The Fat of the Land

Category: Leaf

The Kale Effect

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Nearly twenty years ago, I landed my first wage-earning job as a cashier at my small town’s natural foods co-op. A high school sophomore, my qualifications for the position were that I wanted spending money and I had an in with the manager, a family friend. The only items in the store that I knew much about were the processed and packaged ones—blue tortilla chips, carbonated fruit juices, “natural” mac and cheese—that were my family’s translation of the mainstream products I’d spent years coveting in friends’ lunchboxes.

The whole foods were unknown to me; filberts, adzuki beans, bee pollen, Swiss chard, kale, quinoa, and other exotically named ingredients made for a steep learning curve that had me bluffing my way through many an afternoon shift. A year in, some semblance of understanding began to form, though mostly from a spectator’s perspective; I wasn’t a cook and retained my childhood aversion to most vegetables. In the back of the store there was a small vegetarian deli that slowly began to change all that.

Called Pearl’s Kitchen, this literal hole-in-the-wall churned out sandwiches stacked high with fresh vegetables, vibrant salads sold by the pound dressed in boldly flavored vinaigrettes, and a handful of vegetarian entrees. Pearl, the sole-proprietress, was a soft-spoken woman whose narrow, smooth face cracked with radiance when she smiled. Her sandy, fine-textured hair cut stylishly short and her tasteful clothes gathered at the waist with a long canvas apron, she exuded a casual sophistication the Birkenstock-and-jeans-wearing co-op staff and I couldn’t match.

It was the mid-1990’s and in my part of the Midwest, hummus was still counterculture; greens like arugula, mustard, and kale were downright mysterious to the average small-town Wisconsinite. It was Pearl’s cooking alone that got me to cough up some of that newly-earned spending money for things like bok choy salad, BBQ tempeh, or wraps filled with spiced lentils. My mom’s influence and instruction are what made me a cook, but Pearl’s Kitchen and the Whole Earth Co-op planted the seeds of my palette. By the time I left for college, I was a dedicated vegetarian with a hotplate intent on cooking most of my own meals atop my dorm room desk.

Still, I didn’t try cooking kale on my own until I was two years out of college. Those rigid, waxy leaves, that unavoidable greenness, had always seemed too extreme. I’d come a long way from my processed-food-coveting days, but I didn’t think I’d come that far. Armed with a recipe card from the produce aisle and a sense of adventure, I brought what seemed at the time to be an enormous bouquet of frilly greens home and set to work.

The recipe was ridiculously simple: clean the kale, cut away the fibrous stems and tear the leaves into pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan; throw in slivered garlic, then the torn leaves, water from washing still clinging to their corners. Stir to coat and cover.

When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, briny steam warmed my face and I stared in disbelief at how the pot, overflowing to the point of absurdity when I’d covered it, was now less than half full of shimmering, dark green leaves, looking like a pile of beached kelp. I was even less sure now, but I finished the recipe, cooking off any remaining liquid and tossing the steaming leaves with a healthy dousing of sesame oil and a pinch of salt just before scooping a small serving onto my plate.

The flavor was nothing like I expected—green, yes, slightly bitter, perhaps, but also richly sweet and deeply satisfying, cloaked in nutty sesame oil dressing. Much to my surprise, I ate the whole pot.

Kale comes from a world that knew nothing of mac and cheese, natural or otherwise. The people who brought kale in from the wilderness and nurtured it saw (or tasted) its potential as a nutritious food. And, after years of careful selection, Kale became an important source of fresh flavor during a time of year known as the hunger gap—those desperate months when the cellar stores ran low and the weather did not allow much in the garden to grow.

We joke about kale now, its ubiquity and cult-like following. Kale is over, we say, ready for something bolder, less familiar. But in our country, kale filled a different kind of hunger gap, one in which produce came from the freezer or the pantry, where lettuce was crunchy and white and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Heirloom seed-saving, organic farming, seasonal eating—kale was a compelling, if unlikely, ambassador of these movements. Something deep in its cells still charms us into believing our lives will be improved by eating it.

