Grilling

The summer is heating up and with the holiday weekend upon us, barbecuing is on everyone’s mind. This is a prime time to heat up the grill instead of the kitchen. 

I used to think of the grill as the place where you cooked ribs, chops and chicken breasts. However, I now use it for all types of vegetables, mushrooms and bread and I’m hooked. 

Gas or charcoal

You can use a gas or charcoal grill but it just takes a little more planning to get the coals ready. I’ve managed to pick up a few grilling baskets and trays at second-hand stores although you also buy new ones from garden and hardware stores. Whatever utensils or cookware you use, make sure it’s not your best because it will show wear from the grill. I have set aside a couple of older cast iron pans for use on the grill and I love how they cook outside almost as much as inside. 

Grilled baby eggplant

Grill almost any vegetable

A visit to the farmers market or my garden brings in tomatoes, summer squash, spring onions, early carrots, fresh garlic, maybe some late asparagus, bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms and a myriad of other good eats.

All of which can be simply grilled. The essence of grilling is to use high-quality oil to help the vegetables caramelize. My go-to is fruity olive oil, but you can use grapeseed, walnut or even toasted sesame oil for a slightly Asian taste. 

Garnish with herbs after grilling

Fresh herbs lose their flavor quickly when grilled, so if using them, chop and add them after the vegetables come off the grill. I also wait to salt vegetables until they come off the grill, while they are still warm so the salt dissolves, but not while on the grill which tends to make it necessary to use more salt. 

Marinate or not

You can marinate the vegetables before cooking if you choose, but since vegetables don’t soak up oil and vinegar as meats do, it really isn’t necessary. You can toss them with whatever you like after they come off the grill for delicious flavors. 

Vegetables don’t take long to cook, so cook any meats or other main courses first. 

Grilled pac choi

How to grill

Heat the grill to high and then turn it back to medium. Oil your pan (cooking spray works fine), and then add the vegetables. Some that are tougher, like carrots or beets, should be steamed or blanched briefly in boiling water to start the cooking process. Don’t cook until they are soft, though or they won’t hold up on the grill. Toss the vegetables frequently while they cook so all sides get equally caramelized. 

Asparagus

Trim off tough ends, roll in olive oil and grill on a flat grill pan for around ten minutes, shaking the pan part-way through or using tongs to roll them around. Serve with a yogurt or mustard sauce.

Carrots
Grilled baby carrots

Steam or blanch about 2 minutes and then dress with olive oil. Grill in a basket about ten minutes until easily pierced with a fork. Toss with fresh mint and maple syrup if desired or simply dressed with salt. 

Cabbage and cauliflower

Cut into “steaks”, drizzle with oil and cook on a grill tray until it is just crisp-tender. Sprinkle with garlic powder and drizzle with balsamic vinegar to serve. 

Broccoli

Cut into small florets, toss with oil and toss in a grill basket about ten minutes. Toss with fresh parmesan, a fresh squeeze of lemon and lots of fresh ground pepper to serve. 

Summer squash, zucchini, pattypans
Grilled zucchini

Cut into ½” thick coins and toss with garlic powder and oil. Toss in a grill basket about 10-15 minutes until crisp-tender. A sauce made with Dijon mustard and yogurt is delicious drizzled over the top. 

Potatoes

Blanch new potatoes (red or gold) until slightly tender. Slice in half, toss with a bit of olive oil and grill for about 10 minutes. Toss with a warm vinaigrette for grilled potato salad.

Grilling mixes, rubs and marinades

Use these as a dry rub on meat, fish or vegetables: brush with olive oil and sprinkle with grilling mix. 

Or, add a tablespoon to ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup vinegar of choice for a marinade. Brush vegetables or meats with leftover marinade as you grill. If you marinate meat, be sure to discard any extra marinade that you don’t use in cooking. It can harbor bacteria. 

