Season of Leaves: Greens and the Education of a Farmer

Starting our CSA (aka "Community Supported Agriculture") was a risk. I knew that I could grow vegetables, and more than we could eat - I'd proved that the previous year. I knew also that I could find some people who would believe me when I said I was competent to run a CSA. Beyond that, I was clueless. I'd never organized a garden to produce food for other people. I had no idea what I was doing. I'd scheduled twenty weeks worth of deliveries, starting in early June. I just didn't know what was going in the recycled laundry baskets I was using for my deliveries.

And in retrospect, early June is not a great time to start in upstate New York, at least without some more experience in season extension than I had. That first week, I had a small basket of tiny wild strawberries for each of my seven customers. I had a beautiful bouquet of peonies. There was a dozen eggs and two loaves of delicious fragrant challah. And there were greens. Those, I had a lot of - spring is the season of fresh green leaves.

There was a bouquet of mixed herbs - mint, chives, parsley and dill. There was a large bag of salad mix, sprinkled with yellow and purple johnny-jump-up petals and the orange and red petals of tuberous begonias to add flavor and color. There was a huge bunch of beet greens with tiny little red beets at the end. There was a mix of colored mustard greens and two small heads of lettuce.

I was charging what I saw then as the princely sum of $400 for twenty weeks (ridiculously low in retrospect) and looking at the basket, well, I was suddenly seized with the panic that my customers would begin calling me and demanding their money back with such a puny harvest. After all, I'd advertised it as a week's worth of vegetables, and we could eat that many green things in a weekend.

In a frenzy, I raced back to the garden and added more greens. A bag of baby rainbow swiss chard. A bunch of young turnip greens. Another bag of salad. One more bunch, this time of broccoli raab. Ok, now they can't complain *too* much, I thought, and if they do, well, I'll tell them it is just the first week. There will be lots more greens and things next week.

Well my phone did begin to ring shortly after that, but it wasn't with complaints about insufficient produce (I would learn later that customers were much more likely to complain that I'd given them more than they could use than too little). Instead what I got were compliments (the baskets are beautiful, so much wonderful food...) but weak comments..."but what will we do with all these greens?!?!?!"

It would not be the first time that I would learn that my family's eating habits might not be the best gauge of how others eat. I don't know how I became a green fiend, but I did - we eat no meals but breakfast without them. Either brassicas or salad greens (and by salad greens I do not ever mean "iceberg lettuce") or a member of the mustard family or some other sort of edible green stuff graces just about every meal at our house. Lunch this morning was stir fried dandelions and nettle greens. Tonight we're having baked sweet potatoes with ramps and sorrel. Broccoli, chard, kale, mustard, mizuna, edible chrysanthemum, nettles, lambs quarters, spinach, sorrel, purslane, cabbage, collards, bok choy, rapini, komatsuna, orach, malabar spinach, dandelion.... the list is endless and we grow or forage them all with delight.


Greens grow more easily than almost anything. There are greens that tolerate the worst heat and ones that do well in bitterly cold weather. We can overwinter spinach and mache here with minimal cover, and most years my kale comes back too. The sorrel and good king henry come up before anything else. And the weedy greens - stinging nettle, lambsquarters, dandelion, chickweed, purslane - well, these come up whether you want them to or not, and are free. If you don't have a lawn of your own to pick them out of, pick a friend who is not a friend to chemlawn and ask if you can come weed all the dandelions out of her lawn and take them home.

You can grow a good-sized salad in a container not much bigger than the bowl you would eat it out of - and have most of the greens grow back again for another salad a week later. You can plant out kale and collards and watch them grow through spring, through the heat of summer and eat them when snow covers them up.

Others are more delicate - transplanting asian greens is a delicate job - wait too long and they go rapidly to seed. Direct seed too early, they rot, too late, they bolt - but get it right and fill your stir fry pan with the most delicious, sweet and tender flavors.

Americans don't grow up eating greens for the most part, which is a pity, because we conceive irrational prejudices against them. The general assumption is often that they are either tasteless, or bad tasting. And I can understand why people think this - greens are one of the most delicate of products, and getting tasty ones through the industrial shipping process is difficult. Even more so is knowing when to eat them - kale tastes just fine in July, but it is fine and delicately sweet after a few frosts have converted to starches to sugar.

Broccoli raab, on the other hand, which is beloved for its extreme bitterness, is at its best just before bolting (after which it becomes a bit much). Most people like their mustards early, when they are tender and sweet, but I like them after they begin to bolt a bit, and they really heat up. Tossed in some water with noodles and miso, they make spectacular and bitingly spicy broth.

