I’m not an enthusiastic green salad eater, but growing them has become a passion.
I don’t shun a plate of raw veggies the way that some guys do, but I’ll almost never order a salad as a main meal in a restaurant, and when I get a side salad, I usually, mea culpa, cover it with blue cheese dressing. At home, when Jean serves up a heaping bowl of lettuces, spinach, arugula, etc., she’s gotten used to my complaints about volume, and she accommodates my phobia by including the cherry tomatoes, olives, raisins, nuts, or grated cheese, etc., that I love. Since she knows me so well, she’s also gotten used to my steadily devouring the bowl, despite my earlier whining.
Given my semi-aversion to eating large helpings of greens, it might seem ironic that I like growing them. But especially in the fall, once the tomatoes, squashes, and peppers are exhausted from their summer marathon, in go the leafy greens, along with the onions, beets, and (this year) broccoli, so the greenness dominates the raised beds and some of the pots. Though, when I started this garden several years ago, fall veggies were not at all on my mind, they’ve become almost as dear to me as their more colorful, fruit-heavy summer counterparts.
Growing Greens: An Acquired (Visual) Taste?
The problem for us humans with growing greens is that we tend to be attracted to the flashy colors and flavors of flowery and fruity plants, while ignoring the greenery (and the dirt) as just background. But while we are entranced by the flowers that contribute petals of pink, red, orange, yellow, white, blue, lavender, and purple to the garden landscape (see F Is for Flowers), the dominant browns and greens are doing the most basic and continuous of the plant’s important work.
Even in a small garden, the array of greenery is astounding. If you give it water, the greenery will come.
If you just count the plants the gardener puts in “on purpose,” the species variety is impressive enough. (You can get a partial sense of the variety in our garden by reading “F Is for Flowers.”) Just imagine all the green that is a part of each of those plants. But if you add in the many plants that grow up in an organic garden without the gardener’s intent—including the so-called “weeds”—you can begin to appreciate the true abundance of species that spring up green above the soil. For example, see the variety of ground cover plants in the photos below.
Seeing Beyond the Mass of Green
Where the visitor may just see a mass of green, the gardener focuses on—and revels in—the personality and quirks of every plant, and can tell you little histories about each one, unfathomably boring to the guest. But the gardener is off into a reverie, and doesn’t see the guest’s ennui.
Given my lack of enthusiasm for salads, my growing different greens has been a lesson for me. I’m still not a connoisseur among lettuces, for example, but I’ve learned to distinguish among the shapes, colors, textures, and flavors of several varieties and to have fallen in love with green ice lettuce, as well as with the luxuriant greens chard and arugula.
Arugula, Green Ice, and Chard: To Grow Is to Love
I first grew arugula in fall 2015, and it will be a mainstay in our garden. I knew arugula as the black-peppery ingredient in fresh green salads, but until I grew it myself, I didn’t know how intense and fresh the flavor could be, nor how prolific and hearty the plants would become. (See Jean’s section below on using this versatile green in soups, salads, sandwiches, and pizza.) The photo above shows the 2016 crop after a month in the ground–each started from a two-inch sprout. The photo below is the 2015 crop in bloom still in May 2016.
After I pulled out the arugula plants that month, I transplanted into the same space two cherry tomato plants that I’d started in pots, and both of them just took off and produced multiple ripe tomatoes daily until late August. So not only is the arugula hearty and flavorful, but it has a great effect on the soil. Oh yes, the arugula in bloom is also a butterfly and bee magnet, while not being a waterhog.
Green Ice Lettuce
Green ice lettuce plants in late January
I’ve grown different varieties of red and green leaf lettuces the last few years in the fall, and they’ve all done well, often putting out tasty leaves through the Northern California winter, when it gets down to the low thirties or occasionally the high 20s at night. A great thing about leaf lettuces is that in our climate they are usually putting out edible leaves for small salads after a month or month and a half after I’ve planted the seedlings, and they keep producing. Indeed, they have sometimes put out many more leaves than we can use, but even if we can’t use all they produce, the plants look pretty in the garden and help replenish nutrients in the soil for spring planting of tomatoes.
Green ice (shown above and just below) is a variety I was offered by a fellow gardener across town last fall, and the six seedlings I planted proved especially hearty, prolific, and flavorful. Again, until I planted my own greens, i didn’t know just how fresh and tasty greens could be. That was certainly true of green ice. I actually didn’t plant it until the winter, and what surprised me the most was that it kept growing larger through early spring, and stayed tasty–fresh and not bitter–until it began flowering in April. Indeed, by that time, the stalks were almost six feet tall and were still covered from top to bottom with bright green leaves. If I hadn’t pulled up the stalks in early May for spring planting of chard and strawberries, they might have lasted into the heat of June.
Green ice in bloom in early May
Chard, Beautiful Queen of the Edible Garden
Chard plants in late October
Where the green ice lettuce had grown in our garden from December 2015 to May 2016, six chard plants have burgeoned since May in the same space that had held the green ice, and the chard is still going strong now in late October. They show no signs of slowing down. Indeed, as the Sacramento Valley weather has cooled to the 70s from the 90s and 100s of August into September, the chard leaves are more beautiful and supple than ever, with the orange to bright red stalks and the network of red veins in the deep green leaves pleasing the eye as much as the most exquisite flowers in the garden. We’ll probably still have them at holiday time as the edible garden versions of Christmas foliage.
