Spinach, Salad, and the Seasons

What a dozen seasons as a shareholder in a small farm can teach even the most accomplished cook

Left to my own meal planning and cooking devices, I might fill my shopping cart with spinach (for me), broccoli (for the kids), and green beans (for my husband) all year round. Left to my own devices I might not have known that in Minnesota's extreme climate there are two seasons for delicate greens like lettuce and spinach: late spring and early fall, because greens hate the heat. I might not have looked forward to that September spinach so much.

Thanks to our CSA share, we are now enthusiastic eaters of the hearty greens—kale, beet greens, chard, and (less successfully) collard greens. We discovered the classic Italian trio of kale, white beans, and sausage and now incorporate it into our menu every time a braising green shows up in the box, in soups, risotto, tossed with spaghetti (whole wheat stands up better to the flavors), and on its own, hopefully sopped up with some lovely cornbread.

Standard hearty green procedure in our house is this: Bring cold olive oil and garlic up to a nice shimmery heat (the garlic goes into the oil cold so you're flavoring the oil, not browning the garlic), toss in some freshly washed greens, turn with tongs, give it a chance to release that first big breath of steam and liquid, then lower the heat and cover it until it looks like something you want to eat—more of a smother than a braise. (Don't try this with collard greens! They're tougher and need to be de-stemmed and parboiled before braising. Even then, my CSA experience suggests that collard greens are best left to Southern cooks.)

David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts
Sean Smuda
David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts

Emboldened by these less-familiar greens, I didn't think twice before cooking up the dandelion greens that came mid-July. I bit into a fresh leaf—a little more feisty than arugula, but not unpalatable, I thought, and likely also improved by some olive oil and garlic. So into the pan it went. Those dandelion greens, once cooked, were beyond bitter. There was a metallic sting to them like an electrified fork scraping the roof of your mouth. (I've heard guinea pigs love them. I think it's more likely I'll eat a guinea pig than try dandelions again.)

Other things I have learned from my CSA box:

· You can stick a whole tomato in the freezer for a couple of months. Just chuck it in there. When you pull it out, run it under warm water and the skin will come right off. Then thaw it on the counter for a couple of hours and throw it in your sauce.

· Fresh salad turnips, grated and tossed with a vinaigrette, will make you forget every ugly thought you ever had about turnips.

· Celery root will keep in the crisper for up to 12 months. At the end of 12 months, you will still not know what to do with it. There is only so much celery remoulade a family can eat, and all the recommendations about mashing it along with your potatoes? Yuck.

· The first corn and tomatoes of the season taste so good at least in part because you wait for them. Who knew that the same could be true of fat, leafy, juicy heads of lettuce; sweet basil; even eggplant?

· The weather changes the way our food tastes. Hot weather makes radishes spicier and lettuce more bitter. Cool weather makes carrots sweeter.

· You can make pesto out of anything leafy, and pesto (without the cheese) freezes well. So too much green left in the fridge at the end of the week means a batch of pesto going into the freezer. Great candidates: parsley, arugula, pea shoots, and fennel tops (boil them first, stems separated from the frondy parts and cooked a little longer).

· Your family will not know the difference when you bring turban squash pie and butternut squash bread to Thanksgiving dinner. Also: delicata squash cookies and acorn squash pancakes.

· I still don't like squash.

But, squash is in the box, so squash I cook. With a CSA, you pays your money, you takes your chances. While David has taken surveys of shareholders, asking for their vegetable preferences (I can just imagine: "More tomatoes! More corn! Less squash! No turnips!"), no individual member has any say in what ends up in the box. And, as shareholders, our culinary fortunes rise and fall with Hog's Back Farm.

I was thrilled this year when David said he was planting fava beans. Because you know what we don't eat enough of in the United States? Fresh shell beans. And this is truly a seasonal treat: plump, creamy beans, cooked with olive oil and garlic, are the very embodiment of spring in the Mediterranean. I was imagining fava bean dips and hot, crackly, garlicky favas sprinkled on wilted spinach or arugula salad. I had whole menus cooked up around beans while they were no more than green stems poking out of the ground.

But then, as David says, with new crops come new pests. Three- and four-inch-long iridescent beetles, in this case. David watched in horror as the swarm, unidentified even after calls to the University of Minnesota's Extension Service ("They're a great help if you grow corn and soybeans," he quips), threatened to move on to other crops. He had to mow the favas down. The Mediterranean terrazzo I had mentally built on the back deck came crashing down on my head.

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