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When the days grow longer and the unmistakable smell of spring fills the air, gardeners and foodies alike rejoice; fresh ingredients are right around the corner.
The first crops in the ground are greens. They thrive in cool weather, grow quickly and offer the fresh taste of the season we all long for. They're the first produce to show up in gardens, market stalls and CSA boxes. (CSA stands for "community-supported agriculture"; it's a scheme wherein farms sell and deliver to customers weekly boxes of whatever they're harvesting. It's a great way to support local farms and get the best produce.)
Whether you're looking through seed catalogs or standing perplexed before a box of leafy vegetables, prepare yourself to encounter some unfamiliar produce. The greens on offer these days go well beyond the old familiar lettuce and spinach varieties. But don't worry -- these green newcomers offer adventurous and wonderful choices for the kitchen.
One of the first greens to get picked is also the most nutritious: dandelion. The greens of this plant are surprisingly delicious but unfortunately a bridge too far for many who know them only as a lawn enemy. As long as there's nothing sprayed on them, dandelion greens can be picked from the lawn, but they are better grown in good soil. Yes, there are gardeners and farmers like me who actually plant dandelion seeds in the vegetable garden or move them from the yard to edges of soft beds filled with compost. For harvesting, the trick is to pick them before the tiny thumblike bud emerges in the center of the plant. After that they become even bitterer. They are an acquired taste, like hoppy beer, but once you embrace them spring isn't the same without them.
Dandelion greens make a great topping for pizza and pair well with red sauces for other dishes, including pasta. Traditionalist will saute the greens with bacon -- but doing that makes everything better. They are also great served with balsamic vinegar. Goat cheese cuts the bitterness.
Arugula is another green seen in the markets early in the season. Gardeners need to sow a crop every few weeks to keep it producing. Like many spring greens, once it bolts (goes to seed) it become inedible. Arugula is one of those love-it-or-hate-it greens; the spicy, pungent flavor though can turn any salad into something special. I'm experimenting with one this year called Sylvetta, also known as Rustic Italian, from Seeds of Change, an organic seed supplier. It comes back year after year in the right climate (zone 6 or warmer), which is departure from most varieties. Arugula is usually grown as an annual during the frost-free season. Since I love the flavor, I make a pesto out of the arugula, substituting it for basil with some added garlic. Arugula makes a great bed for an antipasto salad filled with fresh ingredients and splashed with good olive oil.
Kale is often overwintered with protection in colder climates and therefore one of the first crops harvested in spring. Red Russian and Lacinato are two easy growing and popular varieties for gardeners. I often joke that kale is really good for you but only edible when combined with some fatty pork. When I speak to garden groups, this remark unleashes a flurry of venom from the normally quiet, well-behaved kale lovers who insist on reciting their most loved recipes.
It is very nutritious, I'll give them that. Kale is filled with calcium, vitamins A and C and it's high in antioxidants. The key for many cooks who garden is to tear the leaves of the kale off the stems and boil the leaves in salted water until tender, then combine the soft leaves with chicken or pork. Another method is to take the leaves and saute them for a few minutes in butter, add some thinly sliced onions, cook them until translucent, and then add minced garlic for another minute. Add sea salt to taste and you've got great side dish. Add bacon and even kids would eat it (sorry, healthy kale lovers).
Beet greens are an unexpected treat early in the season. The trick for gardeners is to leave some of the roots in the ground over the winter, mulched with a thick layer of straw and maybe with something called a floating row cover over the bed. (That's a lightweight, reusable, translucent fabric that acts as a greenhouse over the sleeping plants.) The greens can be harvested first thing, and the beetroot is picked later.
Planting beet seeds very close together and not thinning them is a great way to get the greens all season. Some gardeners will sow thickly and thin the first sprouts for amazingly tender baby greens. They are often found in bunches at farmer's markets or delivered in the weekly CSA box.
A simple way to use beet greens is to blanch them for a minute, chop them and add them to a hot saucepan with a little garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper for a couple minutes. Then add some lemon juice and a little more olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. The beet greens also work well with pasta; use them as you would spinach, many times the greens will color the pasta pink or red, which is fun. My favorite all time beet is Chioggia, an Italian heirloom with red skin and white flesh with pink concentric circles. It looks like a target when sliced right. Chioggia is beautiful and tasty, and the greens can be harvested lightly during the season.
Escarole is one of those things many cooks don't know what to do with. It's a member of the chicory family, and it's plenty bitter -- another acquired taste. The outer leaves are deep green, but as the leaves lighten toward the inside of the plant they become less bitter. The greens are often used for traditional Italian soups or in salads with goat cheese or hard boiled eggs. Try combining escarole with anchovies and red pepper flakes to balance the bitterness.
Escarole is an endive, but it has smooth rather than curly ones. It's easy to grow from seeds or transplants; like most cool weather crops it needs a good, well-drained soil. Improve poor soils by adding compost or some other organic matter. Plants growing in good soil will be happier and tastier, and will fight off diseases and pests with vigor.
Greens in general are easy to grow. They're also good for you and easy to use in the kitchen. So there's no reason why you can't celebrate spring by eating your fill of them. Make it a point this year to explore the farmer's market, ask about new things, and challenge yourself a little to take advantage of the freshest produce the season has to offer.
Here's an easy recipe for arugula, but just about any green can be substituted.
Roasted Pepper Linguini Recipe with Arugula & Prosciutto
1 pound linguini (make it yourself if you can)
1 tablespoon good extra virgin olive oil (the best you can afford)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (less if you don't like it spicy)
4-8 cloves of fresh minced garlic
1/4 cup cold chicken stock
3-4 ounces good imported thinly sliced prosciutto
2 cups of roasted peppers (see note)
6 cups of arugula leaves
1/2 cup of toasted walnuts, crushed
Cook the pasta until al dente and put aside.
Heat a skillet with the oil to medium high, add the red pepper and garlic for a minute, keeping the garlic moving to avoid burning. Add the cold stock, which stops the garlic from cooking. Add the prosciutto and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring often.
Add the roasted peppers and let cook for a minute; then add the arugula and cook until wilted only, a couple minutes. Remove from heat and add the walnuts. Mix with the pasta, adding olive oil as needed.
Note: Roast the peppers yourself by putting them on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and baking them for about 30 minutes, or better yet fire up the grill and put them in a basket until soft.
Roasted Pepper Linguini with Arugula and Prosciutto Recipe
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