We are talking quietly together, she and I, as we search for violet leaves in the back yard, where I have let wildflowers fill the grassless spaces. The air is at that point where it is almost too cold to be out here, but not quite. The rain is putting diamonds in our hair.
“You can pick some of the violet flowers, too,” I say. “They’ll add a bit of sweetness.” Then, as an afterthought, “Leave the purple ones, so they can make more. The white ones seem to be multiplying faster.”
I don’t have to tell her not to pick the yellow violets, which are inedible—one, because she knows that already and, two, because there is not a yellow violet in sight.
Last week, she’d come out here alone, and I could see her through the new white kitchen storm door which, along with its new chocolate front-door cousin had (to my great delight!) helped cut our heat and electric bills almost in half this past winter. I love my storm doors. And not just for their “benefit.” They are beautiful. Looking through the kitchen one and its pristine glass, I could see my slim girl, with her ebony braid that sways down to her mid-thighs. She was wearing a cranberry skirt, full and ruffled, circled by bands of lace, her winter boots underneath. She was humming to herself. I smiled inwardly. My girl. My beautiful girl. Twenty-two years old now, and still making my heart fill with love and admiration and joy.
She’d been reading to me that day, from Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons. She is on a mission to keep me well-read, because I have taken a reading break this year, to free up my time and my mind. I never can know what she’ll read to me next on a Sunday, which is a day that I now dedicate to being offline and instead putting my hands to the world, via homey endeavors that might feel old-fashioned but that I am finding lift my spirits—cooking slowly and without a lot of noisy tools, knitting, writing with pencil and paper, dreaming on the couch with a cup of tea while simply looking out the window to watch the clouds and the swing of the hemlocks in the breeze.
On that reading day, I’d learned you can eat carrot top greens, though the chef said they are too strong for his taste. I happened to have some languishing in the fridge, and I knew just what could be done with them. “Let’s make saag,” I’d said. It’s one of the few dishes that just begs for strong greens. Indian food! A true marvel, and gift to the world.
I grew up in the countryside, far from anyone who knew anything about Indian food. The lone spices I understood were salt and pepper—but, really, mostly salt (which I still love, and which I have been given free reign to enjoy because my blood pressure is so very low).
My girl had put down the cookbook and gone out into the day to, at my request, pick some wild greens to round out our carrot-top saag. Violet leaves, tender and spicy new mustard with its delicate white flowers, and dandelions, which she informed me had imitators. Still edible, most of them. But with different leaf shapes and taller or tinier flowers. On the sunny front steps, we’d later discovered, together, that the mustard root had a violet center. We stared at that for a long time. Who hides purple inside a spicy white root that spends its days underground? Mustard does. And so we looked and marveled.
The saag had been one of the most delicious we’d ever made. There wasn’t enough of it. Her sister, who had stayed at college for the weekend had missed it (and that is always a sad, sad thing, because her sister loves three things most of all: food, homemade food, Indian food). We would have to make the dish again, and this time there would need to be more.
Now the carrot tops are gone. And they’d been the mildest of the greens we’d used the previous Sunday. So, I say on this lightly rainy, edge-of-too-cold day, “Let’s pick a lot of violet leaves. They’re milder than the dandelions and mustard. I think they’ll balance things.”
We reach into what feels like fields and fields of violets, though our property is what I call postage-stamp-sized. Houses crowd us, either side. And I’ve let the yard grow into wildness as a way to create my own secret garden, my solace and intrigue. Little red maples have volunteered, and I’ve let them stay. The violets are a thick carpet that will only grow thicker as summer marches into my busy town. But, here amidst the violet spring, I feel far from the bustle. Little white flowers, and purple, seem like they are entering our conversation, just by their attentive aspect. My girl tells me that violet roots used to be soaked with corn seed, as an insecticide. We promise not to put the roots in our saag.
At the last minute, after the violet leaves have been picked, the dandelion leaves, and more mustard, and my girl is now reading to me again this Sunday, from a different book, while I separate stems from leaves, I take an apple from the fridge and cut it half-wise. Part of it makes a fine and simple lunch. The other part I slice into the saag, seeking a little more sweetness to mix into the greens. When it’s all cooked, I make exception about using noisy tools, and I immersion blend it all into a beautiful smoothness. Then add fried potatoes.
Dinner is ready. Sara stops reading. We call Sonia to join us in the sunset-yellow dining room. Around the table in our tiny Tudor, we are in love—with this day, with this dish, with each other. And the violets outside dance in the rain.
In Our Saag
• One medium onion, chopped and fried until light brown
• 1/2″ piece of fresh ginger, minced and sizzled with onions for a few minutes
• One strainerful of wild violet leaves, with a sprinkling of white and purple violet flowers (alternately, carrot top greens or spinach), chopped
• Half a strainerful of wild mustard leaves with flowers, chopped (alternately, arugula)
• Bowlful of dandelion greens, chopped (alternately, spinach, chard, or beet greens)
• Half a sweet apple, chopped small
• 1 cup of water
Simmer all of the above together for about 20-30 minutes and thick. then add…
• 2 TB ghee (or butter if you don’t have)
• 1/4 tsp garam masala
• 1/2 – 1 tsp kosher salt (if you use fine sea salt, add the smaller amount)
• fresh ground black pepper, a few twists
Immersion blend. And add in…
• Fried potatoes (3/4-inch squares)