Spring Greens

Photo by: Todd Coleman

A mâche 'Vit' plant grown on the farm at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

Also related: Greens Glossary, Going to Seed, and Step-by-Step:From Pot to Plate.

Spring greens—mustard, miner's lettuce, radish—grow wild in the orchards on my Sacramento Valley farm. They're not indigenous to this part of California, but efforts at breeding greens have been so halfhearted that the cultivated forms hardly differ from their wild ancestors, and will happily go to seed and establish new populations in any congenial place. Dandelions (an excellent, bitter green) thrive in everyone's lawn; chicory grows in any crack in the pavement. If you have an enthusiasm for spring greens, as I certainly do, it may lead you to regress from horticulture to hunting and gathering.

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One reason that greens adapt so easily is that they are native to my climate. The garden crops that we grow in summer—melons, tomatoes, aubergines—are tropical plants that we deceive into thinking they're at home by starting them in a warm season; they will collapse with the first frost, leaving no offspring. Greens, on the other hand, are of boreal origins. They enjoy a frost, even a dusting of snow, which allows them to be the earliest crops to come in. And the colder it is, the better the flavor. Botanically, most spring greens are from three plant families: the beet family (beet, chard, and spinach); the mustard family (kale, mustard, collard, and Asian brassica like mizuna and Chinese cabbage); and the lettuce family (dandelion, endive, escarole, lettuce). Mustard greens tend toward pungency, and lettuces toward bitterness, especially in hot weather.

Somehow, greens have escaped the efforts of plant breeders to increase their sugar content. Genetically modifying sugar content has been a cornerstone in the breeding of other plants (apples, grapes, carrots, beets, corn, yams, and onions) so that many of the varieties we grow today are far sweeter than those of 40 years ago. But spring greens are still virtuously unsweetened. Instead, what the plant breeders have been up to with greens is playing with their appearance.

Lettuce Garden

Photo: Rob Cardillo
Seven types of lettuce were used to fill the Teacup Garden at Chanticleer, an estate garden outside of Philadelphia that opens March 30.

My seed catalogues, collectively, list more than 100 varieties of lettuce, and reading through the descriptions I find no mention of flavor. They all taste the same.

Lettuce breeding is all about color and form. The loose-leaf lettuces in particular have wonderful leaf shapes. Some appear to have been designed by Picasso, others by Matisse. The same situation is found with many of the Asian brassicas—a profusion of shapes and a spectrum of colors, but only one flavor.

The flavor of lettuce, insofar as it has one, is subtle and elusive. In a salad, it is overpowered by the lemon or balsamic vinegar with its sharp, clear note (the violin), and the olive oil with its deep reverberations (the cello). Lettuce has the muted and conciliatory voice of a viola, so understated as to be hardly noticed. Its role in the salad is to provide texture and color. And the point of all those varieties is to satisfy the eye rather than the palate. Some cooks like a heavier orchestration than this in a spring salad, and they add arugula and scallions and nasturtium (piccolos, trumpets, cymbals).

As you might expect from their tendency to become weeds, greens are among the easiest of garden crops to grow. Scatter some seeds, wave a rake in their general direction, and you're on your way. And yet, to produce a pristine head of lettuce, or an unravaged rosette of mizuna, is a challenge.

Lettuce breeding is all about color and form.
The loose-leaf lettuces in particular have wonderful
leaf shapes. Some appear to have been
designed by Picasso, others by Matisse.

The problem is that many creatures—aphids and caterpillars, snails and beetles, rabbits and mice, sparrows and quail—have an insatiable appetite for them. And so the leaves get ragged edges and become sprinkled with holes. In the field, a head of romaine or cabbage is a large plant, but the chewed-up outer half is shucked off and thrown away, and only the undamaged inner parts are sent to market.

One solution to the problem of predation is to sow the seed thickly and then harvest the plants very early, when they have made only one or two leaves, and before the creatures have got into them.

Baby lettuces and microgreens can be picked after as little as ten days. The harvested greens are then sold loose, as either stir-fry mix or salad mix, for six to eight dollars a pound. This conforms to the advice of produce marketers, who maintain that customers prefer products ready to use. They must be right; in my local supermarket bagged or boxed greens now take up three times as much shelf space as the traditional heads of lettuce or cabbage. And at my local farmers' market, I'm about the only farmer left who still chooses to sell lettuce by the head; the other sellers have gone over to salad mix by the pound.

In terms of their culinary personality, spring greens are like a New Hampshire Yankee: pungent and unsophisticated. You wouldn't expect to find collards or dandelions served at a state dinner at the White House, at least not the ones held in the pre—Michelle Obama era. The closest you might come, it would seem, would be an effete leaf of Belgian endive, playing a supporting role to a dab of goat cheese and half a roasted walnut. Greens are more at home in an old chipped bowl placed on a wooden table along with mismatched plates and cutlery.

Related: Our favorite salad dressings.

Almost any of the greens turn out to be a good addition to a soup (escarole soup with white beans is a winter staple at our house). The pungent spring greens of the mustard family can be stir-fried or steamed. We usually sauté them in olive oil with a few flakes of red pepper and bring them to the table together with a bottle of rice vinegar.

But, with the exception of mature beet greens and chard, cooking greens is optional. In keeping with the half-undomesticated character of spring greens, there is a certain logic to following the example of the wild animals, and simply plucking a tender leaf in the field, and chewing it thoughtfully.

Mike Madison is a California farmer and the author of Blithe Tomato: An Insider's Wry Look at a Farmer's Market Society.

This article was first published in Garden Design March 2011