Greens can be hot as hot sauce, sour, bitter, sweet as sugar, crisp or tender, flavorful or delicate. They taste of anise, lemon, mint, onion, cucumber and a hundred other things purely their own. I truly cannot imagine a meal without them. And my children eat them - which astounds people - it seems strange that they would eat kale or thrill to have soup with sorrel and chives in them. But then, we are excited about these things, and children are good at picking up excitement. Moreover, my children love to pick and harvest them, and children have a relationship to things they gather themselves that is different in fundamental ways from food that appears by magic in front of them.

It is early in the season of leaves yet - but that's ok, that means we get to eat broccoli thinnings and the first tiny shoots of arugula, and treasure them. After a long winter of seeking out whatever greens were left in the garden, then turning to other farmers with better season extension techniques than mine, and finally to the coop for whatever non-local but at least green things there were, our meals are firmly anchored in our soil, and the greens are emerging.

If you don't like greens, perhaps this recipe will get you started. I've found that smothering anything with really good cheese sauce will pretty much seduce people ;-). I wouldn't call this super healthy if you eat it too often, but it will get you started.

1 large sweet potatoe (also good with potatoes) roasted until carmelized and soft
1 mess of steamed greens (however much you want to eat, but remember, they cook down fast), almost any kind, or a bunch of steamed broccoli or whatever green thing you like.

2 tbsp whole wheat flour
1 tbsp butter or oil
1/2 cup of milk
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese]
1 tsp chipotles in adobo or to taste (I like a lot)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp vinegar (rice wine is good)
sugar to taste, if you like it

Whisk butter and flour together to make a roux and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly to make smooth (if you want it a bit thinner, add more milk). Add cheese, continuing to stir, reducing to low heat. Add remaining ingredients, adjust flavors to taste. Slice open sweet potatoes, pile greens on top of orange bits, and add cheese sauce.


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Sounds a lot like my experience running a tiny CSA (although my customers were also confused by what to do with masses of Egyptian onion greens.) I used to hate greens, but now we eat them at least once a day, if possible.

I've just been introduced to dandelion greens this year (mostly because it was an abnormally cold winter, and when I wanted to eat greens, none of my cultivated ones were ready.) I liked them so much, that I'm actually contemplating the crazy notion of buying some seeds of a cultivated variety and growing those. Have you ever tried cultivated dandelions? Are they any better than wild ones?

Cool! In honor of my state, Indiana, you spelled potatoe in the Dan Quayle fashion! ;-)
Question, though: other than, say, Charles Bukowski, why would something be "beloved for its extreme bitterness"? That seems odd.
I'm a beginning gardener, but I'll be planting some things this weekend (if it doesn't storm!). Among them are several plants (and seed packets) of lettuce and spinach. We'll see!

By Mike Cagle (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

I currently have a pot of dandelions, foraged from my yard and my neighbor's, brining on my counter, waiting to be fermented into kimchi. I have "Independence Days" entirely to blame for this :)

JenW- how do you make dandelion kimchi?
Weeding suddenly sounds a lot more attractive.

Gosh, does this mean I can't say Quayle was an idiot anymore ;-)? Sigh.

There are vegetables, including bitter melon and broccoli raab whose pleasures involve their bitterness - it is possible to like bitter tastes - I do. I think the important distinction is that they not be unpleasantly bitter, which is a hard thing to explain without the green in front of you.

Anna, this is the first year I'm growing a cultivate dandelion - I've always had so many, but I was curious. I'll let you know, but I can't speak from experience. Anyone else?


Are there any cookbooks that focus on cooking with greens? My husband's a southerner and likes his greens, but I'm not and wasn't raised eating them much. I've tried to branch out and give them a try, but have been scared ever since my first attempt with turnip greens, sauteed with garlic in olive oil, was, in my opinion, about the most revolting thing I've ever served on my table. Gag.

By Alison S. (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

We live in NC, where people believe deeply in greens. Grocery stores sell them in giant bunches- collard, turnips, creesy greens... I have a bizarre love of reading school lunch menus, and have noticed that greens are often even included in lunches here. Almost exclusively, this devotion is limited to the meltingly tender kind that have been cooked for hours with fatback, hamhocks, or other pork products. These are delicious, but my family also loves greens chiffonaded and sauteed with garlic, oil and lemon served with poached eggs, or stir-fried with soba noodles, or even in sandwiches with hot pickled peppers. This kind of behavior is considered somewhat improper, so I don't tell the grocery clerks what I am up to with my greens.

I am so with you on that one Alison...I've tried some greens recipes, too, and just couldn't even force myself to eat them. Recipes and suggestions for good beginner greens (i.e., not too bitter) would be greatly appreciated!

Let me also add myself to the Quayle potatoe spellers :)

I think that people naturally crave greens after a long winter. Probably has to do with subclinical B vitamin deficiency at this time of year. In spring we grow & eat a lot of greens. I also intend to have a fall greens bed but usually am too burnt out on gardening by late summer to plant it. The bitter greens add interesting flavor to the salad if used in moderation.