Basic Grilling Mix

1 T. oregano

1 T. basil

1 t. garlic powder

1 t. thyme

For specialty mixes – start with the basic grilling mix and add the ingredients listed:

Mint Herb Mixuse on potatoes, lamb or fish

1 T. mint

1 T. marjoram

1 T. tarragon

1 t. lemon balm

Italian Herb MixUse for pizza on the grill, on grilled potatoes for potato salad, on chicken breasts

1 t. rosemary 

1 t. chili flakes

Herbed Ranch MixUse on salmon or white fish, grilled potatoes, zucchini, yellow squash

1 T. dill 

1 T. ground black pepper

Traditional barbecuedelicious on vegetables and potatoes

1 t. sage

½ t. ground chili (or to taste)

1 T. paprika

1 t. rosemary

1 t. black pepper

Potager or Kitchen Gardens

Red and green lettuces planted with violets and swiss chard

What exactly is a kitchen or potager garden? In essence, these trendy terms basically describe a garden filled with vegetables, herbs and fruits. All food gardens are technically kitchen gardens, but this term is often used for a garden planned for beauty as well as function. 

Potager garden

peas, radicchio and calendula flowers

Kitchen gardens have been around for hundreds of years. The French call it a potager garden, coming from the word potage for soup. Faced with usually small garden spaces, they have learned to grow enough vegetables to feed their families. And flowers to cut for the table. 

Cottage garden

British cottage gardens include ornamental plants combined with all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs. They’re filled with lettuce, chard, sweet peas supported on twig trellises, and plump cabbages that are beautiful in their own right. Add the herbs such as purple leaf basil, lemon thyme and garden sage for cooking delectable dinners.

A kitchen garden can be precise and orderly, blowsy and tangled, or even a garden made up only of containers. But the effect is the same – vegetables and fruits grown with flowers and herbs, limited only by your imagination.

Lettuces and mesclun in rows for a potager garden

This type of garden is not used so much for large-scale production, canning and putting away for the winter, but more for immediate use in the kitchen. It can range from a small hanging basket of oregano and lettuce outside the back door to a full garden with roses, shrubs and perennials coupled with vegetables and herbs. Fruits and edible flowers certainly have a place here as well.

Why plant a kitchen garden?

We are usually inspired to start a kitchen garden because we want to taste fresh food that’s not available at the market. There is nothing quite like picking and tasting your own ripe, perfumed melon or warm raspberries right off the shrub. Greens such as arugula, radiccio and mesclun are rarely available from the grocery or farmers market, but are amazingly simple to grow. Heirloom squash and beans are easily be grown in the home garden. 

Radiccio

The freshest food

We all love having beauty around us – that’s generally why we garden in the first place. Edible plants can be artistically combined with ornamental plants to create a beautiful garden that pleases eye and palate. 

Some vegetables that lend themselves to a smaller space garden: 

The vegetables

Green beans – Come in green, purple and yellow types, in bush or pole types which produce later in the season. Plant scarlet runners, purple and yellow wax beans together on a trellis for all spectacular accent. 

Haricots verts

Eggplant – These delicious fruits come in every color and shape imaginable, from white to yellow to striped lilac to red to black, and in oblong, round and cherry-tomato sized. The compact plants make beautiful accents with striking purple flowers, dusky green-purple leaves and jewel-like fruits.

Kale – This nutritious vegetable comes in a myriad of sizes, colors and leaf textures. Unlike the familiar flowering kale, the new varieties are sweet and tender, and come in all shades of blue, purple, pink and red. Best of all, they produce all summer.  

Winterbor kale, pretty as any flower

Lettuce – there is no end to the colors and textures, not to mention the countless types of greens mixes. These make beautiful bed edging and thrive in baskets.

Batavia lettuce

Pepper – Peppers come in all colors, shapes and sizes, jewel-like fruits hung on ornamental plants. Choose orange, red, white, purple or brown bell peppers, scarlet cayennes or jalapenos, tiny upright mirasols, rich golden bananas and cubanelles or even tiny but potent maroon scotch bonnets. 

