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.