Purslane (Portulaca) is a common "weed" in my garden but I tend to cultivate it rather than try to eliminate it. It's good in salads, the chickens like it and it can be dried, ground & used in soups & sauces. I have a really good red chili sauce recipe that calls for dried, ground purslane.

There's a prep school upstream on the irrigation ditch that allocates space for a community garden each year. A lot of effort goes into the soil preparation and planting of vegetables. By August the garden is overgrown with Kochia and other so-called "weeds." I guess that people just don't like to hoe. I hoe in the cool of the mornings & regard it as being like a meditation. (Btw, I think that derogatory words Like "weed" & "varmit" need to be dropped from the vocabulary, the same way that we've dropped racist & sexist words. It's unhealthy to think of plants & animals as "bad," and calling them by depreciating terms only contributes to the mindset of regarding them as being bad.)

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

We were shown by local "four season gardening" experts how to get greens earlier. We live in an area that gets to about -22 celsius - around -10 F or so in winter at about 50 degrees latitude. Anyway, in mid September we plant lettuce and spinach and then just throw a cold frame over it, that's it. They germinate and grow a tiny bit and then just sit there as young greens and manage to survive the winter. Then in Feb/March they start growing and we're eating salads by March. In fact, we ate salads in Jan and Feb, but that was just a little bit of baby greens and just to show off :)

I agree that there is something about greens in the spring when you're trying to eat locally, and have been living off of tubers, bulbs, cold-stored and canned, frozen, dried food. You can actually have a salad sitting alongside a pie and be drooling over the salad.

I'm pleased by so many commentators that saute greens. A very sparing coat of light oil and a bit of heat and salt can bring green vegetables, particularly greens and asparagus to life with color and breaks down that initial defensive coat into tasty sugar.

Beet green saute with a splash last minute steam is extraordinarily versatile and goes with everything from shrimp to fresh berries.

As for bitter, the point of a bit of heat to caramelize is that you gain a tension in the finish that is fantastic with one ingredient.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Sharon, I'd like to ask you a question apropos of this post. You didn't mention it here, but I'm pretty sure you've said before that you grow salad burnet. I put some in and it's impressed the hell out of me by surviving the winter with no help from me. At all. But it's not shaped like the greens that I'm familiar with using, and the taste, kinda got ignored in favor of other things last year. So, can I ask: what do you do with salad burnet, if in fact you do grow it? Do you pick off the leaves from the stem, chop it all up, or use it whole? Cook it, or eat it raw? I'd like to find a few good uses for it if I could. It would give me a reason to transplant these hardy survivors, rather than just getting rid of them.

I starting eating greens 14 years ago when pregnant with my first child; my midwife recommended the addition to my diet. I too started with a pot of sauteed greens with a bit of garlic, and couldn't choke down a mouthful. They're an acquired taste for most folks raised on American cuisine (absent the collard-eating southerners of course).

Instead of making greens an independent dish, for the novice greens eater I suggest making them a garnish style additive to dishes that you already like. I added greens to soups, stews, stirfries, etc., in small amounts and always finely chopped. Then as you adjust to the new flavors, make the pieces larger, still use them as an additive, and only after that start making them the centerpiece of a dish. When you make them their own dish, add other flavors like a sauce you enjoy, tamari, plenty of herbs or spices. Wholly steamed or sauteed greens with no other flavors are dishes for experienced greens eaters!

Also, greens are on a spectrum for strength of flavor. Spinach and chard are the most mild IMO. Then kale, beet greens, collards. Mustard greens and the like would be the most strongly flavored. Don't forget that the dark leafy lettuces are also greens to enjoy and are very mild as well. Start with the mild and progress to the strong as you develop your taste for them.

By Christina (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

@simba (#4) well, Sharon would be the one to ask about this, really, as I'm just adapting her recipe out of Independence Days (and at her suggestion, in the book). And, I've never made kimchi of any sort before. So it's all a big experiment! Yay!

Pulling the dandelions *was* a lot more palatable (ha!) knowing that I planned to eat them. Cleaning them...not so much. Big, tangly mess of dandelions, quite a lot of dirt, and a fair amount of grass. Hopefully, the addition of small bits of grass will lend a "fresh" flavor to the end result. :)

Two quart jars, currently resting in my cupboard..we'll see in a week or so how it turns out!

Here's a sort of all-purpose goop that I use for dressing, sauce, marinades, etc. that goes pretty well on lightly steamed greens. We use it on kale because kale grows like gangbusters out here, even when the whole rest of the garden turns to crap, but it works well on just about anything--poultry, fatty-type fish, shellfish, tofu chunks, regular fresh salads, anything.

