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The Culinary Potential of Bolting Vegetables


Did your garden bolt early this year? Maybe you didn’t even notice, because of how jagged and asymmetrical the passage of time has been since spring. Maybe you even spent a period in denial, thinking, This must just be what my cilantro, and lettuce, and parsley did last summer: briefly leaf in a friendly vegetative way, then sprint in suicidal mania toward a flowering death. That’s what happened to me, anyway. The start of July was salad days for herbs and the hardier head lettuces, but after a week or so of regular leafy growth the cilantro gave way cilantro seeds, the frilled lettuce to lanky tan stalks with blanched, droopy leaves that fluttered about like damp stockings.

If you garden, you’ve seen how a plant mutates when it bolts. Its leaves get long and scrawny. Where there were tender palms now there are tough stems, clusters of determined flowers and seeds. Lettuce and herbs taste more intense after they’ve bolted: strong, often bitter. This summer, as we near the end of a disastrous year, I’ve found this transformation peculiarly resonant. When a plant bolts early, it’s because it senses that its survival is being threatened. Heat, nutrient deficiency, or some other stressor is upon it. It senses that the end is drawing near, and so it puts its energy toward reproducing. The resources that the plant was devoting to growing leaves are reallocated for growing flowers; when the flowers are pollinated, they produce seeds, from which new plants can one day grow. The bitterness of a flowering plant is a defense mechanism, designed to ward off anything that might try to eat it during these reproductive assignations. The plant is trying to stay alive just long enough to insure its future. In other words, bolting is the crucial link between this plant and the next.

Do you see what I mean? Maybe out of admiration for this rational response to impending doom, I’ve always felt fondly toward bolting plants. I especially love the plump, green pearls produced by cilantro plants. (I learned a few weeks ago that my friend Samin Nosrat does, too.) The flavor of green coriander is a perfect complement to all the vegetables in season when it starts to bolt, even if the bolting happens earlier than expected. I generally pound up a fresh clove of garlic (also harvested in July and August) with salt, then add a little handful of cilantro seeds to it, and once it’s all a redolent green paste, add it directly to any pan of roasted or grilled eggplant, or peppers, or spoon it over the top of a tomato tart or tian, or into ratatouille. Maybe the best and weirdest use I’ve ever found for green cilantro seeds is in a recipe I wrote for lima beans and eggplant a la creme, for my book “Something Old, Something New.” It sounds crazy but it’s delicious, and tastes like the simple luxury of a summer evening. Lately, I’ve been pounding green coriander with garlic and salt, plus the bolted leaves and stems of parsley, plus basil seeds. I then cover the mossy green mixture in olive oil and use it wherever I can think to. I’ve added some chopped up preserved lemon and ground cumin to turn it into the North African herb paste chermoula, which makes a magnificent marinade for shrimp or fish, or for spooning over couscous or rice, or a boiled or scrambled egg or two. I added a chopped green chili to a batch and stirred it into yogurt for a creamy drizzling sauce, and mixed some of the paste with mayonnaise for B.L.T.s—but really B.P.Ts, with parsley instead of lettuce, because the lettuce had bolted. Speaking of pastes, if you haven’t made pesto using the seeds and flowers of basil, plucked obsessively off your bolting basil plants, as you will them to go on leafing for another day, now is the time: pesto made with basil seeds and blossoms is great. It’s pesto in all its summer headiness.

Bolting lettuce is exasperating. Historically I’ve pulled it up from my garden, composted it, and reseeded the patch. But in this summer’s raw, tender moment, I thought of dishes like Edna Lewis’s lamb’s-quarters, boiled in dry-cured pork stock, and of Chinese sautéed pea tips, and resolved to cook mine. I chopped and braised my bolted lettuce, stems, leaves, and all, first following Lewis’s lead and adding pork—though I used bacon fat, and Lewis was adamant that bitter greens are best cooked with only the lean—and a second time following the guidance of Chinese pea-tip recipes that call for sesame oil. In both cases the result was entirely unlettucelike, but very good, as long as I was willing to let it be something else. There was bitterness, and also sweetness, and the unmistakable improvement of flavorful fat.

I’ll do it again. My garden continues to flower, unchecked. I find its insistence on survival inspiring, and hope it understands that I can only express my admiration and gratitude by cooking all that it produces.

Green Coriander Paste

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. green coriander seeds
  • A handful of bolted basil leaves
  • 1 cup parsley leaves or ½ cup parsley stems, chopped
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh chili, such as jalapeño (optional)

Directions

1. Add all ingredients to a mortar and pestle and pound into a coarse paste. (The food processor works, too.)

2. For a dolloping oil, add a quarter cup or more of good olive oil. Add the paste to mayonnaise, or to softened butter, or use it straight as a marinade for fish.

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