At the first seriously dry farmers market in weeks and weeks I jump puddles to arrive at the stalls I want. Everyone looks so cheerful, especially the produce spilling off trestle tables, piled in abundance. I have been lured by the curly dark green bunches of the prettiest leaves at Kenrick’s stall, among his other treasures. ‘It’s Brazilian spinach,’ he tells me. ‘It loves summer and makes good ground cover.’ Brazilian spinach? It looks like the sort of glamorous exotic vegetable that would have a name like that. It turns out that some years back a customer had brought Kenrick this unfamiliar produce – but it was only recently that another one had identified it for him. Alternanthera sissoo is its correct title although other cute names for it are Sambu Lettuce and Sissoo Spinach. Brazilians really do eat it too, raw in salads with oil and vinegar, onions and tomatoes. It is a hardy perennial ideal for garden borders – borders you can eat. Subtropical climates like ours is where it flourishes; it turns a brilliant green when cooked, and is beautifully interchangeable with ordinary old spinach or silverbeet. I thought that it would be a singular component in the Green Tart I generally make with stolid, worthy English spinach, whereupon into an uncooked shortcrust pastry shell (you can use store-bought if you choose) I tumble a mixture of olive oil- softened green onions, garlic, sliced zucchini, parsley, spinach and a little dried oregano that has all wilted, cooled down then whisked through a cup of ricotta, four eggs, capers and pitted green olives. Seasoned, naturally, and topped with a scattering of pine nuts then baked till firm, golden, but somehow still entrancingly green.
But the Brazilian spinach isn’t the only vegetable which has caught my eye at Kenrick’s stall. Glossy dark green leaves in the shape of a heart: these, I am told, are betel leaves. Not to be confused with the betel nut, whose name has arisen purely through association, the fact that in Indian, Sri Lankan and Burmese homes a little package is put together of betel leaf encasing fragrant spices, lime paste and areca nut and chewed as a sort of social lubricant and stimulant. The leaf is renowned for its healing and curative properties – in fact there seem to be few health problems it cannot address. It is high in anti-oxidants and considered an aphrodisiac. From a culinary point of view, which is after all my chief concern, the betel leaf is very popular in Vietnamese cuisine where it may serve as a sort of wrap for a spiced mincemeat filling or be shredded and incorporated into dishes. It actually has very little flavour in its raw form but once cooked, especially grilled, it imparts a herbacious and slightly peppery fragrance to whatever food it enrobes – most commonly spicy beef. A traditional dish called Bo La Lot involves blending minced beef with seasonings – garlic, shallots, lemongrass, fish sauce and curry powder – then placing a tablespoon of this on to washed betel leaves, glossy side down, whose stems you have detached, and rolling them up into fat little cigars. You can then either grill them or sauté them quickly in a hot pan and serve them as an exciting appetiser with drinks. My head is bustling with cooking ideas and I need to jot thoughts down before they evaporate into the sunshine. Rainbow chard persuades me to make one final stop. Pink, white and gold stems attached to green leaves, this multicoloured relative of both beetroot and silverbeet is not only beautiful but also bursting with chlorophyll, vitamin K, fibre, riboflavin and B6. Those stems must be eaten too, not only the leaves. My Green Tart seems to be turning into a Rainbow Tart, fitting for the region.