A surprisingly wet (and mild) winter has turned my spring garden into a sea of greens. Leafy greens.
Swiss chard, winter kale, curly kale, Dinosaur kale, arugula, purple mustard, broccoli, spinach, oakleaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, curly leaf lettuce, lambs quarters and last but not least, dandelion greens, which have popped up everywhere just like weeds. Oh, wait. They ARE weeds. But at least they're tasty. Anyway, you get the picture. If you're a vegetable gardener, I'm guessing the same thing has been happening in your garden. And if, like me, you've been exclaiming to your neighbors (or your cats or your mailman), "What am I going to do with all these greens?" then perhaps I can help (or at least empathize), because I've had to expand my notions of going green during this rare season of plenty.
Needless to say, I've been eating a lot of greens. And I'm not talking about a simple sauté of greens in olive oil and garlic. Because my front yard garden is stuffed so full of greens of every texture and color and variety, I've had to think outside the simple sauté box just to keep up: Eggs scrambled with chard leaves and topped with grated Parmesan cheese for breakfast. Tender leaf lettuces topped with boiled egg slices and scallions and drizzled with a lemony dijon dressing for lunch. White beans and greens soup for dinner. A red romaine lettuce leaf wrapped around a fried egg and dipped in herbed buttermilk dressing for an on-the-run meal. (Bonus? Buttermilk dressing is a great way to take advantage of the frilly explosion of fennel and dill fronds in the garden.)
For a special dinner, my go-to dish is a slice of brown sugar caramelized pork belly perched on a pile of spicy raw greens (mustard, arugula or radicchio) and paired with wok-seared Red Russian or Dinosaur kale drizzled with sesame oil. Another dinner favorite is Thai-style brown rice noodles with broccoli, mustard and kale. I usually make extra noodles and greens so I can turn the leftovers into breakfast the next morning — reheated noodles and greens topped with a fried egg, chopped scallions and cilantro. And by the way, although I know I'm far from the first to say this, it's true and worth saying again: Everything is better with a fried egg on it.
And then there's green soup. Creamy, dreamy green soup (see recipe, back page). And corn muffins with kale. And kale, baby broccoli leaves, apple slices and pecans stir fried in pork fat, sesame oil and maple syrup. OK, call me crazy, but I ate this sweet and nutty kale mixture for breakfast ladled over a corn flour pancake. Oh, my, was it good. I'm thinking this might be just the dish to get the veg-a-phobes in your life to branch out. (Bonus? It's a gluten-free breakfast.)
Side note: I discovered a fun new word while working on this column — lachanophobia. It means fear of vegetables. Symptoms include irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath and a strong feeling of dread.
Apparently leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are among the scariest of the scary vegetables. Psychological reprogramming and behavior modification therapy are thought to be helpful to some sufferers. Hmmm. I wonder if "Timmy, you can't have dessert until you eat your broccoli" counts as reprogramming.
Another side note: It has crossed my mind that there might be a dark side to my uninhibited consumption of garden greens. Could eating large quantities of leafy greens turn my skin green the way that eating large quantities of carrots can turn my skin orange? So far I haven't noticed my olive skin getting any greener, so I'm guessing chlorophyll doesn't affect skin pigment the way beta carotene can. After looking into the question of whether it's possible to eat too many greens, I'm pretty sure I'm fine as long as I don't eat more than 2 pounds a day of raw cruciferous greens. (That's approximately 25 cups!) Raw kale and cabbage are high in glucosinolates, which when consumed in large quantities, daily, over an extended time can interfere with thyroid function. (Did you hear about the woman who ate nothing but 2 to 3 pounds of raw bok choy a day for three whole months and then collapsed? She had to be rushed to the hospital because her thyroid shut down. I'm pretty sure this is a true story. The New York Times wrote about her after her bok choy incident appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. Perhaps the food mantra of activist/journalist Michael Pollan should be: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, but not too much bok choy.")
OK, enough about living easy and green during the ideal winter and spring of 2012. Summer is coming and gardeners and farmers know to be prepared for the worst. When the heat arrives, my dream garden of winter and spring greens will fade away. I'm hoping I have another three weeks of eating green before everything goes to seed. (Many of my lettuces have already bolted and will soon be setting seed.)
And finally, I'd like to say thanks to friends and neighbors who have been helping me consume my surplus greens. No one leaves my garden without responding to this question: "Would you like to take some Swiss chard home with you?" Or "Would you please take some Swiss chard home with you?" And then there's, "How about some curly kale to go with that?"
Former Statesman staffer Renee Studebaker writes about gardening and cooking from her garden at reneesnewblog.com. Email her at email@example.com. For more seasonal garden recipes, visit reneesnewblog.com.