Cayenne peppers

Tomatoes – Grow cherries on trellises or patio tomatoes in the ground or in containers. There are methods to prune and pinch and train them onto a single stake, taking up much less room than in a tomato cage. 

Classic Salad Niçoise

This salad is a classic French dish and can be adapted to any seasonal vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette. Add edible flowers like calendula petals, nasturtiums or violets to make it pop.

Your choice of vegetables: 

sliced steamed baby potatoes 

green beans

artichoke hearts

small cooking onions or scallions

hard boiled eggs

tomato wedges

sliced sweet peppers

grated carrots

cooked edamame

shredded beets

olives

capers

Set in rows on a bed of bibb; drizzle with vinaigrette of choice. 

You can also add seared tuna or grilled flank steak. 

Garlic Scapes

Ever wonder about those interesting curled shoots coming off the garlic plants? These are the lovely flower heads of the garlic bulbs. They are delicious and are actually a vegetable on their own as well as a mild garlic seasoning. Unlike the fiery flavor of garlic bulbs, they have a sweet flavor that is a mix of garlic, leek and onion, and a texture not unlike asparagus. 

Freshly harvested garlic scapes

Scapes grow out of the center of hardneck garlic, usually starting in early June. It’s best to harvest them when they are young, usually right before they make a huge curl, as they tend to get tough the longer they stay on the plant. 

You will be doing the garlic a favor by pinching out the scapes since leaving them on the plant reduces the size of the garlic bulb below and makes the bulbs less storable.

Garlic scapes ready to pick

Check out farmers’ markets

Scapes are available at farmers’ markets now and will probably be around a couple more weeks. They store quite well in the refrigerator so when you find them, pick up a few and give them a try. They are delicious grilled or chopped fresh for a salad, frittata or stir fry. Or, blend them into hummus or pesto, or puree them and mix into softened sweet butter for a delectable dressing for sweet corn. They are also scrumptious when pickled. 

Garlic scape, lemon verbena pesto

Garlic Scape Pesto

½ c. garlic scapes

2 c. fresh basil leaves, oregano, parsley, lemon balm or any combination you desire

¼ c. nuts (pine, walnut, pecans)

1 ½ t. salt

¼ t. pepper

½ cup olive oil

3 oz. Parmesan

Combine all ingredients except oil and cheese in blender or processor. Add half the oil. Process while adding the rest of the oil. Stir in cheese and toss with hot cooked pasta or rice. If you have plenty of scapes, consider making the pesto and freezing it in ice cube trays or flat in a freezer bag. Leave out the cheese until ready to use. You can simply break off a piece for a quick lunch. 

Garlic scape pesto ready for the freezer

The humble green bean

Haricots verts

It doesn’t get any simpler or more homespun than a pot of green beans. Biting into one, whether steamed, sauteed or simply fresh off the vine, is a true taste of summer. Green beans are coming in like crazy now, so pick while young and tender or visit a farm stand or market weekly for the freshest beans. 

Haricot verts

Green, yellow wax and purple beans at market

A fancy french type, haricots vert, is probably my favorite, but these tend to be fleeting, ephemeral. There are specific varieties of haricots verts that grow long and thin, but really any green bean can be eaten as haricots verts. You must simply pick and consume them when they are very young. 

Most haricots verts varieties are bush-type beans, meaning that the plants get about a foot tall and then cover themselves with long, thin pods. 

Bush beans vs. pole beans

Bush beans produce a quick crop in early June and are then done. Pole beans, whether purple, green, lima, Romano or just plain green beans like Blue Lake or Tendergreen take a bit longer to get started but will produce abundantly all summer. 

Easy to grow

Green beans of all types take little special care and are seldom bothered by insects and disease. You simply need to provide decent garden soil and plenty of sun and water. Pole type beans will need a trellis to climb (a chain link fence is perfect if you have it). 