I, too, am always eager for the next thing. I’ve tired of kale salads and chips and am ready for new flavors. Even so, a pile of garlicky sautéed kale still seems to go with almost anything. I never tire of that trick—the one where an impossible mound of tough, bitter leaves melts into complex mouthfuls of yielding, ageless nourishment.

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In Defense of Mustard Greens

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Of all the vigorous greens from which we select our weekly staples at market, perhaps none elicits more bewilderment than the mustards. A member of the seemingly infinite brassica tribe (which includes, among many others, kale, broccoli, and cabbage), the mustard family tree is complex and navigating its myriad branches is like committing to a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not to mention that a mere nibble of some of the more pungent varieties can set your tongue tingling with eye-popping spice.

Unsurprisingly, those of us raised without so much as a forkful of mustard greens tend to pass by their tender, undulating, often brightly painted bundles for more familiar forage. I know I did until, working as a farmhand, I found myself with massive quantities of them (said bunches ignored at market). Poor enough not to refuse free food, I took them home and gave them a go, sautéing the chopped greens in oil and garlic. Their infamous heat (the sort that feels like a soda rocket shooting up your nose only to crash and fall back on your tongue in flames) had all but vanished.

The cooked greens were bitter, but not unlikeably so, with a lasting pepper-scented nuttiness that seemed to buoy up the delicate herbal and mineral notes. Like spinach, their texture melted to softness with the bounce of stiff custard, a few bits of stem still sporting a slight crunch. The next day, feeling confident now, I added sautéed mustards to eggs scrambled in butter: vitamins cloaked in luxury. For the rest of the season, I chopped huge bunches into tomato sauce for pasta, dumped them into soups, set everything and anything on beds of them. And when my stint at the farm was done, I found myself truly missing them.

Mustard greens tend to get confused among a whole library’s worth of Brassica varieties that originated in the Central Asian Himalayas and were developed over thousands of years across the Asian continent, often referred to, in a breath, as Asian greens. If we take a moment to imagine all the diversity of European brassicas (kales, collards, cabbages, broccolis, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, turnips, etc.) lumped under a single label, let’s say “European greens,” we can begin to comprehend the gross oversimplification (and ethnocentrism) of the term “Asian greens.”

Swimming among a rousingly diverse sea of pak chois, Chinese cabbages and broccolis, Japanese turnips, mizunas, mibunas, and tatsois (to name a few), the mustards rank as one of the most directly translatable to Western cuisine. Their screaming raw heat puts many off, though, as I discovered, cooking reduces it to a whimper. Nutritional powerhouses, they are high in many vitamins and minerals and cooked mustard greens have a special talent (shared with kale and collards) for lowering cholesterol.

Looseleaf types make lovely and mild salad greens when harvested young. Once mature, they range in size from dinner plate broad to feather narrow, dressed in various shades of green, purple, and red, their leaves frilled like a tutu, deeply cut and toothy, or rounded and smooth. Some have narrow, tender stems, others thick, juicy stalks ideal for pickling or braising.

Heading types are often milder, producing tightly wrapped hearts of blanched leaves and a meaty central stem favored for pickling. Roughly chopped, these heads also make a delicious addition to the soup pot or sauté pan.

All types, when allowed to linger a few extra weeks in the garden, send up slender flowering stalks. Though not strictly a broccoli, these flowering stems (sometimes sold as mustard raab) have the sweet and tender nature of their European cousin and are highly prized in my garden. If you miss a few of those stems and they end up in full bloom you may (by sheer neglect alone) permit them to mature into seedpods. The tiny black or brown seeds, crushed and pestle-blended with vinegar, sugar, and spices, will make an exciting condiment that may be delicious on a hot dog.

