasonal, but they used to be seasonal. It used to be that chickens didn't lay over the winter; they started laying in the spring again. Chickens react to the light, which I've just learned about. And in modern farming we use electric light, so the chickens keep laying all year long. But, in spring you have people that celebrate with eggs, and with all the new herbs and greens coming up. I love to do a dish with a ton of greens like spinach or sorrel, which is a sour, tangy springtime herb that you can sometimes find in supermarkets and the farmers market.
SS: It’s also easy to grow.
MC: Yes, it’s like a weed. I have it in a little planter at my deck. You could also use mustard greens or kale. You want to soften whatever green you have in lots of butter with leeks or onions or scallions – whatever you've got for an onion-y component. You cook it until it gets super soft. Then what I do is I think of it almost like a green shakshuka, which is an Israeli dish where you cook eggs in tomato sauce, but I'm cooking the eggs instead in this beautiful green herb sauce. [Ed note: see Clark's recipe for Green-Poached Eggs with Spinach and Chives.]
SS: That's smart.
MC: You have your spinach and herbs in the pan, and it's all soft and buttery. Take your eggs and crack them right into this soft hot spinach and they set in this buttery mix. Cover the pan over a low heat. In about two or three minutes the eggs will set. When you open it up you have runny egg yolks that create a sauce all over the spinach. It's like the best creamed spinach you've ever had. You can eat it for supper; it becomes a meal because of the protein of the eggs, and you can put cheese in it too if you want.
SS: That is a great great idea. It’s like green eggs and no ham.
MC: That's exactly right.
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Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.