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. 

Spring Greens

With the spring coming on like crazy, I find myself constantly walking the garden to see shoots of edible things peeking through the mulch. I know it’s too early for asparagus, but the sorrel is beginning to show signs of life.

Leafy greens are earliest spring vegetables

Usually the first shoots we see are leafy greens. Many of them actually have chemical substances (mostly sugars) that act as antifreeze so they are perfectly at home in the coldest weather. They are the best plants to bracket the growing season with since they are so cold tolerant. They also make great cold frame crops. 

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?

Greens are easy to grow

Most are easy to grow, and only need moderately fertile well-drained soil and full to partial sun. I actually like to seed several types of greens in the fall so they will be up early and provide me with tasty meals when there’s not much else around that is so fresh. Some greens bolt quickly when the heat comes, so giving them a head start by planting in fall means I’ll have plenty of spinach, lettuce, mustard and Chinese cabbage in early spring.

Spinach in the cold frame

Spinach

Spinach is one of the first greens that comes to mind. Who doesn’t love spinach? You can start plants under a cold frame in fall, where they will start growing and then go into suspended animation for the winter. As the days lengthen, the small plants will take off. I actually have baby spinach for the table now.

Mustard greens

I always grow mustard greens. Red mustard is beautiful for ornament, and the frilly green mustards are absolutely delicious when steamed or sauteed with garlic. I let some go to seed at the end of spring and they provide new plants for fall harvest. Then I let the fall plants set seeds to provide the next spring’s crop. I have a steady supply and I don’t have to do a thing except thin or move them around where I want them. I like that in a plant.

Mustard greens in fall

Swiss chard and kale

Of course I also always grow Swiss chard and several types of kale. I leave the old stalks in the ground through the winter and about half the time they will sprout giving me very early greens. These stalks don’t usually last past May, but that gives me time to get new plants in the ground before they give out. And neither of these greens bolts in warm weather so I have greens all summer. 

Kale is a favorite

I get some pushback when I talk about kale these days – “it’s so passe!” as everyone says. But it will never get old with me. I love it in soups, stirfries, and my favorite, kale salad. But not your usual chopped raw kale. That often leaves people cold. But I’ve learned to massage it into a sweet, tender vegetable that doesn’t resemble the woody, chewy kind often found in kale salads. 

Massaging Kale

My favorite to use is dragon kale, also called laciniato, an Italian heirloom. I find it’s the sweetest. It may sound strange to think of massaging kale into a salad, but crushing it takes away the bitterness and toughness. Try it – I think you’ll be hooked. 

Massaged Kale Salad

One large bunch kale (laciniato preferred, but any kind will work)

1 t. salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1 T. olive oil

Juice of one half a lemon

Parmesan cheese to garnish

Remove the ribs from the kale. This can be done by grasping the end of the rib and stripping off the leaves. Discard the ribs. Roll the leaves into a “cigar” and slice into ribbons. 

In a large bowl, douse the kale with the olive oil, add the garlic and salt and begin to massage or crush the kale with your hands. This can only be done well with the hands, so get into it and enjoy it. Your hands will thank you for the olive oil massage. 

Once the kale is dark green and reduced considerably in bulk, squeeze the lemon juice over it. Adjust the salt, add pepper if you desire and garnish with plenty of fresh grated parmesan cheese. You will find this irresistible!

Kalecannon

This time of year cabbage and kale are plentiful and nutritious. It’s also time to think about getting those transplants ready for the garden. The cold weather doesn’t bother these hearty (and hardy) plants. 

Redbor kale

All members of the cole family are troubled by cabbage moths, so be ready when your transplants go out to cover them with row covers or be vigilant about treating with Bt, a bacterium specific to butterfly and moth larvae (available at most garden centers). 

Now to the best part – eating!

Whether Chinese cabbage such as bok choi or napa,  round head red or green cabbage, Winterbor, red Russian or laciniato kale, they all can make a wonderful riff on the traditional Irish colcannon. 

This true comfort food is simply made with mashed potatoes and cabbage or kale. It sounds unusual, but I’ll guarantee that there’s something magical about the combination of earthy potatoes and sweet cabbage or kale.  