The thing about mustard greens is that there isn’t any reason at all not to eat them except, of course, that you might not have tried them yet. Pick up a bunch; it doesn’t matter so much which one. Maybe you like juicy stems, maybe not. Maybe the purple splashes laced with fuchsia call to you (they call to me), maybe the lime green frills. Cook them like spinach—in pasta sauce, an omelet, with pork loin rolled around them—or, slathered in some gingery garlicky soy-salty sauce, cook them like a mustard green. They won’t know the difference.

Chicories

The bitter end of the flavor spectrum often gets a bad rap—literary connotations of resentment, coldness, and malevolence certainly don’t help, reinforcing our dismissal of bitterness as unequivocally undesirable in our food and elsewhere. While bitter may deserve its reputation as our least-trusted flavor (many poisonous plants contain bitter alkaloids we are conditioned to reject), avoiding all things bitter is like leaving out an entire musical scale, notes that could add poise and complexity to the melody of your meal.

Winter is the season of the chicory, bitter’s eccentric clan of delightfully edible (and delicious) cold-hardy greens. Both Mediterranean natives, Italy is the chicory’s biggest fan, and the country that has most extensively explored the genetic and culinary possibilities of this species. This winter, make like an Italian and cut winter’s sweet, starchy certainty with a sprinkle of rousing bitter greens.

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Sugarloaf

Named for their dense, loaf-shaped heads of tightly packed leaves, sugarloaf is chicory masquerading as lettuce. They have a touch of sweetness—thick midribs and blanched hearts yielding a juicy, bitter crunch that finishes with citrus-like sugar. Their sturdy leaves and palate-cleansing liquor do well dressed in strong flavors like anchovy, mustard, tarragon, or lemon (add a pinch of sweetener to your vinaigrette to tone down chicory’s bitter notes). Roughly chopped, sugarloaf stands up to braising or simmering; added to clear broths with vegetables or to white beans in their cooking liquid, they make for a simple, warming meal.

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Radicchio

Technically a whole category of chicories, radicchio usually refers to the deeply pigmented, cabbage-headed sort whose burgundy red splash became ubiquitous in salad mixes of the late 90’s. Uncooked radicchio offers stunning visual appeal and robust flavor. Heat mellows its bitter notes but also muddies its color; if you are drawn to a head of radicchio for its redness, know to use it raw. Sliced thinly, radicchio accents creamy pasta, gratins, or coleslaw with a splash of tonic red and adds depth to sweet grains like farro or barley. There are few places a tangle of radicchio doesn’t fit, especially in heavy, starch-forward winter.

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Frisee

A member of the endive branch of the chicory tribe, frisee (also known as escarole) is a lettuce-like head of finely cut green leaves whose center begins to self-blanch at maturity (or can be forced to do so more extensively when the head is covered with an overturned bowl). Coral branch of the salad bowl, frisee adds visual texture to mixed greens. Dressed in nothing but vinaigrette and salt, frisee makes an elegant, palate-cleansing garnish to roasted meat, strong cheeses, or pizza fresh out of the oven.

Treviso

Treviso

A type of radicchio, Treviso’s name refers to the region of Italy where this chicory was cultivated to distinction. The contrast of its mild, slightly pithy midrib and sharply bitter, wine-colored leaves has earned Treviso a cult following in European markets. Ranging in form from long and narrow to curled, medusa-head tangles, Treviso leaves are often left whole on the plate to cup a spoonful of salad or add a line or two of architecture. Cut in half and lightly dressed, Treviso heads braise or grill to perfection, a preparation that tames their bitter edge but (like radicchio) dulls their red. Using raw chicories is often a game of contrasts: slice into ribbons and toss with caramelized delicata wedges and a sharp vinaigrette for a dish that embodies bitter-sweet.

Dandelion

Dandelion Chicory

Not a dandelion at all, dandelion, or Catalogna, chicory does bear a strong resemblance to that familiar garden weed. Though some farms forage true dandelion greens from their fields, bundles of large, arrow-headed leaves with light green stems are more likely this looseleaf chicory. Eaten raw, their powerful bitterness suits only the hardiest green eater. Sautéed, simmered, or creamed, dandelion chicory flavors like an herb, adding tonic, vitamin-dense greenness to even the richest of dishes. Need a simple New Year’s breakfast to strip away the old year in a few cleansing bites? Top garlicky sautéed dandelion chicory with a poached egg, letting the silky yolk coat each purifying bite.

