Galinsoga is ajiaco’s secret ingredient


Ajiaco with a sprig of galinsoga at the side of the plate. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor October 9, 2013

More than the weather, more than the deer, the No. 1 gardener’s complaint in my neighborhood this summer was a weed called galinsoga.

Ever since it settled in about a dozen years ago, it has irked us to the point of madness. Since it grows, at most, a mere two feet in height, taller weeds such as lamb’s quarters can overshadow it, but nothing can match galinsoga’s persistence. It’s bad enough that one plant might produce as many as 400,000 seeds in a season, as Garden Organic’s Web site ( www.gardenorganic.org.uk ) so ominously ventures. But there can also be multiple generations of it before frost gives it a winter recess. I have even seen it flowering, at two inches tall, in my newly mowed lawn.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

This week’s galinsoga obsession was its purported edibility. “A common staple in China,” the local rumor went, though no one could come up with an Asian recipe. But a quick online search turned up a classic Colombian dish called ajiaco, associated with the city of Bogota. Some friends had even eaten ajiaco on a recent trip, recalling it as a hearty soup or stew with chicken and potatoes in broth. My kind of meal, I thought.

Recipes I uncovered insisted that galinsoga (called guasca in the land from which its now-global march began) is essential to ajiaco. Without the distinctive flavor of this “native mountain herb,” it is not ajiaco at all. Hilariously, homesick Colombians plead for advice on Web forums, asking where they can find the plant. “Everywhere,” the world replies.

I plucked and nibbled a few leaves from the galinsoga forest now taking root in some of my recently emptied beds. It wasn’t strong, bitter or hot; strangely, it had almost no flavor at all. Still, I’d resolved to make a reasonably authentic ajiaco, so I set about simmering some chicken, potatoes, corn, onions, garlic and galinsoga in rich homemade chicken stock.

Because the dish is ordinarily served with an array of garnishes — avocados, diced hot peppers, capers, cilantro and sour cream — I put those out, too, in little bowls and summoned the farm crew to the table. We loved this one-pot meal. We devoured it. But the importance of including the bland galinsoga remained a mystery. Perhaps if you have grown up in Bogota it is a subtle taste memory that speaks of home. Or maybe the plant is terribly rich in vitamins and antioxidants, so invigorating to those who eat it that they can rip the plants from their garden for hours on end without tiring.

I also wondered whether galinsoga had originally served as a famine food, something that was always there to eat, even if your garden’s crops were not. I consulted one of my favorite sources, Purdue’s Famine Foods Web site (www.hort.purdue.edu), but it was not there.

The ajiaco I made was so tasty that it will now be a permanent part of my life. So will galinsoga, I’m afraid, like a medical condition you can manage but not cure. Meanwhile, there will be other garden ills to gripe about — new bugs? new weeds? — but famine will not be one of them.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

After weeks of dryness, trees and shrubs should be watered thoroughly to promote fall root growth and help protect against winter freezes. Dehydration is the biggest winter threat to conifers and broadleaf evergreens — give their root zones a deep soaking now and again before stowing hoses, and don’t rely on rainfall to replenish soil moisture.

— Adrian Higgins

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