Start with mashed potatoes

And as great as it is just as the Irish make it, there are so many other things you can add to it to make it even more delicious. You simply make mashed potatoes as you always have (add cream cheese when mashing for more richness).

Choose your vegetables

Then saute vegetables of your choice – kale, swiss chard, chinese cabbage, traditional cabbage, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli – with some onion and a bit of garlic until slightly tender.

Kalecannon

Mix with the mashed potatoes and bake. It makes a perfect side dish to any main course, and is a delicious vegetarian entree all by itself. 

Feel free to add and subtract as your palate desires. You can substitute half the potatoes with parsnips, add carrots or peppers. You can also top the dish with cheddar, gouda or parmesan cheese for a different flavor. If you like, top the dish with bread crumbs or panko before baking. 

Kalecannon 

Serve six as a side or four as a main dish 

4 medium russet potatoes (about two and a half pounds), peeled and cut into chunks. You can use reds or yellow potatoes for a different flavor

2 T. salt (sounds like a lot, but you are salting the water which will give the potatoes just enough saltiness

4 T. butter or 2 T. butter and 2 T. cream cheese

Approximately 1 c. milk or cream

3 c. chopped kale, cabbage, chard, or other leafy green

3 green onions or one small leek, chopped finely

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

½ c. chopped sweet red pepper or mix in a little hot pepper if you like

In a medium -sized saucepan, put the potato chunks and cover with cold water by an inch. Add salt and bring to a boil.  potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water by at least an inch. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, and bring to a boil. Boil until a fork easily pierces the potatoes, about 15-20 minutes. Drain well.

Saute vegetables

Preheat the oven to 425. Melt the butter in a saute pan and add the greens. Saute about three minutes. Add the onions or leeks and any other vegetables and cook another minute. Set aside.

Mash and bake

Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or mixer, using enough milk or cream to make them creamy but not runny. Combine with the vegetables and salt and pepper to taste. Smooth into an oiled casserole dish and add cheese and/or breadcrumbs if using. Bake about 30 minutes until the mixture is bubbly. Let stand ten minutes and enjoy!

Pestos!

Pesto over hot pasta couldn’t be a simpler, more healthy meal (or over rice or on a baked potato). Traditional Italian pesto is made of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan. It’s delicious, but at the risk of offending my Italian cook-friends, I’m going to give you some riffs on traditional pesto, to make use of whatever is harvestable. 

Pestos are infinitely adaptable

Pestos can be adapted to just about any flavor you like, and will give you a good shot of serious vitamins when added to soups, stews or pastas. I’ve also heard the term “green smash” used for a pesto-like sauce made with herbs which is a beautifully imaginative way to present it.

Greens make great pesto

Greens such as kale, beets, Swiss chard or Asian mizuna, are prolific producers, so you will almost always have more greens than you can eat in summer. One of the easiest ways to preserve them for winter eating is in pesto. 

Chard pesto ingredients

Simply wash and stem the greens, and toss in the food processor with a couple of cloves of garlic, some olive oil, a handful of roasted nuts (pine, almond, walnut, pecan, pistachio), fresh basil or other herb of your choice, salt and pepper. Punch up your pesto with roasted peppers, sun dried or fresh tomatoes, roasted winter squash or roasted carrots.

Prepare for the freezer

Puree the mixture and put in a plastic freezer bag. Squeeze out all the air and flatten the bag to freeze. This way, you can simply break off chunks to use without having the thaw the entire bag. Alternatively, you can freeze in ice cube trays or single portion bags. Don’t add cheese until you plan to use the pesto – it doesn’t freeze well. 

Toss with pasta, rice, potatoes

For a quick lunch or dinner, thaw the pesto and toss with pasta or rice and add a generous helping of high-quality grated parmesan, romano or asiago cheese. You can embellish with chopped tomatoes, fresh slivers of red onion or anything else that catches your eye. Add silken tofu or plain Greek yogurt to any pesto when serving for added nutrition.

I’ve listed a classic pesto recipe below but check out the recipe page for chard, red pepper and garlic scape pesto recipes.

Classic Pesto

3 cloves garlic

2 c. fresh basil leaves

¼ c. nuts

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 other half the oil. Stir in cheese as you serve.