Sicilian Chard

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Hailed by the puzzling title, Swiss, chard doesn’t have a particularly storied history in that Alpine nation. Though chard has been grown and eaten there for centuries, Switzerland is neither the vegetable’s homeland nor its most fervent consumer.

Rumors circulate as to why chard is so adamantly referred to as Swiss: the scientist who gave chard its scientific nomenclature was a Swiss man and the term is used in deference to his effort, American seed companies used the qualifier ‘Swiss’ to differentiate chard from French spinach varieties, or that Switzerland is where chard was bred to be the vegetable we know it as today.

While such claims may hold a nugget or two of truth, the vegetable’s etymology provides more convincing evidence. The word ‘chard’ was once (as recently as the early 20th Century) used interchangeably to refer to both the inner stem of an artichoke plant and the leafy, succulent-stemmed beet-relative. In old French, cardoon, a variety of artichoke cultivated for its tender blanched stems, was referred to as ‘carde.’ Though chard and artichoke are completely unrelated botanically, their stems do bear some resemblance.

To picture this, you must imagine chard as it looked then—the same dark green, savoyed leaves we would recognize today crowning, in most varieties, a white or pale green stem. Lopped of their foliage, cardoon and chard stems could easily be confused, both resembling wide, pale celery stalks.

In the spirit of clarity, seed catalogs did distinguish the two chards, ‘Swiss’ added as a notation that the chard would be of beet-plant origin. The region that comprises modern-day Germany was one of the most zealous diasporas of the chard and beet clan, responsible for much of the vegetables’ development into what we grow and eat today. Perhaps Swiss had a better ring, and Germany’s southern neighbors, link between chard’s ancient homeland and its enthusiastic adopter, were likely to be chard-loving people as well.

Both Beta vulgaris in botanic nomenclature, beets and chard are nearly the same plant, one cultivated for its swollen root, the other for its stems and foliage. Of the two, chard more closely resembles the wild plant from which they were derived. Known today as sea beet, the ancestral chard and beet plant is native to the Mediterranean rim, liking, as its name implies, the sandy soils and temperate climate of its maritime home.

If chard were to have an associated nationality, it should instead be Sicily. Perhaps the sea beet’s earliest adopters, Sicilians introduced their own selections to the mainland—plants with tender leaves and stems, better adapted to garden cultivation than wild varieties. As chard was passed northward, gardeners selected for the qualities they preferred. Beta vulgaris exhibits wide genetic variability and from those rich resources millennia of gardeners uncovered myriad stem colors and sweet, long-storing roots.

Chard is a dependable, long-season green, a mainstay of temperate-region gardens from early spring until the first hard freeze. Beets filled in the rest of the caloric calendar, offering sustenance from the root cellar in months when the garden was covered in snow. Freshly sprouted leaves from cellared beets in late winter historically provided much needed nutrients. Beta vulgaris played a vital role in feeding continental Europeans for thousands of years, thus its place in their cuisines is paramount. An essential potherb, chard leaves appear widely in soup and rice dishes, its stems in gratins and braises.

It’s true, chard tastes something like spinach. Such was the claim that convinced me to try those intimidatingly outsized leaves back when they seemed as exotic as passionfruit or mango. Sautéed in oil and garlic, I discovered chard’s deep, earthy quality and mild saltiness. A Sicilian at heart, chard maintains an affinity for its ancient nursery grounds, a touch of brine to its otherwise mild manner.

As a gardener, I came to prefer chard to spinach as its temperament is more even and its growing season more forgiving. A ubiquitous presence in my gardens, thriving in spring and fall, passably surviving summer’s heat waves, I unwittingly began to know it as Sicilian chard: dependable, endlessly useful, deeply nourishing.

