Holy Kale!

By Chrissa Carlson
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Even for the most dedicated local eaters, there are some harsh realities to locavorism. By early June, the sun is warm, the earth is vibrantly green, and the garden is thriving. But even though the time seems ripe to add thick, smooth-fleshed slices of homegrown tomato to the supper table, without the help of season extending hoop houses, we are weeks from harvesting fruiting crops. CSA members often share a common story of their enthusiasm at receiving the first several leafy green shares quickly giving way to hidden chagrin at the brimming, and seemingly endless, bags of chard, kale, lettuces, and mustards.

Produce seasonality follows the life-cycle of annual plants: seeds sprout, sending roots earthward searching for water and nutrients, and stems skyward seeking the sun. Leaves unfold to collect solar energy, and once the plant has developed enough leafy surface area to fuel its exploits, the plant becomes sexually mature: flowers form, developing into fruit, packed with seeds of the next generation.

So goes the locavore’s annual menu cycle: the earliest arrivals to our table are fast growing roots (e.g., radishes), stems (asparagus) and leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Soon come the precocious peas, the fastest annual vegetable to produce offspring. The slower developing roots (potatoes, carrots, beets) show up next, preceding the imminent arrival of the gods and goddesses of the vegetable patch: tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, eggplant…

But it’s June, and while we obediently peruse the farmers market each week, waiting for the arrival of each new produce prize, all that beautiful greenery might be getting a little…dull. But fear not! Greens add nutrition and life to many dishes, and different varieties can be interchanged in recipes with ease. A few basics tips for your leafy green arsenal:

• Cooking time is the main variant in dealing with different types of leafies. Young spring greens will cook more quickly than those available later in the summer and into the fall. Collards and kale tend to be tougher than mustard greens, beet greens, or Swiss chard, and require slightly longer cooking times.
• Stems of all leafy greens are edible, though they are often discarded due to their tougher texture. To even the score, strip leaves from their stems, chop the stems fine, and start cooking them in advance of the leaves—throw them in with the onions and garlic, adding the leaves later.
• Substitute Swiss chard in any recipe calling for cooked spinach. Its flavor is almost identical, and it doesn’t reduce in the heat as much as spinach.

Looking beyond grandma’s cooked-all-day greens (and resolving to retain at least a smidge of their nutrition), greens can be added to soups, stirfries, curries, and pastas with reckless abandon, or used to make creative side and main dishes that stand on their own:

• Marry sweet, savory, and vegetal flavors with an Italian chard sauté: Sauté onions and chopped chard stems in olive oil (or if you’re feeling naughty, bacon fat) until softened. Add torn chard leaves, working in batches if needed and cook until wilted. Add a handful or raisins and a splash of water. Cook until raisins are plump, season with salt and pepper, and serve sprinkled with pine nuts and a dash of balsamic vinegar.
• Create a beautifully simple raw kale salad: Strip washed kale from stems and chop fine. Drizzle with olive oil and sea salt and massage kale until it softens and turns an emerald green, savoring the smell of the chlorophyll. Toss with a little lemon juice and serve as is or topped with freshly grated Romano cheese or nutritional yeast.
• Whip up a weeknight dinner with an any-greens frittata: Sauté onions and garlic in a heavy stovetop-to-oven worthy pan, such as cast iron. Add washed, torn greens, and cook until wilted. Pour scrambled, seasoned eggs over greens, and top with a cheese of your choice. Cook over low heat on the stove top until beginning to set, then transfer to the oven and bake until top is set and cheese is melted and beginning to brown.
• Surprise your guests with a Swiss chard saag (Indian creamed spinach): Fill a pot with washed chard leaves, and add a cinnamon stick, some grated fresh ginger, and a chopped jalapeño, tomato, and small onion. Cover and cook over medium heat until greens are very tender. In a separate pan, sauté another chopped onion and some crushed garlic, then throw in generous, equal doses of ground cumin and coriander (about a tablespoon each). Remove from heat. Puree the greens in a blender or with an immersion blender (remember to remove the cinnamon stick), then stir in the spiced sautéed onions. Season well with salt. Seriously, it works!

Looking to develop your skills as a seasonal chef? Urban Farmhouse offers individual and group cooking classes to help you make the most of the garden and market. Contact [email protected] for more information.