Cucumber and Wild Flower Salad with Basil Vanilla Vinaigrette

Everywhere I look outside right now, I see broad swathes of yellow among the bright green of spring.  There are flowers blooming everywhere, and those most visible are the ones that have pushed their golden faces up toward the sun and are waving softly in the wind - a sure sign that summer is not far away.

The most familiar of these, of course, is the dandelion.  A weed that many try to get rid of - hours of labor are spent every year attempting to eradicate their stubborn roots from the soil in our gardens and lawns.  Dandelion is used for it's culinary attributes in many parts of the world.  I have munched on a few leaves here and there - though I've found it to be quite bitter.  Maybe another day.  Dandelions are not the subject of this post today.

It's Yellow Rocket (Peltokanankaali), dandelion's tall, graceful, yellow-headed neighbor and the sweet, tasty little violet  (Orvokki) that are on the menu for today.

First we need to start with the humble cucumber.  Many people I know grow cucumber in their gardens.  It tends to produce an abundance of fruit, though not quite in the sometimes overwhelming fashion as the zucchini does.  Nevertheless, come midsummer, you may find that your gardens are pumping out an impressive quantity of these little green gems.  Now you can pickle them - something I love to do.  You can slice them and dice them and chop them as an addition to salads and vegetable trays.  Or, you can do as I did and make them the base of a simple yet beautiful and delicious salad.  If you aren't yet getting cucumbers fresh from the markets - in many parts of the world it's too early for that, as it certainly is here in Finland, you can buy cucumbers from the store.  Both the long, thin, elegant English cucumber as well as their short chubby cucumber cousins work well here.

Cucumber alone is pleasant.  Combined with a few fresh wildflowers, its aesthetic appeal grows exponentially.  Drizzled with a light, spring vinaigrette, it makes your taste buds explode and your mouth curl up into a big grin.

You'll find edible wild flowers everywhere.  If you are not sure about them, you can use the garden flowers pansy and nasturtium in this dish instead, to get a similarly sweet flowery and slightly peppery flavor, respectively.

I went for the wild flowers.  Yellow Rocket grows on the roadsides and fields all over the place, and if you look closely near the roots of the Yellow rocket or at the edge of the line, you are likely to spy the pretty blue, purple and white violets shining their bright faces up toward you.

For the Yellow Rocket, use the leaves and the flowers.  The flowers are actually best when they are slightly closed and resemble broccoli florets.  You can use them in the same way, then - steaming them briefly to remove any bitterness.  Once the flowers open and are bright yellow as mine were, you can clip the buds and use them  in salads where they add a slightly bitter and peppery flavor, similar to rocket.

For the violets, clip the whole stem, a quarter inch above the ground or so, an use the whole thing, stems, leaves and all.  To me, violet tastes a bit like spearmint mixed with rose petal.  I actually like using it to stuff the belly of a fish before putting it in the oven - an idea I got from Sami Tallberg's book Villi Yrtit.  

This is a wonderful salad to start with, and looks charming on the dinner table.

Cucumber and Wild Flower Salad with Basil Vanilla Vinaigrette

2 English cucumbers ends trimmed and cut in half or 4 small cucumbers, ends trimmed
Yellow Rocket, about 1/2 cup of leaves and flowers
Violet, about 1/2 cup leaves, stems and flowers

Using a vegetable peeler, peel the cucumbers into long, thin slices and allow them to curl as you drop them onto the plate.  Divide the cucumbers evenly among four salad plates.  Sprinkle the Yellow Rocket flowers and leaves over the salad.  Repeat with the violets, arranging them decoratively for visual appeal.

Just before serving, drizzle with the vinaigrette, or serve the vinaigrette in a separate serving dish and let each person add their own to taste.  I found I wanted to add more dressing as I ate through the salad as the zingy dressing suited the other ingredients so well.

Basil Vanilla Vinaigrette

1/4 cup / 1/2 dl basil vinegar (or white wine vinegar with 6 chopped basil leaves)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar or 2 teaspoons regular sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon honey mustard
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup / 1 dl fruity extra virgin olive oil

Pour all ingredients except the olive oil into a glass jar with a tightly fitting lid.  Shake vigorously until all of the ingredients dissolve into the vinegar.  Add the olive oil and shake vigorously again to combine.  Serve immediately.

Salad serves 4.

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