Vitis

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There is a stark contrast between supermarket grapes and those lounging on farmers market tabletops this time of year. One is ubiquitous, somewhat sweet, somewhat acidic, often watery, whose lackluster qualities have tamed our desire for musky, deeply sweet grape flavor. The other ranges from mild to disarmingly complex, depending on the variety: sometimes seedless, sometimes crunchy (don’t believe you should spit out the seeds!), skins thick with aromatic pigments, whose chewing sends up smells and sounds and fills the mouth with divine nectar.

The life of a supermarket grape is unglamorous at best. Because of the same constraints that always plague large-scale distribution of delicate produce, supermarket grapes are often picked before they are fully ripe in order to survive the shipping process and lengthy tenures in storage and on display in the produce aisle.

Most conventional grape growers treat their immature fruits with a plant hormone called gibberellic acid, which elongates each grape, increasing the cluster’s weight by up to 75%. To prevent molds from damaging the tender fruits and to keep up an appearance of freshness through weeks of cold storage, conventional grapes are often fumigated with sulfur dioxide. Overall, conventionally grown supermarket grapes are one of the most chemically treated fruits you can buy.

Though most supermarket grapes end up living in refrigerator drawers, grapes and their flavors are creatures of the sun. The original species responsible for many of our market varieties are native to the eastern United States. The fox grape (Vitis labrusca), the muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), and the river bank grape (Vitis riparia) are all deft climbers, easily scaling tall tree canopies to stake out a sunny perch without investing in widely girthed trunks of their own.

Table grapes allowed to sweeten on the vine gain more than just greater sugar content. Their dusty blue or purple skins are rich in anthocyanins (an antioxidant with potential to reverse memory-loss and inhibit cancerous tumor growth), and both their skin and seeds contain resveratrol (a lipid regulator responsible for the rumor that drinking wine could lower your chances of having a heart attack). Commercial grapes also contain some of these beneficial substances, but in much lower (and blander) concentrations.

Home grape growers experience the Vitis clan in all their wily splendor. Exuberant and untidy, grapes grow wildly in all directions if left to their own devices. A strict pruning regiment is essential, cutting back old woody growth (which will not produce grape clusters), in order to encourage buds of fresh, fruitful growth.

Home growers also get the bonus of easy access to grape leaves, an untapped Old World culinary treasure. Briny, surprisingly sweet, and meltingly tender, the young leaves of an early summer grapevine make the best dolmas you’ve ever had, or a robust substitute for spinach in anything cooked (think Greek and Turkish cuisines, which traditionally made good use of this abundantly available green).

Those who’ve eaten only supermarket grapes may be surprised at the range of flavors exhibited by what they find at the farmers market. Small farm (and garden) grown grapes have character—flavor profiles all their own—with myriad applications in both sweet and savory preparations.

Start by forgetting everything you thought you knew about grapes. Roasted alongside chicken legs or duck, their flavors intensify, creating a pan sauce with wine-like complexity. Pressed into focaccia, they are like tart, juicy raisins, savory and aromatic dressed with sea salt and rosemary. Married with salty cheese and garlic or onion, they are excellent on pizzas, galettes, and salads.

Sweet and succulent berries that they are, grapes fit easily into pastries: scones, sweet tarts, pies, cakes, or clafoutis. Their deep purple juice makes a striking sorbet, syrup, or jelly. Vitis means to wind, bend, or branch. Like the grapevine snakes its way through jungly undergrowth into the open air, grapes’ adaptability as an ingredient easily finds its way into imaginative cooking. And when there isn’t time or enticement, they always satisfy served in their majestic simplicity, as they have for millennia: unadorned, from the palm of your hand.

Sol Food

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When we think of sunshine foods, we default to adjectives like fruity, floral, and exotic. We imagine coconuts, passion fruit, and peppers rather than cabbage, lettuce, or kale. Though mango and pineapple do not survive this northerly climate, our own brand of sun-steeped harvests makes its appearance this time of year.

