Sunday, February 18, 2007

O Winter, thy touch is harsh!

Last year I erected a plastic "tunnel" in my front-yard vegetable garden to protect my plants from the winter freeze. I bought some galvanized metal electrical conduit, bent it into a series of hoops and covered it with plastic sheeting. (This was before I learned you can basically do the same thing much more easily with PVC tubing. But then, as a "sustainable" organic gardener, should I be using metal conduit, PVC or plastic sheeting? Let's save that one for another day...) This winter, I had to dive back into my Hawaiian shirts for clothing. The weather was absolutely balmy, and all the talk was about whether global warming would bring citrus culture to Washington, D.C. Well, as I kept reminding people, February can rear up and kick you in the butt, and this February certainly did that. We've had one of the longest streaks of sub-freezing temperatures in years this month. Even in the city, overnight temps have been in the low 'teens. And now we have a layer of hard-packed, ice-encrusted snow covering the garden, so it's any body's guess what's happened to all those salad greens, arugula, mustard, kale and collards that had been coming along so nicely just outside my front door, where I decided not to repeat my plastic tunnel. In the picture above, you can see my rather lifeless looking collards. One can only hope they haven't been utterly destroyed and somehow will find a way to resurrect themselves when things warm up again.
Which brings me to the subject of eating greens. Growing up outside Chicago, the closest thing to greens we ever saw on our dinner table was frozen spinach. But ever since we began our farm subscription, I've grown extremely fond of all those leafy brassicas I mentioned earlier. I particularly like the spicy, peppery taste of hearty arugulas and mustard greens. When these vegetables are grown outdoors, and if they are of the truly hearty varieties, their flavors only intensify in the winter cold. The particular farm we subscribe to, Even'Star Farm in Lexington Park, MD, specializes in breeding cold-tolerant greens. Some of you may remember me writing in the Washington Post food section a couple of winters ago about the farm's owner, Brett Grohsgal, and his passion for dressing up in Carhartt overalls in the middle of January and spending hours outdoors in the numbing cold, stooped over his improbably lovely fields of winter greens. The payoff for us was the box that arrived weekly from Grohsgal's farm, filled with bags of different greens, salad mixes, radishes, baby rutabaga, fresh eggs and all sorts of homemade jams and sauces, the occasional stewing hen.
The surprise for me was that not everyone had the same taste for greens. At a small dinner party I catered one evening, I served greens braised with red onion and pomegranate molasses, one of my favorite treatments. I wasn't quite sure how flattered I should be when the host introduced me to the rest of the guests saying, "He's the only person I know who can make mustard greens taste good." Another client I thought was enjoying the local greens I was serving in his weekly meals floored me one day when he said, "You know, I don't think I really like the greens. Could you maybe just give me a salad instead?" We had friends who discontinued their subscription because they just got tired of seeing greens every week and not knowing what to do with them.
I admit, on this latter point I had also stumbled. There was such a variety, and so little time. Arugula, cress, collards, kales, tat soi, pak choy, mustard greens...After a while, your eyes kind of glaze over. How could I possibly find a way to treat each of these as food? So, after a while, I didn't. What I decided to do was not treat each of the greens as individual food, but to treat them as ingredients. When the packages of greens arrived, I would fill a big pot with salted water, bring it to a boil and dump all the greens into the one pot and cook them through. Then I would chill them down in cold water, wring all the water out of them, and chop them up for use in a fritatta, say, or a soup. I'm sure in this process I was not doing justice to each and every one of the greens. Some of them may have preferred to be sauteed, or stir-fried, or just blanched. But I figured this small sacrifice was worth the greater good of actually consuming all the greens that Brett Grohsgal was growing for us. Still, I am always looking for new and better ways to use my greens. They don't seem to hold the attention of many food writers. So when I ran across a cookbook titled The Collard Patch, I couldn't resist. I had to buy it (I rarely fork over good money for new books) and see how authors Mary Lou Cheatham and Paul Elliott had managed to fill a whole book with collards.
To review briefly, The Collard Patch is a rather large paperback with a note on the cover that says, "Collard Country Cookbook and Reader Collards and Cornbread Y'all Will Love." Most of the beginning chapters covering collard history and collard culture--as well as using beer to kill slugs--are only a page long. There are also short chapters entitled "Dirt Eating, All the Facts You Never Wanted to Know," and "Lasting Magic of Collards, Pot Likker sustains Us Still." The real meat of the book is in the recipes, of which there are probably 150 (I didn't count them all.) These range from the most basic--Bacon Seasoned Collard Greens--to the decidedly plebeian--Collard Mayonnaise Souffle--to what you might call Haute Collards--Collard Crepes. And so many more ingenious turns on greens, such as Collard Hash Eggcups, Huevos Collards and Collard Tahini Pasta Casserole. And after you've completely exhausted yourself with collard recipes, you can kick back and enjoy some of Mr. Elliot's memoirs, consisting of a series of short stories such as, Alligator Snapping Turles, A Lapful of Cow and Jed, the Prickly Pear King.
Now, if that doesn't put you in the mood to eat some greens, I don't know what will. (You can find the book online at To further entice you, I leave you with my latest most favorite treatment for greens--a sweet potato galette with greens and fontina cheese. Making the galette works best with a large (11-inch), oven-safe, non-stick skillet.
12 ounces greens (can be kale, collards, mustard greens or combination)
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
1 wedge fontina (or fontal) cheese, grated
salt & pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Place greens in boiling water, reduce heat and cook until greens are very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove greens and plunge into a bowl of very cold water in the kitchen sink. Drain greens through a collander, pressing as much water as possible out of the greens. Chop the greens roughly and set aside.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Meanwhile use a mandoline or vegetable slicer to slice the sweet potatoes very thinly, about 1/8-inch. Heat your skillet over medium heat and moisten the bottom and sides with extre-virgin olive oil (or a good spritz of spray oil). Lay sweet potato slices in an overlapping pattern--like shingles--to cover the bottom and up the sides of the skillet. Cover the layer of sweet potatoes with a sprikling of cooked greens. Season with salt and pepper. Add another layer of sweet potatoes. Cover this layer with grated cheese. Continue making layers in this pattern until the skillet is full but not overflowing. If you have a flat pot lid that is just slightly smaller that the inside of your skillet, use it to press down on the your galette firmly. This will help fuse the layers together. Now place skillet in oven on a baking sheet (in case some of the cheese spills out) and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender. Test for doneness with a trussing skewer or the tip of a paring knife.
Remove the skillet from the oven and allow to cool for an hour or more, or even overnight. Then carefully invert the galette onto a large plate or carving board and slice into wedges. The wedges can be re-heated in the microwave or in an oven on a baking sheet. Serve with roast pork, turkey or chicken.

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