Thursday, November 11, 2010

Love 'Em & Leaf 'Em

It's a kind of culinary rite of passage, I think, embracing the heartier greens. Now, if you grew up with a pot of collards ever simmering on the back of the stove, that might not apply. In that case, long-cooked greens and pot likker, some cornbread crumbled in, that would be pure comfort food. But if you grew up white in Minnesota, where "greens" meant iceberg lettuce, and even fresh spinach was a bit of an exotic species, the idea of eating kale, turnip greens, mustard greens...well, the idea did not repel, but only because the idea simply did not occur. I'm not sure I even knew what those things were when I was young. Even in my years as a vegetarian, they were outside my ken, just too foreign (perhaps, too flavorful?) to register.

I don't really know when I first came to understand, then enjoy, then relish, dishes like roasted kale leaves or garlicky turnip greens. Certainly by the time I went to teach English in China, over twenty years ago, I was pretty familiar with the deep, slightly bitter flavor of dark green brassicas. In fact, it may have been by exploring Sichuan cooking here in the States, in my college years, that I came to appreciate the flavors of Chinese broccoli, bok choi, et al.

Now I plant several kinds of cooking greens in the garden every year--three kinds of kale, usually, turnips mainly for the greens, broccoli rabe or rapini (is there a difference?). Purple mustard plants itself--I started the ball rolling more than ten years ago in our Saint Paul garden, and haven't had to replant since. Those brightly colored leaves are so prolific, they'll even resow a couple of times in a season. And now that sort of begs the whole question of "greens," since the mustard is purple, regular Vates kale is called blue, the Russian kind is red, and the Tuscan-lacinato-"dinosaur" kale, that's cavolo nero in Italian, black cabbage.

I write of kale and its kindred leaves now because this is the time of year when we enjoy them most. I plant them early in the year and harvest young leaves,thinnings, for spring salads. When they start to become too tough, too strong for eating raw, I ignore them for a few months. I let them outgrow the depredations of the slugs, outlast pretty much everything else in the garden, and come back to them after the first frosts have arrived. That would be now.

Now, not only are those leaves beautiful just tossed with a bit of olive oil and roasted till tender, or dropped into soups, steam-sautéed with lots of garlic. Now, a remarkable thing has happened, which is that the frost has actually tenderized them, mellowed them, so the smaller leaves can be eaten raw again, with pleasure. So I made lunch today out of a handful of lacinato kale leaves shredded quite thin, tossed with a simple, pungent dressing, piled on toast and topped with a poached egg. This is the kind of brilliantly simple dish that always makes me ask, whether silently to myself, if I'm lunching solo, or, sadly, rhetorically if in company: Why can't you get something like this in a restaurant around here...?

Other things I like to do with kale: Add to a long-simmered Chinese dish, like anise-flavored red-cooked chicken; top a pizza, along with some currants, crumbled blue cheese; chop and sauté to mix into a frittata.

Kale will only improve through many frosts. Really, as long as the temperature is popping back above freezing for a few hours each day, you can leave it in the garden and pick as needed. Before the really cold weather drops down, though, I like to harvest bunches of leaves, wash them, trim out the thicker stems, then blanch them briefly in a big pot of boiling water. Just as soon as they wilt I remove them, shock them in ice water, then squeeze them into sandwich bags in single-meal portions, and freeze them. They compress amazingly. It's one of the best frozen vegetables I know, and extremely welcome come mid-winter, when a small bunch of imported kale at the co-op may cost upwards of two bucks, and disappear in a single meal.

That salad, it really is a gardener's delight, best when you have access to the tender leaves of spring, or those frost-nipped leaves of autumn. To make it I took

About 12 small leaves of lacinato kale, rinsed, shredded
1 small clove garlic, minced very fine
1 Tbsp sunflower oil
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 good pinch coarse sea salt
1/4 tsp sambal chili paste
Black pepper
Chives or another fresh herb, optional

1 egg

Mix all together and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Toast some good whole grain levain bread. Butter the toast. Pile the salad on top. Poach an egg (or soft boil, or cook over-easy, or to taste) and top the salad with the egg. Grind a bit of black pepper over all, and snip some chives, or another fresh herb of your liking, over the dish. Sprinkle on more coarse salt, to taste, just before serving.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

See, I am a fool for greens, especially when sandwiched between a poached egg and some toast. (As a matter of fact, I think any and all things are better on toast! and goodness I certainly serve enough of my meals that way.) But you are right. Why can't we get this served to us? It's my ultimate pig-out meal when I am alone, after all. That and polenta.

We really dig rapini, which, like kohlrabi, has a very short window of growth (a good thing, unlike kale, which you rightly ignore) so it's succession planting-friendly...and like tatsoi and pac choy, cooks up quickly. That said, there's something wonderful about collards boiling up at the back of the stove; we had them last night in fact, goh so good!

how long does your lacinato kale last up there? have you tried winterbor or scotch kale (very crinkled, low-growing, takes frost well)?? you might even get to january if you cover it well...

Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

That's a beautiful leafy bed there, Brett. I can even see some "green" growing.

Our kale etc get attacked by all kinds of nasty bugs here in our muggy summers in Virginia, so I normally ends up pulling them out sometime in July. Maybe I should just stick with them, ignore them when it's hot despite their grossness, and see what happens, if anything, come the fall frosts. It IS a thought...

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: We could start the "Fools for Greens Club." Dues would be one nicely smoked ham hock per year. The lacinato kale is still going strong--though it is buried under a few inches of snow crust, from the heavy wet dumping-upon-of-white we received this weekend. Scotch kale sounds attractive. I have picked the regular blue vates kale well into the really cold weather before--it sort of freeze-dries on the plant, but cooks up quite edible. Covering it is a good idea, and one of these years, the hoophouse!

Hello Sylvie: I would think you'd be able to plant kale late summer/early fall where you are, and harvest it right through the winter. Trying different kinds of greens from the farmers market on the square in Roanoke was another stage in my brassica education--some of those collards, man, they were like giant palm leaves; they still intimidate me a little!

Simmer on~ Brett

el said...

Hah, I heard of your snow-dump and got a bit of a chuckle, as I was shoveling sh(t in a tee-shirt both days this weekend! Vates *is* Scotch so perhaps just going ahead and covering them might help you. Now you should try to: look at what Sara's doing in Mad-town.

It is kind of magical though when you can harvest totally frozen kale. I remember that well from my Mpls garden! And it's the first thing to attract bees to in the spring, a win-win.

Ron Mylar said...

Very yummy and tasty dishes with embracing the heartier greens. I write of kale and its kindred leaves now because this is the time of year when we enjoy them most.