Growing Greens

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Had enough brown sugar and butter for a while? Perhaps as a reaction to the pervasive Pacific Northwest chill, my hosts this year up in Seattle got serious about their meats and starches. At the center of the menu was a 28-lb turkey, lacquered glossy brown through a simulated pit-cooking in the Weber grill, paired up with a huge, lavishly home-smoked ham glazed purple with marionberry jam and bourbon. Alongside were plain mashed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, and horseradish mashed potatoes; "more butter than yams" casserole of sweet potatoes whipped with nearly their weight in brown sugar and butter and topped with marshmallows; plus sage-and-chestnut stuffing, all of it awash in lakes of turkey and ham gravy.

Standing on my California rights, I insisted on adding the wonderful autumn salad found on the menu at Bay Wolf a decade ago, and on the table of wherever I've been having Thanksgiving ever since. A vivid toss of arugula, oak-leaf lettuce, sliced Fuyu persimmons, pomegranate seeds, crumbled chevre, and sweet-spicy pecans, it makes a lively antidote to all that beige stuff. (The exact recipe can be found in the excellent Bay Wolf Cookbook, a must-have for seasonally-minded Bay Area cooks.)


But after a few days of turkey sandwiches and the remains of the stuffing, what I was craving was greens: tough, raincoat-textured winter greens, steamed to tenderness and tossed with lemon and garlic and hot pepper flakes, bright with B vitamins and minerals with just an edge of bitterness.

Happily, this is their season. While you can grow all the brassica family year-round, they do best in the cool, moist weather of a Bay Area winter. In the brassica family (formerly known as the crucifers, for their cross-shaped stems) are all the cole crops: cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, lacinato (also known as cavelo nero, black, or dino) kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and more. They are even better after a frost, when the plant produces a naturally sweet "antifreeze" to keep from the water inside its cells from freezing. Hot weather stresses the plants, and makes them more susceptible to disease and pest pressure. In cool, even cold weather, though, they thrive.



If you haven't grown brassicas before, the easiest ones to start with are the leafy greens, including broccoli rabe (rapini), collards, and kale. Plant them now, and you'll have fresh greens to pick through spring. The leafy greens will keep producing week after week; pick the large leaves off the outside of the plant to eat, leaving the tiny leaves at the center of the whorl. In a week or two, a whole new crop of large leaves will be ready to pick. Just snap off the bigger leaves and leave the tiny ones down at the center.

Since the days are shorter now, growing will be slower. Instead of seeds, it's probably better to start with already established plants. Look for them at well-stocked garden centers or farmers' markets. (Flowercraft on Bayshore, the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, and the Marin Farmers' Market all have good arrays of edible green starts at this time of year.)

Being a highly nutritional subsistence food for cultures all around the globe, these sturdy greens are easy to grow and not particularly fussy. In fact, they're vigorous self-seeders and will colonize any neglected corner of your corner for years to come. Prepare the beds with some good compost and mulch around the plants to keep down weeds. Pick leaves as they mature, since the more the plant is picked the more leaves it will push out.


Right now, lacinato kale is my favorite go-to green. While farmers often disparage the cutesy moniker of "dino kale," the curled, bumpy, black-green leaves do resemble dinosaur skin, if dinosaurs were vegetables. They're less rubbery than common kale and collards, meaning they need only a light steaming, followed by a quick saute in olive oil with some minced garlic, lemon zest and juice, and a sprinkle of hot pepper flakes. Eat them straight out of the pan, if you're like me, or toss them with orecchiette and a handful of grated romano cheese. (Use a mix of broccoli rabe and lacinato kale for a particularly excellent version.) Shredded, they can be the backbone of Portuguese style caldo verde soup with linguisa and potatoes, or a warming Florentine ribollita, the bread-thickened minestrone of beans and vegetables. According to an article in Gravy, the newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Punjabi truck stops stay open around the clock in winter dishing up bowls of sarson ka saag, greens (especially pungently biting mustard greens) cooked slowly with onion, garlic, ginger, tomato, cumin, and coriander. Topped with butter, the flavorful puree is scooped up with makki ki roti, thin, tortilla-like corn cakes flavored with fenugreek and ajwan seeds.

The key? Get your greens fresh, unwilted and unyellowed. Remove any tough central ribs. For side dishes or pastas, steam in an inch or two of lightly salted water until just tender to the bite. Tough greens like collards and kale take longer; broccoli rabe, mustard greens, and lacinato kale will go faster. Drain well, let cool, and then chop or slice before sauteeing. For soups, remove the tough central rib, stack the leaves up and roll like a cigar. Slice thinly and add strips to liquid, simmering until tender.