by Leda Meredith
It’s a blossom. It’s a legume. It’s a medicine. It’s flour to bake with, an infusion to sip, something to kick up the nitrogen in your soil, it’s…(drumroll, please)…Red Clover!
Red Clover, a.k.a. Trifolium pratense is a perennial plant that is in peak bloom right now and might continue through mid-June (the timing varies from year to year, and this year many things are ahead of schedule).
It’s leaflets come in groupings of 3 (no 4-leafed clovers here), and often sport a whitish, chevron-shaped mark. The flowers look like pink or pinkish-purple pompoms made up of many individual florets. The whole flower heads are 1/2 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter. The plants usually get to be about 16 inches tall.
Trifolium pratense is in the Fabaceae, also known as the legume family. It is often planted by farmers as a cover crop because it has the super power of being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and make that biologically available to other plants.
That’s not the only super power red clover has. Medicinally, it is used for respiratory complaints, and for chronic skin ailments such as eczema. Isoflavone compounds in red clover act as phytoestrogens and are used to relieve menopausal symptoms. There are a few studies out there (and hopefully more will be done) that indicate red clover may be useful in preventing and treating breast cancer.
And on top of all of that awesomeness, red clover flowers taste good.
It’s the flowers, along with the top leaves attached to the stems near the base of the flowers, that you want to harvest. Okay, okay: food snobs will skip the leaves completely and just go for the flowers. You try harvesting that way in quantity. (I’m fine with including a few of the leaves).
If using red clover for a tea, include those leaves along with the blossoms, fresh or fully dried. The tea tastes mildly sweet to me, and combines well with nettles, red raspberry leaf, and/or mint. To prepare, pour just boiled water over the herbs, cover, and infuse for 30 minutes. Strain and serve hot or chilled. If you like your tea sweet, honey pairs better with red clover than sugar or agave does.
You can strip the tender florets off of the tough flower head base and use them, fresh or dried, in grain recipes such as rice salads. Fresh red clover florets with barley and a little mint is an especially terrific grain salad combination.
Dried, the florets can be used to replace up to 25% of the wheat or other grain flour in recipes for baked goods. The red clover flowers add a lightly spongy texture, mild sweetness, and a dash of protein to whatever bread, muffin, etc. you are baking.
And finally, red clover is the state flower of Vermont.
RED CLOVER BUTTERMILK SODA BREAD
Makes one round loaf
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Grease a baking sheet, or line with parchment paper or a silpat mat.
- 1 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour (pastry flour makes this bread more tender. If you can’t get whole wheat pastry flour, use a mix of half all-purpose and half whole wheat flours)
- 1/2 c. red clover blossom florets
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. caraway or anise seeds (optional)
- 1 egg
- 2/3 c. buttermilk
- ¼ c. melted butter, plus one more tablespoon reserved for brushing on finished loaf
- 1 Tbsp. honey
- Whisk the dry ingredients (including the fresh or dried red clover blossom florets) together in a large bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients.
- Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir to incorporate the flour. Don’t stir too much though—it’s okay if there is still a little dry flour here and there, and for this dough lumpy is good. You want the dough to still be somewhat soft and sticky, but coherent enough that you can shape it into a loaf. If the dough seems too goopy, add more flour a little at a time. I sometimes need to add as much as:
1/3 c. additional flour. Some cracks on top are okay and actually make the finished loaf more attractive in a rustic way.
- Scrape the dough out onto your baking sheet. Shape it into a disk approximately five to six inches in diameter. Bake 25-35 minutes until golden. While still hot, brush with remaining tablespoon of butter. Let cool on a rack.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com