Wild and yummy - easy to grow and gather
Not everything that grows in a flower bed is a weed and dune spinach (Tetragonia decumbens, similar to New Zealand spinach) is no exception. This luxuriously dense, green ground cover grows abundantly in the Western Cape. It branches out in all directions to cover the barest patch of sand. The glistening greyish-green leaves contain special water cells on their rough surfaces and have a salty taste. A survivor of seriously hot, sandy and hostile habitats; this king of the dunes is an amazing saviour of soil erosion. It plays a vital role in stabilizing soil to establish sand dune ecosystems and helps to protect other plants, giving them shade, moisture and shelter. However, in a tidy little suburban garden it can take over and become a carpet of green leaves to the exclusion of fellow plants. As a vegetable it deserves a special place, even if it means a visit to common areas.
Harvesting and growing wild dune spinach
Plants can be cultivated from the seeds or look for small plants in the wild that can be introduced to a spacious area of your garden that needs a water-hardy ground cover. In no time you will have a bountiful crop of tasty dune spinach to enjoy as a nourishing addition to your meals. If the spinach patch is out in the wilds and doing a good job of covering the ground, especially loose sand that blows about in the wind, then do not rip out the central tap-root. Cut off a few of the long sprigs or just pluck the leaves off of them at random. They replace themselves very rapidly, as you will soon find out!
If space is a problem then try planting dune spinach in hanging baskets. If these plants become invasive in small areas and have to be removed then first collect all the leaves and share them with your neighbours. They too, will fall in love with this free healthy, “local and lekker” vegetable as soon as they know how to cook it! You can save a lot of money, eat healthy low-calorie organic food and top up on minerals such as zinc, magnesium, iron, manganese and potassium. Dune spinach is also very rich in vitamin K 2, vitamin C, B-complex and especially beta-carotene, a plant-based form of vitamin A.
How to prepare dune spinach
The harvested leaves keep well in the fridge when stored in a plastic bag for at least a week. Dune spinach can be washed and finely chopped and frozen in small punnets or cooked in bulk with onion and potato and then frozen in smaller portions. These can be used to make some soup in a jiffy if the pantry is bare. For using in smoothies, stir fries or as a stand-alone vegetable, the texture is quite rough if not unpalatable, due to the “cat’s tongue” structure of the leaves. I have developed some tasty recipes for nutritious juices, creamy soups, dumplings, tarts and flatbread that overcome this obstacle. They make a hearty gluten-free addition to the table using simple cheap ingredients.Credit: Sue Visser
Juice: add a handful or two of washed dune spinach leaves to a blender jug containing a cup of water. The flavour is improved by adding lemons, apples, ginger or grapes to the mixture. Fresh dandelion leaves can also be included to enhance its already super nutritious status. Process everything into a pulp and strain out the bright green juice using a fine cloth bag or special juice bag. It can be enjoyed as is or added to the breakfast smoothie.
Dune spinach pulp: this is used for filling the tarts or for making a rich creamy soup. It can be cooked in a normal pot or microwaved in a covered dish. First wash the leaves very well and rinse out any trace of sand before chopping the leaves. Add them to a pot containing a few spoons of oil with finely sliced leeks and potato or sweet potato. Stir fry the mixture then add a little water and cover the pot so it can simmer gently. The dune spinach is already salty and a shake of white pepper enhances the unique flavour. Other greens can be added to the pot. Try normal spinach, shredded cabbage or fresh dandelions from the bottom of the garden!
Soup: add more water and a stock cube to the pot with a little milk and rice flour. Whisk it up using a stick blender or place it in a normal liquidizer jug and buzz it into a creamy soup. Add fresh cream or a slice of lemon and season with black pepper. Add salt or soy sauce if needed. Enjoy this soup hot or cold.
Tarts: line pastry cases with your favourite flaky pastry and use the spinach pulp as a filling. Feta cheese can be added to the mixture. I fill small silicone patty pan trays with the pulp and freeze them. The little frozen shapes are then easy to push into a blob of dough in a larger patty pan, forming an “automatic” tart.
Basic pastry: The gluten-free pastry is usually a mixture of “Ace” instant mealie meal and rice flour 2:1 with a little oil and baking powder and a splash of oil. Stir in just enough boiling water to work it into soft dough. As a variation, you can use oats instead of rice flour. It provides a nuttier taste. Use it to make small savoury tarts or one larger one.
Flatbread and dumplings: Chop the spinach leaves and knead into the same dough, adding enough to maintain the plasticity without falling apart. Form the dough into small balls that can be steamed, either in a regular or a microwave steamer. Six medium-sized balls take four minutes on full heat in a microwave oven. To make the flatbread, form a 1 cm thick disk of dough and place it on baking paper on a saucer. Cover the saucer with another one and cook it in the microwave on full for 2 minutes. Enjoy these with your creamy dune spinach soup.
For people who live below the bread line or those who are allergic to
bread there is always a way to fill up for free - go wild, eat wild!