Succession plant

To keep bush beans coming through the summer it’s necessary to succession-plant every two weeks or so. I put them in pots this year which gave me no room to do succession planting. So, I put them around the perimeter of a large pot, constructed a bamboo trellis, and then put pole green beans in the center. When the bush beans are finished in the next week or so, the pole beans will take over for longer production through the summer.

How to prepare

I grew up snapping beans on the front porch with my grandmother. She put the beans in a pot of water with a ham hock, salt, pepper and a little sugar and then boiled them for several hours. I’ll admit to not being a fan as a kid although whenever I taste them cooked this way now, a wave of nostalgia always overcomes me. 

As a grown-up, I discovered the French method of blanching beans that makes them irresistible and preserves all the good “beaniness.” You simply bring a large pot of water to boil, liberally salt the water, tip and tail the beans and then toss in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Plunging them into cold water stops the cooking process and gives you crisp-tender beans that are the essence of summer. All they need is a spritz of lemon and a dash of salt.

Blister your beans

To take them one step further for extra pizazz, blister them. Film a cast iron skillet with olive oil, mince a large clove of garlic and add the garlic and blanched beans to the skillet when hot. Saute, stirring frequently until the beans are slightly charred. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Blistered Green Beans

1 lb. green beans, trimmed  

1 clove garlic

olive oil to film the pan

salt  

Add the beans to boiling, salted water and allow to cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain and cool by running under cold water in a colander.  Smash the garlic clove and mince roughly. Heat a cast-iron skillet and film it with olive oil. Add the green beans and cook on medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook, turning and stirring until the beans begin to char. Turn off the heat and salt the beans to taste. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. 

Weeds, weeds, weeds

When is a weed a weed? I was pondering this question last week as I pulled quack grass out of my ornamental grasses. Grass is grass, right? But it was ugly and I wanted it out of there. So I made a choice of one grass to keep and the other to go.

Dandelions are edible

There is a wonderful saying that one person’s weed is another person’s lunch. What many consider lawn weeds are simply green additions to the lawn and can be delicious additions to a salad. Like chickweed, purslane and dandelion greens. 

If I may get a bit philosophical for a minute, what exactly is a weed? Some say it is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Others define it as a plant that is simply in the wrong place. And still others say it is any plant that chokes out another, more desired plant.

What is a weed?

Chicory is edible and beautiful

Some weeds have beautiful flowers such as violet and dandelion. Others have culinary virtues such as garlic mustard and chickweed. But there’s no doubt that we sometimes need to fight the invasion of these plants lest they take over our cultivated gardens. 

I’ve been fighting violets this year. Beautiful, but they roam at the expense of my cultivated beds. I’m trying to make peace with them. The same goes for chickweed. It’s a groundcover, and who am I to say it’s not preferred over bugleweed, my groundcover of choice. It’s a mind shift – one I’m having a hard time making with some plants.

Weed controls

Annual weeds like purslane or chickweed assure their existence by producing thousands of seeds. So, keeping them from blooming will stop the life cycle. They pull easily. I learned a great garden hack from Diana McCall of the Wilson Community Garden – use an old serrated steak knife to slice off weeds right below the soil line. This leaves the soil undisturbed, keeping other weed seeds buried where they won’t have light to germinate. 

Starry chickweed – beautiful and edible

Perennial weeds like dandelions and plantain are harder to pull, and often need special measures to kill the roots. Chemical control need not be the first line of defense. If weeds are controlled when young, all it takes is a hoe or a hand-pull. In turf, it’s more important to establish healthy, thick grass to choke them out.

Perennial weeds can often be controlled by simply pouring vinegar or hot water in the crown. Other basic non-chemical methods for weed control include using a flame weeder, mulching heavily, cutting weeds off below ground level and keeping them cut as they resprout, and mowing to cut off seed heads. 