And the flavor is still as deep in umami as it was in summer, with the firm texture and slight bitterness that makes chard great in salads and equally great in soups, when the leaves cook down. During summer, don’t hesitate to pluck off from the plant the unused leaves and stems that dry out in the heat. The plant will keep producing strong, bright, healthy stems and leaves, and it will remain exquisite to behold.
Cooking with Greens
I can’t say that greens are my favorite foods, either, whether cooked or fresh, but knowing their nutritional value, I’ve accepted the challenge of trying to work more of them into our diets. We frequently receive greens in our monthly box of farm-fresh organic produce, and that, plus Chris’s expanding garden, has provided an opportunity to try some greens I would otherwise not necessarily have purchased for ourselves. I’m going to focus here on ideas for eating more greens, rather than offering specific recipes. If you like following recipes, you can easily find them.
Knowing Your Ingredients
My approach to using any unfamiliar ingredient is to search online for recipes and make a choice based on a number of factors. I’m not necessarily looking for the easiest recipe, but I will exclude any that appear unnecessarily complicated. I compare recipes to see what ingredients are most common, and which seem optional but may make the dish more interesting. I have to confess that I also look for recipes containing ingredients I already have, especially if I need to use them up. I am proud to be accused of constantly trying to “clean out” the refrigerator and pantry. I often end up making something that is not exactly like any of the recipes I viewed, and often when I am begged to “make that again” I actually can’t. I know this may not be helpful to the novice cook, but it’s an encouragement to be creative, especially with your fresh ingredients, which will probably taste great whatever you do with them.
As a result of my experimentation, I have found that traditional cooked greens recipes have a number of ingredients in common: lots of sauteed garlic or garlic powder and red pepper flakes or hot sauce, bacon or ham for a rich salty flavor, chicken broth (of course a vegetarian version can be made without the meat and with a vegetable broth), and usually some sort of acid, such as apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar. Here is Paula Deen’s simple recipe, which I would probably use for my favorite green–green beans. Note that Paula cooks her collards for nearly an hour, which I would do for most green beans as well. (I am nostalgic for my mother’s old-style overcooked green beans; I confess I am not partial to “crisp” ones, no matter how much better they may be for you. Unfortunately, the fat needed for a silky mouth-feel also gives these preparations a bad name.)
Chris will eat greens prepared this traditional “southern” way, and apparently enjoy them, but they are so strong-flavored (and textured, even after substantial cooking) that he’s reluctant to eat them too frequently. If we have leftovers, and we usually do, it can be a struggle to finish them. It’s easier if I use the chard from our garden because the texture and flavor are lighter and the color brighter than collards, but the same problem of overload may still apply sometimes. I have thus begun looking for a variety of ways to chop up and sneak these greens into various dishes.
Greens from the Garden Every Day: Soups and Sandwiches
Soups are an obvious choice (I love using pureed greens in my borscht, where the color and flavor of the beets camouflage the greens), but depending on how finely you chop or grind them, greens can be incorporated into lots of dishes, including spaghetti sauce, to get them into kids and those who eat like kids. If you can’t sell your family on the flavors of greens, camouflage them and sneak them into unexpected dishes Trojan-horse style, I say.
Especially when you are lucky enough to have fresh greens in the garden, try some new ways to use them, a few leaves at a time. Here are just a few ideas to show the range of greens:
The most effective way to use your greens is just to remember you have them and look for ways to invite them to the party on your table every day. I find most sandwiches taste better with fresh greens. The after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, for example, needs fresh lettuce and mayo, unless you go the stuffing and cranberry sauce route for filling out that sandwich, and maybe even then.
Greens in Salads: Upping the Interest
Salads, of course, use more greens than most other dishes, but can get monotonous. I am not one who can pick up the same salad every day from the deli case, or order the basic “house salad” at a restaurant. I’d rather use my chewing efforts on something more interesting. When we find salads completely slipping off our menu, however, I think about what makes salads interesting. I am delighted to say yes when someone else offers to bring the salad to a dinner because I think an interesting salad contains a lot of ingredients and can take some time to prepare. An easy way to increase our weekday consumption of salads is to keep around a few of our favorite ingredients, ready to toss on top of a handful of greens. It might be cherry tomatoes that I don’t have to chop, grated cheese, or hard-boiled eggs. It might be berries and nuts with a little goat cheese. I change it up, and find I am also more successful at getting salads down Chris (and myself) if I prepare individual-sized portions rather than filling a large imposing salad bowl.
And on Pizza?
Finally, greens can be treated like herbs, or combined with herbs, to make pesto. An arugula pesto, for example, makes a great pizza topping, or you can use whole baby arugula leaves on the pizza without pureeing them. We’ll be talking more about herbs soon, but here is an example of the kind of pizza topping I am talking about (and made for lunch today):