This soup is not complicated — leafy greens, caramelized onions and stock are the main ingredients — but the result is velvety and rich. However, it's not the prettiest soup I've ever made. In fact, it looks a little like the pretend soup I used to make when I was a little girl (which featured mashed lawn trimmings soaked in a pot of creek water). But don't let that scare you. This soup is so good, its looks just don't matter much.
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 tsp salt or to taste
2 Tbsp plus 3 cups water, divided
1/2 cup Yukon gold potato, peeled and cubed
1 or 2 small serrano peppers, seeded and chopped
About 4 stalks of green chard, stemmed and chopped (or use red or yellow chard, but be sure to remove red or yellow stems and ribs)
About 9 cups fresh spinach leaves, gently packed
About 5 cups fresh kale leaves, coarsely chopped and gently packed
4 cups chicken broth, homemade if available, or vegetable broth
1/2 Tbsp lemon juice, or more to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese
Heat about 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and pinch of salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, add 2 tablespoons water and cover. Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the remaining 3 cups water and about 3/4 teaspoon salt in a soup pot or Dutch oven; add potato and pepper. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cover. Trim the ribs out of the kale and chard (save for another use). Stir in the kale and chard greens. Return to a simmer; cover and cook for 10 minutes. When the onions are caramelized, stir a little of the simmering liquid into them; add them to the chard mixture along with the spinach, and broth. Return to a simmer, cover and cook until the spinach is tender but still bright green, about 5 minutes more.
Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches. Stir in lemon juice. Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 8-10.
— Adapted from a recipe by Anna Thomas (in Eating Well magazine) that was recently featured on "The Splendid Table"
Caramelized Pork Belly and Spicy Greens
Among many foodies and farmers market fans, pasture-raised, grass fed, pork belly has become something like a religion. I get it. Or at least it didn't take much to get it once I figured out how to cook it. The key is to slice it thick, cook it slowly, and make sure every side is crispy brown. Pork belly that's flabby and not crispy is a waste of money. If I'm going to shell out $8-$9 a pound, I want every bite to be ecstasy.
4 1/2-1 inch thick slices of uncured pork belly
About 1 Tbsp brown sugar
Salt to taste
Mix of spicy spring greens (arugula, mustard, radicchio), washed and dried
4 scallions, whites and greens included, chopped
Tangy vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Sprinkle salt on both sides of pork slices. Place slices in a hot dry skillet so that sides are not touching.
Cook uncovered on medium-high heat until well browned, about 3-5 minutes per side. If browning appears uneven, move slices around pan as needed until well browned (but not blackened) on both sides. Remove pork slices to a shallow baking dish and sprinkle top side with brown sugar and another pinch of salt. Cook in a preheated 365 degree oven until sugar is bubbly hot and pork has well browned crispy edges. Pork should be crispy on outside with tender, succulent insides. Drain on a paper towel until serving time.
To serve, arrange leafy greens on salad plates, top each plate with slice of pork belly, and drizzle with tangy dressing. Serves 4.
2 Tbsps. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsps. parts olive oil
1/2 tsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp. fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 tsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1-2 tsp. brown sugar, or to taste
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt to taste
Mix ingredients and whisk until smooth. Taste and adjust salt and sugar if needed.
— Renee Studebaker
Warm Pork Belly and Snap Pea Dressing
This dressing got rave reviews from guests at a garden dinner party I threw on Saturday night. It's so tasty you hardly notice you're eating leafy green vegetables or salad greens. Also, it's a great way to stretch a small amount of pork belly so that you get plenty of great flavor without eating a lot of meat.
1 small slab pork belly, about 4 ounces, diced
Salt to taste
2 cups fresh sugar snap peas, washed and stemmed
1/4 cup shallot, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 dry white wine
2-3 tsp toasted sesame oil (or more to taste)
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp raw honey (or maple syrup), or more to taste
Salt pork and place in a hot, dry cast iron or stainless skillet. Cook and stir over medium high heat until meat is brown. Do not pour off pork fat. Reduce heat to low, and add peas, shallots and garlic. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add vinegar and wine to deglaze pan.
Add sesame oil, soy sauce, and honey. Reduce to simmer and cook for about 3 or 4 minutes more until peas are tender crisp and dressing has reduced slightly. Taste and add more salt if needed. Spoon warm dressing over mixed salad greens or steamed leafy greens. Note: To make this dressing in the summer months, substitute snap beans for the peas, and serve over summer greens (Amaranth) or cold sliced tomatoes and cucumber.
— Renee Studebaker