A Leaf Encounter
A Spring Greens Primer
It took one trip to Maryland farm country to realize it was springtime, even though I was still wearing a sweatshirt and boots. As I drove by the sprawling fields of greens bathing in the sun, I saw towers of crisp salads in my future. Warm weather will soon bring an abundance of edible plants to the area, but picking the perfect spring green for a dish isn't as easy as going to the local farmers market and grabbing the first leafy thing you see. Each one has its own unique flavor, from bitter radicchio to mild frisée. Some are better cooked, while some only really sing raw.
Soil and weather play a dynamic role in maintaining good crop during the spring season. Moist, well-maintained grounds and temperate weather create optimum conditions for leafy vegetables. Maryland's weather is moody and greenhouses are expensive to power and maintain, so at this time of year, you may not find many locally grown spring greens.
Spinach is an exception. "We do grow some spinach during the winter," says Cinda Sebastian, whose produce company, Gardener's Gourmet, cultivates its wares just west of Westminster. "The bulk of crop will be coming once heat comes in, [but] the spinach is starting to look nice, and every week I keep stocking the stands with a lot of fresh greens."
It won't be long before you'll find yourself tripping over spinach leaves as you try to escape the large market crowds. The dark green savory/semisavory crop, distinguished by its large, crinkly leaf, is perfect for cooking because of its size and tough texture. Other large varieties of greens, such as collards, kale, mustard, and chard, stay true to flavor during this season and are best sautéed because of their bulky stalks. The overwintered leftovers may be noticeably sweeter than the upcoming spring harvest.
For a slightly stronger alternative to spinach, substitute arugula (also known as rocket). This delicious green is characterized by its peppery yet pleasantly aromatic flavor. The Romans cultivated its leaf as well as its seed during the first century; the latter was an ingredient in aphrodisiac potions. Because local spring temperatures are usually mild, the piquant flavor is minimal, while keeping a vivid green leaf. Familiar in Mediterranean cuisines, arugula is commonly seen paired with citruses, extra-virgin olive oil, and sharp, salty cheeses.
The wilted-greens plate at Rocket to Venus in Hampden includes spinach and watercress as well as dandelion greens when available. The French named this leaf by its dent de lion, referring to the similar shape of a lion's tooth. What's the trick to this rampant weed? Pick leaves immediately after they initially appear and before the flower blooms.
"Spring greens are much better raw," Rocket to Venus executive chef David Carleton says. "But when cooking bitter greens similar to dandelion, I tend to use a sweet addition as nice contrast to the flavors. Young dandelion greens have a nice bitterness which stands out." Carleton uses golden raisins to harmonize the flavors in this hearty dish.
The deep purple leaf seen in most green mixes is radicchio, the boldest of all spring greens. When cultivating radicchio, the amount of water affects the bitterness. If the crunchy white stalks are cared for with plenty of water, the flavor is mostly mild and manageable. Grilling or sautéing this Italian plant tames the peppery tones. Often underappreciated, radicchio is usually used for color and texture. You might find the leaves used as cups for dips or salads.
On a more delicate note, the curly, light-colored lettuce known as frisée bears a subtle flavor, with its thick stalks carrying just a hint of pepper. It's very important to tear the leaves off because cutting frisée with a knife can cause bruising, making it look beat up and discolored. Frisée also wilts quickly, so avoid using acidic ingredients when cooking with it. If fresh frisée happens to wilt, try to revive it by dipping the leaves in lukewarm water and then immediately submerging them in an ice-water bath. A common, traditional French salad, frisée aux lardons highlights this spunky green by using lardons (fatty pork belly), blue cheese, and a fresh poached egg.
Originating in Japan, mizuna has more of a sweet, mustard flavor, without the hints of pepper. The delicate yet spiky leaf finishes a dish with style and Asian sass. Treat yourself to a few leaves of mizuna in your next martini. Also ideal for garnishing, oak leaf lettuce can fluff up any spring salad and is a seasonal substitute for the average domestic iceberg or romaine due to its gentle flavor.
If you want to try a little bit of each of these greens, just grab a mesclun mix. This spring mélange consists of a variety of bitter, spicy, and sweet flavors and often includes some or all of the green listed above. And when you make your next salad, see if you can tell the mizuna from the arugula.
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