Call them greens, tops, leaves or “Can you take them off?” the long green rules at the farmers’ market at the end of April. Farmers’ tables are piled with brilliant displays of greens; from sturdy leeks to delicate pea tendrils. True, strawberries have been in and out of production as the sun comes in and out from behind the clouds, and hydroponically grown or greenhouse tomatoes have been livening our palates with their full summer flavors, but it is the multitudinous heaps of greens that urge us to take them home and help them find a way on to our plates.
Who can resist the snap of a fresh English pea, prodded from its pod and lightly cooked? Some of these stalwart delicacies have been sporting the scars of frost on their outer pods, but safely inside the peas are sweet. Sugar snaps — the peas with the edible pods — are also in full season. Like English peas and the flat, tender Chinese Snow Peas, sugar snaps need only a moment’s cooking to be ready for the table. It is important to remove the tough string from sugar snaps before eating. This is easily done by snapping off the pointy stem end and drawing the string off the back. Sometimes you can even remove the secondary string from the curved underside of the pea as well. This simple process ensures that the pea will be edible in its entirety, and that the pea is of the more tasty variety than the new commercial “stringless” type, which lacks character.
Red chard — which closely resembles the elusive rhubarb — as well as sweet white chard and the gorgeous red, yellow and orange rainbow chard are greens that should be eaten every week. They have thick but tender stems, so there is no waste when you slice and braise these nutrition-packed greens. While we are awaiting the return of basil, we can enjoy the many varieties of kale that have become so popular thanks to farmers’ markets. Kale is a little more challenging than chard, but its dense, bitter flavor is perfectly suited for hearty soups and pairings with sausage, olives and meat. As with lettuce, it’s a good idea to get several types at once — that way you can mix them up or experiment with one at a time to discover what your personal favorite might be.
Beets and kohlrabi are just waving their long green tops in your face, begging to be taken home and put in a skillet. Red, golden, and pink chioggia beets are excellent for roasting, and their delicious greens make the perfect accompaniment to their roasted roots. Kohlrabi is mainly a root crop, used fresh or pickled as a crisp vegetable for dips or salads. Kohlrabi leaves on their long, random stems, lend a slightly other-worldly look to this Eastern European vegetable. Cooked Kohlrabi has a mild turnip taste and is delightful in a gratin with cauliflower or potatoes.
Salad greens are in their glory now after the hard winter rains. It is possible to pick from a dozen or more lettuce varieties and let the greens speak for themselves in salads. Some of the beautiful leafy letuces you can find at the market are the Grenoble — a red lettuce with crumpled rosettes of leaves; Sierra — a green leaf lettuce with burgundy tinged tips; Little Gem — noted for its superb flavor; Trout — a wide, oblong-leafed lettuce with wine-red speckles, and Black Seeded Simpson — a chartreuse green lettuce with broad crumpled leaves and frilled edges. These green have such pronounced flavor and character that a simple dressing is all it takes to turn them into a memorable salad. Also. delicious Bloomsdale spinach — a rosette-shaped spinach with crinkly greens — is delicious either raw or cooked, and it lacks the tooth-softening oxalic acid that distinguishes the regular flat-leafed spinach.Early reports are that cherries — that harbinger of summer fruit — are just a week away at southern California farmers’ markets. Until summer fruit’s much anticipated arrival, we can do well to enjoy the hearty and nutritious greens that now loom large at farmers’ tables.