Falling between June 20th and 21st, the solstice represents more than opening day of summer shenanigans. Denoting the sun’s longest journey across the sky, the summer solstice is also known to gardeners as the time of endless greens—bottomless heads of lettuce, kale with wide paddles for leaves, unrestrained growth in every direction.

Though the solar calendar says it’s summer now, our climate tends to linger in the doorway a bit longer, extending spring showers and cool temperatures intermittently into early July. This oscillation of warm, sunny stretches and cooler, rainy days helps to check the growth of these greens, allowing them to take full advantage of mid-June’s extra long days.

Our lengthiest day of the year totals just short of sixteen hours of sunlight. To a plant’s physiology, extending day length is akin to increasing production hours. The chlorophyll in plant leaves is active in the presence of sunlight; the more sun there is, the more energy a plant is capable of synthesizing.

Plants invest some of the season’s surplus energy into creating more chlorophyll (and therefore more surface area, i.e. larger leaves), which in turn both creates an ability to manufacture more stored energy and a need for someplace to store it. In step luscious root crops like beets, radishes and turnips that seem to materialize over night as the solstice nears—the latter two transforming from tiny seeds to hefty bundles in under a month.

The whole garden is a rowdy place in June. What was freshly turned soil studded with seedlings becomes a bubbling quilt of colors and textures, plants touching shoulders with infectious camaraderie, vines tangled and climbing toward the sun that fuels them. Even slowpokes like carrots, potatoes, and onions seem inspired to catch up to their neighbors.

Perhaps the same spirit that infects the vegetables rouses the gardener as well, and perhaps some of the affection we have for this season comes from the sun’s penchant to party. We feel an urge to get out, to see, to commune and celebrate, to sit in the sun’s radiance. A garden in solstice is that urge made visible, and an appeal to find numerous and interesting ways to prepare a salad, to cook a turnip, to embellish kale or mustard greens or cabbage.

We are lucky to live in a place where we can grow tasty greens year-round, but I think solstice greens are the finest—tender and succulent in their freshness, glowing with the deep, verdant pigments of ample sunlight and water. No trials of heat or cold to endure, they open to their fullest, most vulnerable beauty.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by a garden, for the undesirables grow as quickly as the desirables, and I am often overwhelmed until a wave of summer heat tempers the revelry. But in that heat, I begin to miss those soft, sweet leaves and the lush, hulking garden that produced them. So I try to savor every bit of it now, weeding and eating my way through these long, exquisite days.

The Flavor Green

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There is something common among the canon of spring vegetables that is found few other places—a freshness that cannot be fully preserved, a tenderness and depth of subtle flavors that quietly slips away in the heat of summer, lacks the robustness to survive winter. As spring days lengthen and the rich soils warm, the world becomes green for a few delicious months, and we dine on its delicate plenty.

Certainly leaf vegetables and herbs taste green year-round—that sometimes bitter, sometimes astringent, always tonic hallmark of healthiness—but the flavor green belongs to spring. In spring, arugula is succulent and nutty, pea shoots are soft and rich as butter, kale leaves are tender enough to eat in raw mouthfuls, lettuce’s bitter notes are balanced by sweetness and green substance. The flavor green even goes so far as to permeate the milk of grass-fed ruminants, lacing it with powerful odors (too strong for some) that taper into sweeter, floral aromas, casting the milk in deep orange hues.

The green color of plants comes, of course, from chlorophyll, the primary pigment responsible for transforming light energy into chemical energy. This explains the increase of green pigment in spring; more sunlight means plants leap into action, capitalizing on the newly available energy. But just what makes spring vegetables—and the flavor we think of as “green”—taste so opulent this time of year is more difficult to nail down.

