FOOD FOR THOUGHT
By Kristen Davenport
“We began as a mineral. We emerged into plant life and into the animal state, and then into being human, and always we have forgotten our former states, except in early spring when we slightly recall being green again.” —Rumi
In late winter, before the snow has really started to melt up here in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, we can step outside our south-facing door and see signs of green. It might be drab out there, but against the warm backdrop of walls, with southern sun, we start to see the chives sending up their buds like little porcupines, the grass which day by day reveals a slight bit more blush of green. This time of year, waiting for the green to slowly creep back over the hillsides and along our fields, waiting for the green sprigs of garlic to show themselves, finding my 4-year-old in the evening with the season’s first set of too-pink cheeks, I start dreaming his knees green. I crave green.
This winter, I was reading a book called Eating the Sun which is a 430-page celebration of photosynthesis, the enchanting process of turning light into life, gathering in sunlight, turning it green. And, by the time the sun melts off the south dooryard, I know that out in the hoop house the kale is two inches high (give or take). The fun thing about greens is, you can grow them even in winter. Even at 8,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Since I started gardening as a college student, I’ve mostly been obsessed with greens. Oh, sure, growing a perfect heirloom tomato—especially at 8,000 feet—can become something of an obsession. Yes, rows of corn are downright pastoral and poetic. But greens? They’re just good. People sometimes complain that gardening in Santa Fe is too tough. Their tomatoes failed. Their chiles didn’t set fruit. I say: So what. You don’t need tomatoes. You need something green.
Michael Pollan, one of our nation’s only celebrity food writers, maintains in his book In Defense of Food that we should: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And mostly leaves.” That is to say: Humans eat too many seeds (wheat, oats, etc) and not enough leaves. The thing about greens is: They are, truly, nature’s perfect food. Not to bore you, but they contain all the vitamins and minerals you need. A cup of kale or collards has more calcium than a cup of milk (and, some say, more available for the body’s use). Greens fight cancer and help your heart. They cure your cataracts and mend your memory. Greens are a detox food. Greens get the blood of plants straight into your veins. It’s like shooting up sunlight.
And luckily, much of Northern New Mexico is the perfect place to grow leaves. And, if you think by “leaves” I mean some lettuce and spinach, you’ve got a whole world of wonderful tastes coming to you. Lettuce and spinach are a good start, but the leafing of greens is endless.
Last fall, when winter was just setting in, I went into my seed stash and started pulling out greens. I got one of those Ziploc sandwich bags and I dropped in little pinches of this and that and the other. And then I took it out to the hoop house and tossed it everywhere. And so, this spring, before the dandelions are really up in the orchard, while snow trickles onto the road from north-facing slopes above it, I can sneak into my hoop house in the afternoon and be greeted by a riotous revelry of green stuff in there, drinking up the warm spring sun.
There’s parsley, with its aromatic leaflets. There’s chervil, this lacey licorice-flavored lovely addition to salads. There’s mâche, a Frenchie green with a hint of bitter. There’s good old stiff, crunchy spinach. There’s raab, a luscious mustard family green that tastes a bit like broccoli (when you manage to catch the flowers in bud stage, before they open sunshine yellow). There are several kinds of kale—the Blue Lacinato dinosaur kale, a Red Russian, a Greenpeace kale.
We really love the flavor of the celery-lettuce mix called celtuce. There’s butterhead and deer tongue and Romaine. There are three kinds of spicy cress. There are odd turnips you grow for greens, although they are really green with deep purple ribs, called the Scarlet Ohno. There are radishes (whose greens are tart and hairy and delicious if you treat them right) and of course, the elegant arugula.
A meal of mixed greens picked straight into the salad bowl is perhaps one of life’s greatest pleasures. Last year, we had some interns at our farm who weren’t all that thrilled with the scene here—they came too early, before planting season really revved up, and spent a good chunk of the spring in drudgery, digging ditches in the mud. I think the only reason they stayed was the salad, which they ate from huge heaping bowls every night. For the record, you don’t need a hoop house to grow this kind of green feast. Any little cold frame—even a hoop of white row cover cloth—will grow greens almost year-round.
I believe, with a bad economy and high unemployment, more people are thinking about growing some of their own food this year. I’ve had people call to ask me, lately, what they should grow this year, how to approach starting a vegetable garden. Inevitably, they want to know how to grow all the sexy, fancy stuff—corn, peas, tomatoes. I tell them, start with greens. Start where it all begins, helping the sun turn the earth green.
Squeezed Radish Green Salad
This tasty, simple little salad is a perfect way to use the scratchy, but ever-so-healthful, greens that come on top of radishes. The recipe comes from my mother-in-law’s cookbook, “Craft of the Country Cook.”
1-2 pounds radish greens, washed
1-2 t. salt
1 T. Soy sauce
1½ t. rice or other vinegar
1½ t. sugar or honey
2 t. oil (sesame is nice)
Put the radish greens in a bowl and stir in a liberal amount of salt. Let the greens sit a bit to let the salt start working. Then, with your hands, start squeezing the radish greens vigorously. You’ll squeeze out a bit of the juice (and the salt). Discard the juice. Dress the squeezed radish greens with a dressing made from soy sauce, oil, rice vinegar and a bit of sugar. It’s nice with actual radishes, sliced thinly, and all tossed together.
Farmer John’s Mediterranean Greens Sauce
This is a versatile sauce from Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables. Farmer John recommends it to stuff ravioli, mushroom caps or a roast. It can be a nice side dish or poured over other dishes, such as pasta.
1½ T. chopped raisins
1 T. salt
2 pounds greens, any one or mix
2-4 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with a fork (so smashed, but whole)
4-6 anchovies, drained and mashed
2 t. rinsed capers
10 fresh black olives, pitted, cut in half
1/8 t. red pepper flakes
¼ C. grated parmesan
Soak raisins until plump. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add salt and then greens. Simmer until tender. Drain and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and squeeze out excess water when cool. Sauté garlic in olive oil but discard garlic at the end (this is done to flavor the oil). Add the cooked and drained greens and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add anchovy, capers and stir for 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, and then put the whole mix in a food processor. Add raisins, olives and hot pepper flakes and pulse in a food processer until mixture is finely chopped (but not pureed). You can also chop the ingredients with a large chef’s knife. Stir in parmesan and serve immediately.