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March 8, 2012

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The surprising versatility of clover

WHEN some people hear the word clover they think immediately of the Irish and the quintessential shamrock. Others, myself included, think of grazing cattle, chewing contentedly against a backdrop of pastoral nirvana. And I'm sure there are a select few who that imagine a shaky handy cam scene documenting the Godzilla-esque destruction of New York.

Regardless, today we are talking about your run of the mill, often three, rarely four-leafed field clover. What is often relegated to livestock fodder in the US is consumed with regularity here in the Yangtze River Delta and with good reason. It is extremely high in protein, contains numerous natural vitamins and is darn tasty to boot.

You can usually see clover at the wet market in large heaps amongst the collective that I call sautéed greens. Though edible raw, I tend to find that they are best cooked until they lose the slight bit of stringiness that distracts from their full flavor. As can be imagined of a plant that grows wild amongst the grasses on nearly every single continent in the world, cooked clover has an incredible taste that can best be described as fresh and grassy. It tastes clean and green and possesses the slightest aroma of wild flowers. If you've ever had the fortune to stand in a field of clover on a gorgeous early summer day you'll know the exact essence of which I speak. Clover tastes and smells like just such a day.

Unlike some other wild greens that can be consumed, clover is edible in its entirety. The entire plant, from roots to stem to leaf and flower can all be consumed with no ill effects. But the majority of people, at least here in Shanghai, consume the young leaves and shoots.

I have found a few other recipes online and Chongming Island has an interesting dish of pickled caotou (clover) that I'm dying to try but the standard method of dealing with clover in Chinese cuisine is the straight up qingchao (stir-fry). The flowers are often dried and made into tea which is reputed to treat all manner of malady, be it menstrual pain or cardiovascular weakness; if you can find them fresh, however, you can also toss the buds in a salad and simply eat as is.

And while clover is at its best in the warm summer months between May and October, you can often find it at your local wet market year round. I have a particular weakness for the early first growth that come around March and early April as I find the flavor a little more restrained and the texture much more pleasing to the palette.

We use it regularly at the restaurant, often simply sautéed and used as an alternative to spinach or Swiss chard, especially if I'm trying to highlight the natural freshness in a dish; I'm really tired of seeing spinach on restaurant menus, without a doubt, there is a time and a place for it, but all too often it is a crutch for lazy cooks who don't want to think about the vegetables accompanying their piece de resistance, especially in Shanghai where there are always at least four leafy greens in season at any given point that are tastier, representative of the region and simply more interesting in flavor. Outside of the sautee I recently tried clover cooked and chopped finely into a variation of the Argentinian chimichurri sauce with outstanding results. The brightness of the clover coupled with the herbs, capers and garlic make an exceptionally delicious accompaniment to any grilled dish.

Or, if you're like me and can't leave it alone, you can take said grilled steak, slice it thin, wrap it around a tomato salsa and serve on top of a bed of potatoes, sautéed clover and pickled onions, and then drizzle the chimichurri over the top.

Either way, it just goes to show that there is a lot more to the humble clover than a source for lucky charms.

Recipe for clover chimichurri


100g clover, blanched and chopped fine; 20g parsley, blanched and chopped fine; 20g cilantro, blanched and chopped fine; 10g fresh chile, chopped fine; 5g red chili flake; 10g dried oregano; 30g capers, chopped fine; juice of one lime; 15ml red wine vinegar; 5 cloves garlic, chopped fine; 40ml good olive oil; salt and pepper


Combine all ingredients and let sit for 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Should always be made the same day you plan to eat it, recipe can be scaled up or down with no difficulty.


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