Though most people associate chlorophyll with green-tasting foods, it is, from a cook’s point of view, mostly color. Hidden by chlorophyll’s powerful presence are concealed pigments that complement its work. When it comes to flavor, the carotenoids (ranging in color from yellow to orangey-red) may be some of the most significant of these accessory pigments. Acting as a buffer, carotenoids provide chlorophyll with light reserves as well as shield it from excess light that would otherwise cause harm.

Beyond their role as pigment, carotenoids double as precursors to flavor compounds as well as A-vitamins. Left in their whole state, functioning as light harvesters, carotenoids have neither intrinsic flavor nor odor. When processed by enzymes or oxidization, their chemical components convert to vitamins and antioxidants (as in the human digestive tract) as well as flavor.

As we chew a green leaf, the tearing action of our teeth releases enzymes present within the leaf itself that quickly convert carotenoids into some of those grassy flavors we associate with chlorophyll’s green color. Other flavor compounds are released by chewing, and in complex concert create the particular flavors we know as lettuce, asparagus, pea, and so on. Even black tea, whose chlorophyll has been converted away from green by oxidization, has carotenoids to thank for some of the lighter, grassier elements of its flavor profile.

Spring milk, too, gets its hint of green from carotenoids. Ruminants are capable of transferring the A-vitamins they’ve gleaned from carotenoids (and all associated flavor compounds) into their milk, so a diet higher in fresh forage will translate to stronger flavors (and more vitamins) than milk from primarily grain-fed ruminants. Not surprisingly, the color of spring milk, a rich yellow-orange, comes from carotenoids as well.

To me, the flavor green is equally a texture, that soft, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness only spring vegetables have. The serendipity of fresh molecular content, soft fibers, ample moisture and fewer bitter compounds may all have a hand in fashioning the subtleties of early-season flavor.

In our region, spring is a cavalcade of moisture and sunlight, one following the other in sometimes hourly successions, tempered by cool nights. While the nutritional content of spring vegetables is certainly not greater than their summer counterparts, it is available in abundant and succulent mouthfuls.

Garden Pearls

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May marches in with a ruffled lettuce cape, an asparagus crown studded with radishes, a necklace of glowing green pearls. Baskets of crunchy-sweet peas at the farmers’ market seem the poster child of spring vegetables—crisp, light, sugary and satisfying, they are the perfect snack food and a straightforward ingredient.

Historically, peas were harvested in their dried form and cooked, year-round, into thick porridges accented with seasonal vegetables and herbs. Peas’ high protein content made them a nutritious alternative to meat, and a staple of the commoner’s kitchen. Native to temperate regions of the Middle East and central Asia, the garden pea’s ancestor, known today as field peas, nourished generations of early civilizations and is thought to be one of the first agricultural crops.

Peas eaten fresh, as we think of them, were an Italian innovation. Italian botanists of the late Middle Ages selected a pea variety for earlier plantings and green pea harvest. Dubbed piselli novella (new peas), this novel crop quickly became popular with the Italian nobility, and traveled with Catherine de Medici to France, where farmers took this new genetic material and ran—cultivating sweeter and sweeter varieties, which they called petits pois (little peas). These varieties are known today as shelling peas, those whose pod is too fibrous to eat, but whose peas are the tender, creamy, silky rich sweetness a porridge-eater could only dream of.

Edible pea pods were also likely a European invention, though some claim that Chinese farmers may have also cultivated an edible pod type. In Europe, the pea’s biggest fan may have been the English, who are one of the earliest and most enthusiastic cultivators of garden varieties, though Holland is often credited with developing the first edible pods. Peas, in all three forms, came early to the New World and were staples of colonial settlements for their dry storage ability and high protein content.

Thomas Jefferson declared the pea his favorite vegetable, and in his garden at Monticello he grew 30 varieties, competing among the neighbors for earliest production. Those who make an annual practice of planting peas into their soggy spring soil know the feeling; peas are one of the first seeds we sow each year, and as such embody those first hopeful imaginings of a bountiful garden. At that stage of the game, looking over a garden still deep in hibernation, imagination is required.

