Let's have three cheers for springtime and the re-opening of the farmers markets. This is a time for early abundance with all those delights of what the Italians call, the Primavera. For Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School, one of the first indulgences are salad greens, in bewildering profusion.
Interestingly enough there is actually a vegetable named ‘Spring Greens’. It is a member of the cabbage family and related to kale. It is cold tolerant, like the first cabbages of the year and has fresh, loose heads without the hard heart of other cabbages. It is great sautéed or boiled with garlic and olive oil. But we really wanted to talk about are the fun things we see in the springtime that are green!
For Salads –available now are tender lettuces that are great just tossed with olive oil and vinegar or your favorite vinaigrette.
Little Gems – like butter lettuce but much smaller, crisper and sweeter.
Escarole – of course you can get escarole through the summer, but the first heads of spring don’t get those dark bitter leaves on the outside but are bright green and almost sweet.
Watercress – if you can find the wild version, it's more intensely flavored than garden grown cress which is what is typically available. Both have a lovely bite and crunch. Look for very young versions. Cress is part of the mustard green family so it gets more bitter the longer it stays in the ground.
For Cooking – although you can use these in salads, they take on a lovely sweetness with even the slightest of cooking or blanching.
Dandelion Greens – certainly what my Father fought to keep off our front lawn growing up, these famously dark green and bitter leaves add a new dimension to soups and stews.
Wild Nettles – harder to find at the market but easily foraged, the ‘stinging’ nettle has fine hairs that will cause some discomfort, but handled carefully and blanched briefly in boiling water removes and traces of the ‘sting’.
Broccoli Rabe – again, available through the summer, but the spring plants, especially the young ones, don’t have the tough bitter stems of their full-grown summer versions.
And here is a great little idea for serving up these fresh spring greens.
Braised Spring Greens
3 cups whole canned tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 cups tomato juice
10 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 small yellow onion, chopped into ¼ inch dice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. your favorite spring green
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 cup dry white wine
Salt, crushed red pepper flakes and fresh ground black pepper to taste
In a large sauté pan set over medium high, heat the oil until just smoking.
Add the onion and garlic and cook with constant stirring until the onions become translucent, about 5 minutes Add the lemon juice, zest and white wine and reduce the liquid until only about two tablespoons are left. Add the tomatoes and tomato juice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes with occasional stirring. Add the greens, season with salt, crushed red pepper flakes and fresh ground black pepper to taste. Serve with good extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese.