Everyone wanders here: professors escaping students, students escaping classes, fisherman with small hopes and young people in love. Today I watch a scruffy pair climb the little limestone bridge and embrace, sure that in one hundred and forty-three years of campus life, they are the first to find this tiny green miracle.
In 1986 Greg and I also found the bridge, and in one photo I’m lounging on grass, wearing a long yellow sweater and white leggings and white sunglasses. Now I’m in black shorts, black jacket, running shoes and a black lab, but this weepy tree looks the same. Growing up on Chicago’s north shore, willows swayed and rustled everywhere, but they’re a more unusual sight here in Kansas, and since I visited this tree in 1986 – still oblivious, wearing white flats on the muddy green – so I am drawn to it today.
But this morning I’m not full of rustling branches and love. It’s mid-May, and I am thinking about salad. For years I’ve read that in certain regions of China, the buds and leaves of spring willows are marinated and served as salad. This intrigues me – eating the willow, with chopsticks! – and today I pull the tree’s long leaves toward me and sniff, rice wine vinegar waiting at home.
It just smells like…tree. But tree is plant, and plant is salad. Surely there’s a reason…but I can’t find a recipe…and, glancing around…it seems a bit unwise to start yanking stems. Cleo and I step back and when we look again, it’s like a cartoon tree – I’m starving and it’s one big salad. It looks like it could feed a few villages. Still, I trudge back up and the willow escapes the bowl.
The latin name for willow is salix, which is where you get salycylic acid, which is how you get aspirin. So it has medicinal qualities…but the taste? Does it taste like pain reliever, or like young love in the ’80s? Is it a pain-relieving first course? The burning question of weeping willow salad has plagued me long enough. I’m not normally into global recipe hunting and the chopping of exotic plants, but I just love this tree. Maybe enough to eat it. Anyone had Weeping Willow Salad, home or away?
If I ever do decide to snack on my favorite tree, I’ll rely on Craig Claiborne & Virginia Lee’s The Chinese Cookbook for guidance. This 1972 classic has been my trusty companion through many a stir-fry, and it was snagged from my mother’s shelf. Sorry, mom. No Sichuan Green Beans for you! This cold dish is the closest the authors come to cooking wild plant life – and even if you don’t make it, it’s an awfully good read. “Rinse each leaf individually?”
Cold Chrysanthemum Leaves with Sesame Oil
1 lg or 2 small bunches chrysanthemum leaves*
1 piece dried brown bean curd
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 tbsp dry sherry or shao hsing wine
2 tbsp sesame oil 1 tsp sugar
salt to taste *
available in Chinese markets or by mail order
1. Cut off and discard the tough ends of the chrysanthemum leaves. Normally the leaves have a great deal of sand, which must be washed away, so drop the whole leaves into cold water and wash well. Rinse each leaf individually and when thoroughly clean drain in a colander.
2. Bring enough water to a boil in a saucepan to cover the leaves. Add the leaves and turn off the heat. Stir with chopsticks for about 1 minute, then turn the heat on high and cook 2 minutes longer, stirring. Drain and run under cold water immediately. Squeeze between the hands to extract as much moisture as possible. Chop the greens fine and put into a mixing bowl.
3. Bring more water to a boil, drop the bean curd in, and let simmer about 10 minutes. Let stand until thoroughly cool. Slice the bean curd very thin, then stack the slices and cut into very fine dice. Add the bean curd to the chrysanthemum leaves. 4. Combine the remaining ingredients and pour over the chrysanthemum-bean curd mixture. Serve cold.