As has been said before, we here in Humboldt County are blessed with an extravagant seasonal assortment of locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. But have you ever really ruminated about salad mix? It's available -- fresh-picked -- year-round.
Perhaps this comes as no great surprise at first, but think about it for a minute. As a recent East Coast transplant returned to my land of birth, I have thought about it far more than necessary. I actually had been on a mission during the previous year to find a decent local salad mix in New York City, and let me tell you, such a thing solely exists in the late spring and summer, in the horribly expensive Farmers' Markets. The entire rest of the year those poor miserable East Coast sods are forced to glumly munch their way through a ubiquitous and predictable organic mix that's trucked in from distant British Columbia (and sold in gas-filled bags around here, too).
Now, I could rant about the carbon footprint, which is bad enough, but what really bummed me out was the same unrelenting mix of lettuce, arugula and spinach for six straight months. I know I can't complain if good salads greens aren't available in snowy climes, but if they are going to truck them that far anyway, couldn't they vary their varieties? Ever? Bibb lettuce 24-7-365? I think not!
Luckily here in Humboldt we have salad mix producers with a little more chutzpah. On a blustery day recently, I Volvo'd out to Indianola to meet John Severn of Little River Farms. Let me tell you, fellow townspeople, we are really lucky to have this guy. Year-round (that includes the rainy cold parts!), John is toiling outside, re-seeding his small fields twice weekly, harvesting by hand, trying an enormous variety of seeds out to see what can handle the colder weather so he can create the most delicious and varied mix possible. It's as if we here in Humboldt County are blessed with our own personal Salad Mix Fairy -- a bearded, friendly, unbelievably hard-working Salad Mix Fairy.
John told me about some of the greens he's starting to include in his winter mix, which, since he grows pretty much as per Nature's whims, includes hardier greens like pok choy, kale, endive, "red of winter" lettuce, mizuna, escarole, sorrel, radicchio, chicory, mint, beet greens and baby chard. I tried some miner's lettuce and found it tangy, crisp and juicy, and some mizuna, which was refreshingly juicy and sweet. John tells me in winter the greens tend to put more energy into the roots and less into the leaves, resulting in crispier, less buttery greens with a stronger flavor. Bitter greens like dandelion greens and mache, which are excellent sources of iron and calcium and astonishingly high in vitamins A and C, make up a large part of his winter mix.
Now, I have tended to be a bit wary of bitter greens. They suffer from bad PR; whose idea was that name anyway? How about "Super-health Star Greens?" But I suppose it arises because they are, inescapably, bitter -- but in a delicious, wholesome way. They are lovely in, say, a well-curated mix, or when cooked appropriately. Cooked greens seem appealing in these colder months anyhow, so that works out.
I've found steaming bitter greens makes for a stunning bright green color and an appallingly tough bite and overtly bitter flavor. I think this is one of the few areas where old-school cookery had the right idea. Bitter greens are best boiled, or braised. They also have a well-known affinity for potatoes or beans, which also works out well in winter, when hearty is most appropriate.
If you don't feel like getting your dose of bitters fresh in one of John's awesome mixes, you can buy a bunch of kale or beet greens (also grown locally, through the winter), and sauté them for 10 minutes with olive oil, forest mushrooms and garlic, or you can try a recipe I love:
This is a family favorite, adapted from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. I like it with broccoli raab best, but mustard greens and beet greens work well.
For 4 people:
2 bunches of greens, around a pound and a half
3 T. olive oil
4 cloves minced garlic
2 t. red pepper flakes (or more if you want it spicier)
2 t. red wine or balsamic vinegar (I prefer balsamic, my pop likes red wine)
1 T. minced anchovies (optional)
Wash the greens and chops the leaves and stems coarsely.
Heat oil in a large saute pan, add greens and salt, and toss over high heat until they look a bit browned and quite limp, maybe 4 minutes.
Reduce the heat, add a splash of water, and cook until tender, stirring often, about 7 more minutes.
Remove greens. Return pan to flame. Adding a bit more oil if necessary (it usually is), add the garlic and pepper, saute until the garlic isn't raw, a minute or two.
Return greens to pan, add vinegar, toss and taste to correct seasoning.
If you have sophisticated guests, add the anchovies; regardless, serve immediately and enthusiastically.
I also make this salad in colder weather for lunch very, very often. It's addictive, and you bear the glow of the self-righteously nutrient rich for hours after eating.
Lunch for One
2 leaves kale, washed and finely cut/minced
1 leaf green cabbage, shredded
1 T. minced cilantro
1 t. minced parsley
2 minced garlic cloves
1 minced shallot
juice 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. sea salt
2 t. olive or pumpkin seed oil (the latter is preferable but hard to find unfortunately)
Wash your hands, if you worry about things like that (you should).
Put all ingredients in a largish bowl and massage thoroughly for 1 minute. Let sit for 5 minutes. I find this really tenderizes the greens, and makes the individual flavors harmonious.
Add at least 4 from the following, but certainly not all (I prefer the first four listed):
Chopped pickled beets, or 1/2 a small raw beet, grated
A handful of watercress or other fresh crisp greens
1/2 cup good-quality oil-packed tuna (I prefer 'Bom' brand, from Murphy's)
1/4 cup toasted walnuts or sunflower seeds
Sliced hard-boiled egg
1/8 cup crumbled good, aged cheese; an aged Gouda is good, or Parmigiano-Regianno
or 1/4 cup fresh local chevre
Thinly sliced apple or pear
2 t. currants
4 thin slices smoked duck breast
Toss your salad with salt, pepper, and a hearty splash of balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.