A great homemade weed killer is 2 cups of Epsom salts and ¼ cup of dish soap in a gallon of water. Spray in the crown. You may have to spray more than once, but you can take comfort in the fact that you are not poisoning the ecosystem.

Tonic salad with “weeds”

(doesn’t sound so appetizing but it is delicious)

Only harvest weeds from lawns or gardens that have not been sprayed.

2 cups torn romaine or other leaf lettuce (I like to add a few shreds of sorrel as well for a lemony burst)

1 cup chopped chard or kale

¼ cup diced green onions

¼ cup torn chickweed

¼ c. torn purslane

¼ c. torn dandelion leaves (use only the inner ones)

1 small clove garlic, minced finely

3 T. high-quality olive oil, divided

1 T. fresh lemon juice

¼ c. crumbled feta or bleu cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Put the chopped kale or chard in a medium-sized bowl. Add 1 T. olive oil and the garlic. Massage with your hands until the amount of greens is reduced and the greens are dark green and soft. Add the lettuce, green onions and “weeds”. Toss lightly and dress with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Serve in wide bowls to show off the greens, top with the cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

Bean soup

Bean soup made with adzuki beans

I always keep canned beans in my pantry. And, now that I have an instant pot, I’m gaining confidence in cooking them from scratch as well. Before the instant pot, my favorite thing to do was put on a pot of beans and promptly burn them since they have to cook so long. Lost a lot of good pots that way.

Another dirty little secret is that I have dribs and drabs of leftover vegetables, meats and grains in bags in the freezer. I cannot stand to waste food, so if there’s a little bit left, I’ll freeze it for use in soup later. Labeled of course.

Anything goes

The great thing about soup is that you can add simply anything to it and have unique flavors. Leftover bits of chicken or turkey with white beans and noodles make a great soup. Add some swiss chard or spinach, a can of chopped tomatoes and it turns into something different. As vegetables start coming in from the markets and our gardens, change up your soup accordingly. If hot soup isn’t appealing in the summer, remember that adding chiles will make you sweat, cooling you off. And, try bean soups cold!

Start with broth

The basic recipe for a soup is to start with good vegetable, chicken or beef broth. You can make an even richer soup with bone broth. Use store- bought if you don’t have time to make your own – you’ll still get a wonderful pot of soup (no guilt!). Saute some onion and garlic in a bit of broth or olive oil to get your flavor started. 

Sauteeing kale with carrots and peppers

Add protein and grain

Then add a protein like black beans, garbanzos, canellini or kidney beans. Use leftovers from a roasted chicken (again, store bought roasted chicken is good), leftover Thanksgiving turkey (you know you have some, somewhere in the freezer), tempeh or tofu. If you want to use cheese, add it at the very end. 

Next, add a cooked grain like brown or white rice, farro, quinoa, or a pasta such as egg noodles, farfalle, linguini or orzo. Whole wheat pastas which may not be as palatable for spaghetti are hearty and delicious in soup.

The best part – vegetables

Then comes the best part – the vegetables. Add whatever you have in the fridge or freezer – cabbage, corn, peppers, spinach, broccoli, carrots, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower or zucchini. The vegetable combinations can vary depending on the flavor you want. 

Season according to the flavor you desire. For Mediterranean, use thyme, oregano, a pinch of sage and basil. For Mexican, cumin and chili powder give it a kick. For Italian, use oregano, basil and smoked paprika. 

Although you really don’t need a recipe to make a great bean soup, here’s a start on a Mexican bean soup: 

Recipe for Bean soup

Black bean soup

2 cups broth

1 large clove garlic, minced

½ spanish onion, chopped 

1-2 cups black beans, rinsed and drained if using canned

½ bag frozen corn

½ cup chopped sweet peppers

¼ chopped chili peppers

½ c. diced carrots

½ t. smoked or regular cumin

½ t. chili powder

Saute garlic and onion in two tablespoons of broth for about a minute. Add peppers, carrots and corn and saute for another minute. Add beans and seasonings and simmer for about 45 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt and a splash of sriracha if you like more heat. 

Strawberry Shortcake

One of my fondest young adulthood memories is of strawberry shortcake. Or rather the woman who made it. Years ago my family gathered at my grandmother’s house to celebrate her 70th birthday. She had made strawberry shortcake for dessert after a traditional summer dinner of fried chicken and potato salad. When we all arrived that afternoon, my little sister was haunting the kitchen and asked “Nano – could we just have strawberry shortcake now?” 

My grandmother, who was a flapper, divorced a husband in the 30’s when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, and sailed to Africa on a steamship by herself, was nonplussed. She laughed heartily and said , “Of course we can!”. So we all sat down in the garden on a hot Texas afternoon and gorged on luscious strawberries and sweet whipped cream sandwiched between her lighter-than-air biscuits. And, yes, we still ate the chicken and potato salad for dinner. 

Strawberry shortcake to some means strawberries over angel food cake. But true shortcake is a type of flaky sweetened biscuit. They are split hot from the oven, piled with fresh sliced room-temperature strawberries and topped with icy whipped cream. Nirvana!

Make yourself some delicious memories this summer. 

Nano’s shortcake (or biscuits if you leave out the sugar)

The beauty of this recipe is that you can use any type of berry or fruit in season. Peaches, blackberries, blueberries or raspberries make delectable shortcake. 

2 c. sifted flour

1 T. baking powder

½ t. salt

¼ t. baking soda

2 T. sugar

6 T. butter 

1 c. buttermilk

Blend dry ingredients, cut in butter until it resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk and mix lightly, just enough to incorporate the ingredients. Pat into a loose ball, turn onto a floured board and roll out to about ½” thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes.

Let cool a few minutes, split with a fork and layer with sweetened fruit and top with whipped cream.

The solace of gardening

I know everyone is writing about how gardening soothes right now, especially in these trying times. But it’s true. There is nothing that calms the inner monkey quite like getting outdoors, planting seeds, and then nurturing them into food production. The sun on your face, the scents of earth and plants, the sounds of birds, bees and other creatures have a healing effect unlike anything else. 

I’ve always done it, but right now it seems more important and more effective than ever at being my Zen place. Not to mention making my family more resilient by growing our own food. 

I started my gardening as a manic doer, and it’s taken years to slow down. I’m a huge fan of the slow gardening movement – of leaving things alone when you don’t need to mess with them. It’s all about the soil.

Happily, the move toward regenerative agriculture and permaculture is taking this idea to heart on a larger scale. If you get a chance, check out One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. He is essentially the grandfather of permaculture with his philosophy that plants will thrive in their natural settings, without human intervention. 

It makes us lend a more critical eye to how our food is produced. If we do our best to protect and nurture our soil by adapting his methods of using nature’s cycles, we’ll have healthier gardens that are less susceptible to the vagaries of pests and diseases. Slow gardening, non-intervention at its best. 

And it’s all about the soil. Nurturing your soil will produce delicious results like these baby beets and turnips. With little care except planting the seeds.

Shredded spring salad

½ c. grated raw beets

½ c. grated or spiralized baby turnips

½ c. grated carrots

½ c. grated radishes

½ c. thinly sliced scallions

½ c. thinly sliced pak choi

2 c. mixed torn salad greens

Lemon dressing

1/4 c. fresh lemon juice

3/4 c. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 t. dry mustard

1 T. chopped fresh herbs

1 t. salt or to taste

1/2 t. black pepper

Bok choi (pac choi) in the kitchen and garden

Bok choi or pac choi is my favorite of all the chinese cabbages. It’s tender and sweet and is sturdy enough to last for a couple of weeks in the fridge after harvesting. I love it fresh and sauteed or grilled, and it is full of the wonderful sulfur compounds that are so healthful. Just like the rest of the cabbage family. 

Grow transplants

It is so easy to grow as long as you start early enough indoors. I haven’t seen many transplants available in stores so I always start my own around February first. These babies do not like to be transplanted into larger pots like tomatoes, so they should be grown in small pots that they will stay in until going out in the garden. I’ve had great luck growing pac choi in containers, and in fact prefer that since I can control cabbage worms easily.   

Bok choi in a container

Full sun, good soil

They grow best in full sun in rich organic soil that is well-drained. They should be planted out early – they have the capacity to withstand frost. They are moderate feeders so benefit from a top-dressing of compost or composted manure when planting. Mulch with organic mulch such as straw once they are growing.

And harvest young. I’ve had the best luck growing some of the “baby” varieties that are harvested when about six inches tall. They stay tender, and are early enough that they often avoid the cabbage worms.  

Cabbage moths are much more a problem on broccoli and regular cabbage, but occasionally they will be out early enough to attack pac choi. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), an organic bacterial pesticide that goes after pesky cabbage moth larvae, is easy to apply and safe to use.

Grilled pac choi

Grilled pak choi

Harvest small heads whole and carefully cut off the root end, taking care not to cut into the heart which will cause the leaves to separate (which is also okay because they can be used in a salad).

Sprinkle with a fruity olive oil and lay gently on a grill rack or in a grill basket. Turn with tongs after about five minutes, grill 5 minutes more and remove to a platter.

Splash with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and serve as a delicious side to whatever you are having as a main course.

You can change up the flavor a bit by using sesame oil instead of olive oil, and splashing with soy or ponzu sauce after they come off the grill.

Greens of summer

Italian Silver Rib chard

Greens are simple things. In a world of chaotic schedules, hurried meals, and gourmet foods, it’s pleasant to eat something as simple to prepare and wholesome as Swiss chard or kale. Besides, with the constant nattering about eating less fat and more vegetables, who can argue with getting a solid dose of cancer-fighting vitamins in something that tastes so good?

I wasn’t always a greens aficionado. When I was a child in the South, the preferred method of cooking collards and turnip greens was to boil them until they turned gray and then flavor them with bacon drippings. The last thing I wanted to put in my mouth was a pile of what looked to a ten year old like slimy gray-green glop.

It took a while to get past the specter of the sodden mass, but I’ve matured, at least according to rumor, and since I no longer have to eat greens, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy them. Sautéing or steaming them just until done makes a world of difference in how they look and taste. I toss kale and chard into almost everything I eat, just for the vitamin boost. 

Dual-purpose plants

Bright Lights chard

I’m also a huge fan of dual-purpose plants. Kale and Swiss chard leaves are as beautiful as any perennial flower and make wonderful accents for annual flowers as well. I was driving in a nearby neighborhood last summer, minding my own business, when in front of a typical suburban house was a sidewalk edged in a beautiful short hedge of rhubarb chard. Behind the chard, a single tomato plant occupied the front flower bed, surrounded with a little basil and some marigolds.

Beautiful additions to flower gardens

Winterbor kale

Dragon kale is a spectacular-looking plant with deep blue-green seersucker leaves, and scotch blue curled is a crinkled, beautiful dusty blue that is a perfect companion to pink and white flowers. Ruby chard has deep maroon leaves, and Bright Lights chard has stems in all shades of red, apricot, yellow, white and green. One of the most beautiful planters I’ve ever seen was a window box filled with chard and kale with sweet alyssum cascading over the edge. What more could you want from a flower garden?

Swiss Chard

There is no reason why the summer kitchen cannot always have greens. Once spinach and Chinese cabbage are finished in spring, and the heat of summer begins to weigh on the garden, it is time for the stalwart summer greens! Swiss chard is a humble vegetable, but one with an unbelievable array of culinary possibilities. Also called silverbeet or seakale beet, it is technically a beet (Beta vulgaris) that has been bred for its greens. It is simple to grow and monstrously productive. 