Pea seeds sprout relatively quickly, and in cool soils, promptly providing the first hard evidence of a garden, but fruiting takes about two months. While the wait can be long for the main course, pea plants are themselves a sort of appetizer. Long embraced by Asian cuisines, the tender growth tips of the pea plant are a seasonal delicacy becoming more popular in American markets and restaurants. While harvesting and selecting pea shoots (sometimes called pea tips) has a few tricks, the rewards are worth the diligence.

Pea shoots, when harvested while still young and tender, are the most sumptuous green I know. They taste very much like a pea—all of its mellow richness and delightful nuance—with a depth only greens can provide; their cellular density designed for energy conversion and growth harnesses pea flavor and delivers it, in some perfectly concentrated form, in the space of a few delicate munches.

Pea shoots harvested too late in the game are fibrous, frustrating things. Cooking does them no good, so I suggest you save your pea shoot aspirations for only the best. When buying them at the market, test the stems for tenderness: pea shoots should separate easily with a small amount of pressure from your fingernail; those that resist will do the same to your teeth.

If you have a bit of garden space waiting for tomatoes or some other summer crop, consider a dense scattering of pea seeds (they can be planted up to five seed per inch) sown in succession over a few weeks. Cut the plants back once they reach about six inches (3-4 weeks from germination, though check them frequently for tenderness and harvest once the lower stems start to stiffen) and re-sow if your planting schedule permits. Sowing pea seeds for the purpose of harvesting them as shoots eliminates two problems at once: you won’t be checking the growth of those you planted for pod harvest and you can easily snip a handful or two of perfectly tender shoots all at once.

When those crunchy pods do arrive, in the garden or at market, know they are an ideal nutritional package: high protein, healthy fats, a rich assortment of vitamins. Peas are best when harvested early in their pod-forming stage and when eaten fresh, before their sweetness turns to starch, which continues even after harvest. For optimum flavor and nutritional benefits, keep a fresh and steady supply on hand.

Salad as Still Life

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Salad is an ancient meal. Our modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from the baskets of leaves gathered in forests and meadows since before remembered time. Our tastes have expanded and contracted over the millennia; the iceberg faze of the mid-twentieth century being the most recent contraction, and the diversity of greens we see in today’s markets and restaurants the next expansion.

Salad has changed the way I see my own garden. Still the place I once intended it to be—rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, radish for slicing, kale for soups or braising—it has also become something akin to those ancient meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils and, when they come, whole blossoms or petals of flowers. Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with a surprising complexity of flavor. And I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified specimens from the forest floor for a quick burst of flavor, a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the next meal. (Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden, is not without its hazards.  Be safe and look it up if you don’t know.)

Since I began harvesting my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. And with a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad ingredients as a painter would her paints. I search for beauty in juxtaposition, so diverse my palette of flavors and textures has become: silky, curly, nutty, tender, mineral, crunchy, buttery, briny, fibrous, juicy, bright, bitter*, grassy, tangy, hot.  From herbs a whole spice cabinet of accents is available—anise, cinnamon, pepper, clove. And the colors! Deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as sweet and new as spring itself stretching all the way to green that is almost black, pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. The garden holds as many possibilities as the painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, subtle flavors of greens grown in the sparse sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside to collect at whim: small leaves from the bolting stalks of overwintered kale or broccoli, mache, baby arugula, mizuna, pea shoots, spring planted chard, miner’s lettuce, bittercress and, of course, plump lettuces (crowns of the spring garden) with names like ‘Divina,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt and a good toss will have you on your way, leaves glistening and bare, to museum quality.

*A quick note on bitter, the flavor in the garden perhaps most difficult to love. In my experience, there are two main categories of bitter: the one that fills the mouth with a hard, pungent taste that lingers the way skunk musk persists over a patch of road, and the one that starts like the first but finishes sweet, a deep hint of caramel at the back of your mouth that makes you reach for another leaf. I used to go for nothing bitter, and now the second category, with its alluring sweetness, has become something I rarely want a salad to be without.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 3, 2012)