Edible Seasonals - Colorful Harvest: The Fresh Leafy Greens of Oregon’s Winter
Written by Anthony and Carol Boutard
Photo by Anthony Boutard
For Winter 2007
WHEN OUR FAMILY LIVED IN PORTLAND, we enjoyed freshly harvested greens most days of the week, even through the winter. We maintained a 10x40 foot plot at Fulton Community Garden all year and foraged for wild greens in the corners of the community gardens and soccer fields.
We had our favorite nettle patches in the Marquam Canyon, pulled blanched dandelions from the rough grass at the fringes of playing fields, and collected chickweed and miner’s lettuce from abandoned garden plots. For some reason, adults roaming around with rusty boning knives and buckets never raised an eyebrow.
When we established Ayers Creek Farm, we continued our foraging habits in our berry fields and orchards and maintained a few rows of cold season greens. Hallie Mittleman, then the manager of Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, upped the ante when she asked whether we would participate in a new winter season market. We agreed and quickly intensified our gardening efforts.
This is Hillsdale’s fourth season, and it has been a great success, thanks to the many people who enjoy braving the elements for fresh vegetables.
The Willamette Valley is perfect for growing cold season greens. The climate is mild and wet, allowing fresh growth all winter, and just cold enough to keep the greens sweet and tender. In fact, within the realm of greens suitable for the valley, there are many more choices available in the winter than in the summer.
Our farm sells winter field salads and variations of misticanza that contain as many as 15 distinct botanical families and more than 50 varieties are used over the winter season. All are field grown, out in the open air. For some markets, we have dug greens out of the snow or picked them white with hoar frost.
With regular frosts, cold season greens develop their best flavor. These greens typically start their growth in mid to late summer when insect and disease pressures are high. The plants produce strong, generally sharp, acrid or bitter compounds in their tissues to repel insects and defend against diseases.
As the frosts start falling, insect and disease pressures relent, and the plants reorder their chemistry to build up sugars as a form of antifreeze and as a reserve to build their blossoms in early spring. Following the first frost, the shift is immediately tasted, because the bitter and sharp flavors are offset or replaced by sugars.
Despite the perfect climate for growing vegetables through the winter, Portland area farmers face significant challenges. Our heavy silt loams produce a high-quality green, but we cannot operate machinery on rain saturated soils. Labor costs are higher, as it takes us much longer to move through a wet, muddy field on foot. If it is raining or snowing, even more effort is required, though we do harvest greens even with snow on the ground. At the 45th parallel, our planting windows are narrow and few, and varieties from lower latitudes tend to bolt (go to flower prematurely).
These are challenges farmers in the California desert do not face. Then again, the greens grown in the longer days, warmer climate and sandy desert soil never develop the same depth of flavor, tasting flaccid and one-dimensional, compared to those grown in the Willamette Valley.
For valley farmers, growing winter greens is the easy part. Getting people to buy them is a bigger challenge. Food writers insist on calling virtually every green growing in winter a “bitter green.” It is a blunt and artless term—although some have a bitter note, there are many more apt descriptors, including nutty, minerally, grassy, sharp and earthy.
We have yet to establish the same level of comfort with winter greens as we have with summer fruits. Part of the problem has been farmers’ past over-reliance on members of the cabbage family, especially the hardiest of the tribe—kales, cabbages and collards. Though delicious, they tend to wear a bit thin seven days a week. This is rapidly changing, however, as we become familiar with a wider range of cool season greens. Some examples follow.
Escaroles, endives and chicories are all well suited to valley growing conditions. Escaroles and endives are the same species, Cicoria endivia. The varieties with divided leaves are called endives, and those with undivided leaves are escaroles. Most escarole and endive varieties are of French origin and have changed little over the last 150 years. They usually form a self-blanching head, though we grow a couple of leaf types as well.
The blanched heart is crisp and tender, and less bitter than many lettuce varieties once the cold weather arrives. Escaroles are very good in soups and braised. For salads containing escaroles and other chicories, we often use lemon juice in place of vinegar.
There is a bewildering diversity of forms for the chicory plant, Cicoria intybus. Some form heads, like radicchio and Witlof chicory; the Grumolos have small rosettes of leaves; the Catalogna types have long, serrated leaves and are often sold as Italian Dandelion; and then there are the thick flower buds of the asparagus chicories, a special form of the Catalogna used in the famous Roman salad of puntarelle. At Ayers Creek, we grow 15 or so varieties. Most are of Italian origin and are usually named for the town they are from, with names such as Grumolo, Castelfranco, Lusia, Salento, Bergamo and Chioggia.
The chicories are variably bitter, a quality which is balanced by a deeply satisfying sweet nuttiness. Soaking them in cold, salted water attenuates the bitterness to a large degree. We try to keep chicories on our table as long as possible in the spring, and there is that cruelest day in April when they are simply too tough and bitter. Once again, the valley’s wet weather and occasional frosts produce superior chicory, whatever the form. Most of the varieties are easy for us to grow because they originate from areas clustered around the 45th parallel.
The green quartet of radish, arugula, buck’s-horn plantain and borage is a good contrast to the chicory tribe, and forms the basis of the baskets of misticanza found in markets throughout northern Italy.
Radish is a naturalized exotic in the Willamette Valley. The seed industry treats it as a pest, and millions of dollars are spent to control it. On our farm, it is biologically controlled by hominoids who frequent the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market. We also grow the Spanish black radish for the flush of tender greens produced in late winter. It is a delicately flavored green worthy of greater use alone or in a mixture.
Arugula, and the less familiar buck’s-horn plantain, also known as minutina, are fine salad embellishments in their youth. As they mature and become too rank for salads, they remain excellent cooking greens. In fact, we prefer arugula cooked; a handful of arugula in chicken stock is a wonderful soup for lunch. Buck’s-horn plantain has a slightly tart and earthy flavor.
The fourth member of the quartet is borage. A very tender green with a fresh, minerally fragrance and flavor—the Riesling of the greens—it is used as a cooking green throughout the Mediterranean. It forms the basis of the Ligurian mixture of herbs and greens called "preboggion,” which is used to fill ravioli and tortas.
Although these greens all stand on their own, as a quartet they work in harmony and do not overwhelm one another. A few dandelions and a bit of Catalogna-type chicory or chard are seasonal additions. We also add small amounts of aromatic herbs to the mix when they are available—particularly fenugreek, mint and chervil.
The mixture is prepared by blanching the greens in salted boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Chop the blanched greens and cook them slowly in oil or fat until fully tender. Although it is easier to chop them before cooking, we feel the flavor and nutrients are better preserved if it is done after blanching. This mixture of greens also makes a tasty saag, the great Indian dish of fragrant buttered greens.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture lists four winter markets on its website, and that is likely to increase next year. Growth in the winter markets is dependent upon Portlanders discovering that a fresh bunch of greens or a vibrant head of chicory gathered on a frosty afternoon is as tantalizing and appetizing as that tomato or raspberry picked at its ripest perfection in July or August. We know they are, and encourage everyone to experiment with Oregon’s leafy bounty.
Anthony and Carol Boutard operate Ayers Creek Farm, an Oregon Tilth certified organic farm in Gaston, Oregon. They grow canefruits (red, purple, and black raspberries; blackberries; loganberries; and boysenberries), plums, chestnuts, winter vegetables, fresh shell and dry beans, and specialty grains. Ayers Creek Farm is a vendor at the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market. They may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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