Mustard

Mustard greens will add piquancy to any salad or dish, with a zingy vinegary essence. The broad-leafed types are best for summer use, as they grow large and luxurious without getting stringy and tough. If allowed to go to seed, the mustard plant is useful in all forms. The seed stalks are tasty sautéed, and the seeds make the familiar tangy seasoning for hot dogs or pickles. 

Collards

Collards, another sizable green, are grown frequently in the South. And for good reason. They remain tender and tasty throughout the summer and are slow to bolt in spite of heat and drought. They have a more cabbage- like flavor than mustard greens, but a little taste of collards seasoned with garlic and complemented with prosciutto will make you wonder why you didn’t start growing collards years ago. 

Once you are hooked on greens, there is a wealth of other summer treats to try, from turnip greens to amaranth to Chinese kale to komatsuna Check out your local farmers market to try a few and plan to use them in your own garden next year. 

Cooking greens

Greens are delicious simply sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Toss with cooked pasta and top with fresh chopped tomatoes and a few gratings of parmesan and you have a delectable meal. Dark leafy greens pack an unbelievable vitamin wallop, to say nothing about their cancer-fighting phytochemicals. In addition to eating greens for themselves, try adding them to omelets, fresh or marinated salads, soups and savory breads.

 Growing tips

Fall mustard greens

Other than their great looks, another reason these basic vegetables appeal to me is that they’re carefree to grow. Sow seeds from early spring (even right on top of the snow) to fall. The plants grow without much attention – except thinning early on (which you can eat) and then harvesting. I like that in a plant. Starting them under a cold frame will give them a great head start and sowing more seeds in September and then putting a cold frame over them will assure you the freshest of greens into the Christmas season. 

All greens produce well if given ample nitrogen. Composted manure or manure tea is one of the best ways to do this because it is mild enough to be used every three or four weeks. Provide plenty of sun, moderately fertile soil and ample water. After the seeds germinate, be sure to thin adequately to give them plenty of room to spread. It may seem a waste to pull out so many tiny plants, but they are delicious additions to a salad. 

Harvest the outer leaves first, before they get too tough, or you can simply cut off a head of all the leaves at one time. Eventually, new leaves will be produced from the crown. 

Red Russian kale seedlings

Although you can grow most greens from transplants started indoors, they germinate readily in cool soil outdoors as well. Also, you can cut many of them to ground level in late fall and leave the crowns under about four inches of straw mulch through the winter. They will start producing tiny leaves in very early spring. Thus you get the pleasure of the tender greens early in the season, while your new seedlings are getting off to a good start. 

Sauteed greens for two

Sauteed greens with tomatoes

5-6 large leaves of your choice of greens, chopped (remove stems if desired) 

1 large clove of garlic, minced

5-6 scallions, chopped

2 T. fruity olive oil

1 c. chopped tomatoes

1 T. balsamic vinegar

1 t. sugar

Heat olive oil and sauté garlic and scallions until soft, about five minutes. Add greens, tossing to coat in olive oil. Cover and let the greens steam about three minutes. 

Toss with tomatoes, eason with salt and pepper to taste and top with fresh grated Romano cheese. 

Pasta Alfredo with Swiss Chard

1 lb. Swiss chard (six-eight large leaves)

8 oz uncooked pasta such as penne or farfalle 

1 T. olive oil 

3 garlic cloves minced 

3/4 c. ricotta 

1/4 c. Parmesan cheese 

1/2 t. salt 

1/8 t. pepper 

Remove stems and chop chard. Set aside. Cook pasta and drain, reserving 3/4 cup cooking liquid. Sauté garlic 30 seconds in oil, add chard and sauté 3 minutes or until wilted. Combine cooking liquid, ricotta, 2 T. Parmesan and stir well. Combine with chard mixture and toss well. Top with remaining Parmesan. Serves 4.