Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spectacular Violet and Leafy Greens Salad, Plus a Quick Violet Vinaigrette



I suppose salad doesn't leap into most people's minds at the sight of a field turned hazy purple with a carpet of wild violets. But if you live anywhere that  these beautiful ephemerals appear each spring, a gorgeous salad plate is yours just for the picking.

Yes, the culinary appeal of woodland violets is mainly in their distinctive color and charming shape. This is probably why fans most often use them in tiny, whimsical arrangements; or crystallize the flowers of bright purple varieties to serve as pastry and dessert garnishes; or, if sufficient quantities can be obtained, turn the blooms into a violet simple syrup.


However, the flavor of violets is delicate, so they are actually suitable for garnishing both savory and sweet dishes. The texture of  the fresh petals is reminiscent of the very tenderest, mildest baby lettuce. Note that they are not merely decorative--for their size they serve up considerable amounts of  phytochemicals and vitamin C. 

All varieties are edible (and equally lovely strewn over a salad) and nearly all in America cease flowering by early June. However, do keep in mind that native violets are not the same as African violets, which are not native woodland plants and are not edible.


Be sure not to dawdle if you want to take advantage of this spring's violet crop though: In much of the country the blooms of  members of the large Violaceae family--from purple to lavender blue to yellow, to cream and white--suddenly pop up along walking paths and in vacant lots and naturalized gardens in early April.

Actually, hundreds of kinds grow in the United States, and experts say they hybridize readily, so identifying them is tricky. I tried but quickly realized this task should be left to a botanist! Not only are their colors varied, but subtle differences in throat markings and overall bloom shape have to be taken into account. Look closely, and you'll see that the petals of the pale lavender violet at right are slightly more angular than those of the deeper purple ones pictured below.


The large swath of blooms pictured below left return each year in an untended (meaning unsprayed, unfertilized) neighborhood patch on the suburban street next to mine. The ones shown at the bottom are volunteers that happily settled in among my stand of raspberry canes--a fine example of  nature's own clever "two crops, one spot" land conservation. I love them there not only for their touch of color and convenient harvesting, but because they help keep the soil on the fairly steep slope from eroding.

As you might have guessed, violets thrive here in central Maryland. So I not only use them to garnish salads but sometimes in light, quick dressings for them. 

Fresh Violet-Mixed Greens Salad with Violet Dressing

It's best to add the violets to your salad right before serving, as most varieties  will begin to wilt within a half hour.  (The yellow ones are especially fragile and will droop in just a few minutes.)  You can garnish both tossed and composed salads with equal success.

Be sure to wash fresh violets thoroughly under gently running water. Gently pat dry on paper towels. Use them abundantly to make a big splash!

Feel free to use whatever greens you prefer. The light taste of spinach, baby romaine, and oak leaf lettuce do make them an excellent choice, as they marry well with this mild oil and vinegar dressing. Plus, their leaves contrast nicely with violets on all colors.  
                                                                                                          
To streamline this homemade dressing recipe, I rely on a ready-to-use seasoned (salt and sugar added) rice vinegar. I especially like the Nakano brand version labeled "All-Natural-Original." It's zesty yet smooth and balances the olive oil nicely. The choices seasoned with garlic seem a bit too strong.

If the violet petals whisked into the dressing happen to be blue or purple, you'll soon notice that they are turning a pretty pinkish red shade. That's because the anthocyanin pigments (antioxidants also responsible for the color in vegetables like red cabbage) change in the presence of the acid in the vinegar.
                                                
1/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar (preferably Nakano original)
About 1 tablespoon chopped fresh violet petals 
1 to 2 tablespoons finely snipped fresh chives or tender green onion tops
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste

In a deep, medium-sized, non-reactive bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar, chopped violets, chives, sugar, mustard powder, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil until incorporated. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Let the vinaigrette stand a least 20 minutes and preferably an hour at room temperature before serving to allow the flavors to mingle. (If preferred, store the dressing airtight and refrigerated in a jar or non-reactive container for up to a week. Let return to room temperature before using.

At serving time, whisk, stir vigorously, or shake the dressing well before tossing with greens or drizzling over a salad. Makes 2/3 cup dressing.

 
 Perhaps you might also like my violet decorating sugar recipe here.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love this--so easy to make a fancy, really special salad without any trouble at all.

Nancy Baggett on May 2, 2013 at 12:05 PM said...

Yes, very true. A nice way to dress up a salad for a Mother's Day meal. BTW, if you happen to have them in your area, white and yellow violets look pretty, too.

 

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