Every year red orach comes up here and there in my garden, and usually it goes right to seed, sending up a stalk at least three feet tall that bears opposite pairs of two- to three-inch heart-shaped leaves. I could pinch back the top of each plant to encourage it to bush out, but I haven’t bothered. The small leaves are never bitter or tough, and they are perfect for adding whole to green salads.
Orach—the word almost rhymes with borage–is Atriplex hortensis, an ancient Eurasian herb in the amaranth family that comes in green, red, and “white,” or bright yellow-green. The plant is related to spinach and chard and tastes like both, only much milder, with barely a touch of sourness. Given plenty of water, the plant can grow as tall as six feet. I’ve never managed to grow orach neatly in rows, but I always let at least one plant self-sow. The seeds, in their flat, papery husks, apparently spread themselves among the garden beds, and just enough of them manage to sprout. I welcome the spot of red color—the only color I’ve grown—wherever it appears, especially when the wind comes up and exposes the leaves’ fuchsia undersides.
Something different about the weather this year has slowed the orach’s race to seed production, and now I appreciate the plant more than ever. It has formed lettuce-like heads with big leaves, about five inches across. Yesterday, as I considered what to make for dinner, I knew these big leaves were probably the only ones I would get; the plants were already beginning to bolt. So, dinner had to include orach salad rolls.
I picked eight big orach leaves, trimmed out the lower part of the midribs, and rolled each leaf around bean-thread noodles, pickled threads of carrot, mint leaves, and salad shrimp. This was much easier than making salad rolls with rice-paper wrappers; the leaves proved to be at once sturdy and flexible. For accompaniment, I made a sweet peanut-chile sauce.
I didn’t check my watch, but I’ll bet that Robert and I ate the whole stack of salad rolls in less than three minutes.
RED ORACH SALAD ROLLS
Serves 4 normal people
Quick Carrot Pickle
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 medium-large carrot
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce
1 tablespoon peanut butter
3 tablespoons Thai sweet chile sauce
About 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
About ¼ teaspoon fine salt
Two bunches bean-thread noodles
8 large orach leaves
Handful fresh mint leaves (I used a Vietnamese variety, but spearmint is good)
½ cup (cooked and peeled) salad shrimp
Carrot Pickle: In a wide bowl, stir together the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Cut the carrot into thin sticks. You can do this by slicing it diagonally and then cutting the slices thin lengthwise, but the tool shown here makes the job quicker. Toss the carrot in the seasoned vinegar. The sticks will quickly lose their stiffness.
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce: Put the peanut butter into a small serving bowl. With a fork, mix in the Thai sweet chile sauce. Loosen the sauce with rice vinegar, and season the sauce with salt.
In a large saucepan, heat water to a boil. Cook the bean-thread noodles briefly, until they are tender, separating them with chopsticks or another tool as they begin to soften. Drain the noodles, and rinse them well with cold water.
Cut out about 1 inch of the lower, thicker midrib from each orach leaf. Lay the leaves, one at a time, upside-down on your work surface. Top each leaf with a portion of the noodles, carrot, mint, and shrimp, and roll the leaf from the base to the tip. Place the roll seam-side down on a plate. Make the rest of the rolls the same way.
For garnish, borage blossoms provide an interesting color contrast.