3 tbsp. tahini
1/4 c. olive oil (sesame oil also works, canola or sunflower if you're in a pinch)
3 tbsp. wine vinegar
2 tbsp. honey or sugar
3-6 cloves minced garlic, to taste
~ 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp. fresh-ground coriander seed
1-2 tbsp. soy sauce, depending on what kind you use--we use a light mushroom-flavored soy sauce, but I'd imagine you'd want to use less of the dark super-salty kind
hot sauce to taste
Blend until creamy, then apply liberally to lightly-steamed kale.

A slaw-type sauce for the cabbage family:
1 small minced onion or bunch of scallions
1/2 c. good mayo
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cider vinegar
lots of fresh-ground black pepper
Doesn't really need salt at all. Toss over raw or lightly-steamed shredded cruciferous veggies. You can substitute half the mayo with sour cream or yogurt if, say, Spouse only left two spoonfuls in the jar.

Hot bacon dressing for the carnivores:
1/4 lb. thick-cut bacon
1/3 c. finely chopped onion or scallions
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
bunch of ground black pepper
optional, 2 tbsp. sour cream to make it creamy bacon dressing
Fry the bacon until done. "Done" here does not mean, "like your granny on a trichinosis freak-out," it means "crisped around the edges but still pliable in the middle." Take the bacon out of the pan, chop it and set it aside, reserve the dripping. Put the onion in the pan for just a minute or so, enough to saute briefly. In the salad bowl, mix the remaining ingredients with a whisk. Put the greens of choice in the salad bowl (dandelions are good for this one). Pour the hot bacon grease & onion over the greens and toss to mix immediately. The greens should wilt a bit without becoming slimy, and the whole thing will be just warm. Serve immediately.

I found when I sold veggies to a couple of people that their ideas about what veggies are ready when, and thus what they think I should be able to provide, does not match my ability to provide them. I also found we like stronger-flavored veggies than they did. It wouldn't be possible for me to provide what most people expect when they expect it, so I am not planning to sell extra veggies anymore.

My garden is much similar to yours - greens like sorrel and arugula, along with wild greens like dandelions and lambsquarters, are all I can grow this early without some kind of season extension. I am not interested in using plastic for such a purpose, so we eat what comes from the open garden and what we can forage, along with what is in our tiny cold frame (made from scrap wood and discarded storm windows). Eventually I intend to make more cold frames in order to overwinter things like kale, which don't like 0F and no snow cover.

But Sharon, greens are great for breakfast! Not that my husband would agree. ...
Allison, different greens have very different flavors and textures. I love greens (usually kale or chard) sauteed in olive oil, but always include alliums in some form, well-browned -- they add a tremendous amount of flavor. Sometimes that's just garlic, but more often includes finely diced onions or thinly sliced leeks. I don't tend to serve this by itself; it makes a lovely base for a fried egg on top, or to mix with fried potatoes or put on polenta. Sometimes I include some (fake) meat -- my favorite spicy soy sausage or bits of faux chicken, diced and well-browned. It's also delicious as a pizza topping (chop up the greens and dot them around the pizza on top of the sauce, in addition to whatever other toppings you like. In that case, I use garlic, no onions, and add a bit of either fresh basil or basil in salt).
I also make green quiche, by pureeing a handful of spinach with the quiche custard, and put a layer of sauteed onions and mushrooms on the bottom of the crust. It's delicious. However, I once made the mistake of trying that with some sort of very mustardy Asian green, and it was truly horrible -- inedible. Mustard greens are better in soup, or tamed down a bit in a potato hash sort of dish, in my opinion. Turnip greens are good very finely chopped and added to turnip potato soup. Or potatoe soup, if you prefer.

We eat greens for breakfast almost every day. Sautee finely chopped kale, grated carrot, diced onion and garlic. Add this to a mixture of beaten eggs and cook on the stovetop for the morning omelette - (DH's specialty).

Colcannon is a great way to eat greens: finely chop kale and add to potatoes as they are boiling. strain and mash with butter, milk...etc. The potato(e) water makes good soup.

Lamb's quarters are really delicious greens. I like chickweed, too, but you have to catch it before it flowers or it starts getting stringy.

Bitter is an acquired taste... I think it is good for digestion - like taking digestive bitters.

Some greens sautee well, but some are too tough to cook up well - although fine chopping helps. There are many kinds of mustards (and some are nasty). Some of the mild mustards are delicious, tender, (and hardy). The asian greens come in many shapes, sizes, tenderness, and flavors.

I've got an unfortunate deep-rooted aversion to green vegetables going back to childhood, so when I used to grow vegetables I was in the odd position of having to scramble to give them all away. I certainly never ate any myself - I just liked growing them. I'd undoubtedly be thinner and healthier if I had developed a taste for some of the stuff that I actually grew/grow. I have made a little progress, though. Not much, just being able to eat salad occasionally, but even that is a significant improvement for me.

Brocolli and bitter melon may be bitter but they are nutritious. Some people just can't take can't take intense flavors.