Spring in New England is tough for a Southern girl. I have many pre-concieved notions about weather and torture myself by remembering specific spring wedding weekends with Flower Girls (the flower company I left behind in Richmond, Va) and how we were in flip flops and sundresses delivering the flowers and hanging out on the warm deck afterwards for our celebratory cocktail. I will fondly reminisce while stoking our woodstove (this is BOUND to be the last night we have to have a fire, right?) and getting the greenhouse heater going and crossing my fingers that the pepper starts won't go into shock if the temps drop too low in there.
I have fought these Southern demons for four years now and am finally at the point where I can try to say it is okay that it might snow... again. It is okay that while my mother is planting her tomato plants I am putting mittens on my kids. It is okay that while my sister's family is in North Carolina at the beach, my father swimming in the (albeit frigid) pool, I am scrambling to cover the seedlings in the garden for worry of frost. All of this is okay because while they have creature comfort, I have the best Goddamn greens around and the salads to prove it!
I have practically stopped growing lettuce (gasp!). I still grow a couple of varieties of fine butterhead and the occasional freckled or red romaine but the bulk of the greens I grow are Asian. I got into growing them because they are super cold tolerant and well suited for winter greenhouse production as well as loaded with vitamins and trace minerals and the kids really prefer them, and even better they prefer them raw. Flint (3) eats each leaf individually and by hand, grasping the stem and eating the leaf in one bite. It's slow-going but daggone if he won't eat a whole plate!
The Asian greens range of flavors make for a dynamic and nuanced salad. Such delicate flavor you wouldn't suspect coming from such hardy little plants. I had Mizuna, Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, and two mustard varieties survive THIS winter in the greenhouse (which I do not heat in winter) with only mild cover, exploding in new growth in February.... saying a lot when we are talking about THE WINTER FROM HELL. These plants are SURVIVORS and I find inspiration in that.
A salad bowlful of homegrown Asian Greens is a revelation. My friend Cecelia said that after eating my greens she would never go back to store bought again. Being of Chinese heritage and also vegetarian these greens are mainstays in her kitchen and she struggles to find them for sale at local grocers. When she is able to find them she says they lack any depth of flavor. Last week she planted 100 seedlings I started for her so she can grow her own, Go Girl!
The flavors range from sweet and somewhat watery, to bitter, from mild to hot, to everywhere in between on the pungent spectrum. I harvest huge amounts daily for salads and when the plants really get going I have plenty to saute as well. Dress them lightly (I keep a jar of buttermilk dressing on hand recipe at end of article) so as not to overpower their delicate flavor.
As for growing, they are pretty easy. You have to be careful of flea beetles and slugs early season and cabbage loopers and moths mid-late season but if given a moderately rich and moist soil and plenty of sun you will be in business. Most prefer cooler temperatures so they are well suited for spring or fall production as well as for growing in winter greenhouses or cold frames.
If you are growing salads you will be harvesting at baby leaf stage and can pretty much jam the plants closely together. For baby leaf I space plants 3" apart in large blocks (in raised beds where the depth for the roots allows you to plant closer together) and 6"-8" (variety dependent) for saute or full sized heads.
So here's the line-up....
Tokyo Bekana is a year-round crop for me. I usually start early transplants on heat mats indoors in late Feb- early March to speed germination. From there the plants are transplanted into greenhouse beds by late March-early April at which point the crop from the previous fall is going to flower. The chartreuse leaves make for a highlight in the garden or salad. This green is heat tolerant and will go all summer outdoors in the garden as well. In the South you'd want it lightly shaded for summer production so it doesn't fry. It is delicious as baby or mature greens. It's flavor does not take on any heat as it matures.
Hon Tsai Tai is most easily described as the Chinese Brocolli Raab. It has a very similar growth habit and edible flower buds (and flowers if you are negligent in your harvest (see pic!)). This is best grown as a summer-fall crop ( or even fall-winter crop in the South). The taste is mildly mustard and it is suited for salads or saute. Harvest the flower shoots early as the stem will toughen quickly at which point it is overmature, still edible but VERY tough.
Mustards I have a real thing for mustard greens. I love the opening of the sinuses and pungent bite of freshly harvested home-grown mustard greens. They can be a real challenge to eat and I'm into that. There is something about tears running down your face while at the supper table that I really enjoy. If your only experience of mustards is store-bought you are only halfway there. Grow your own or search a farmers market as the depth of flavor just isn't available commercially. Varieties that I love are Shuenling no.2 (pretty light green frilly leaves), Red Giant (robust and wonderful for saute), and Scarlet Frills (deeply serrated purple leaves are garnish-worthy).
Komatsuma Summerfest These are mild, tender Japanese greens for salad and braising. I am just putting these in now as they are heat tolerant and should go through the summer. The plants are upright and uniform which makes them easy to pack into my beds... I am a helpless overplanter!!
Wasabi Arugula This tastes EXACTLY LIKE WASABI. Feeding leaves of this to guests is a party trick of mine. It is truly unbelievable. The seed is TEEENY TINY and expensive and of course, I SNEEZED while planting it in the greenhouse, also unbelievable, and so only have one little row that I'm hording. A little bit slower to grow than regular arugula but still pretty easy.
Yukina Savoy This is probably my favorite Asian green. I eat it nearly every day for lunch, massaged with chili garlic paste and topped with poached eggs and avocado. I am a creature of habit, what can I say. I love this green so much that I started it TWICE this spring, both from seed and transplant, and now it is taking up a disproportionate amount of the greenhouse. I love the dark green slightly savoyed leaves and the delicious crunchy watery stems. It is both heat and cold tolerant with a more vigorous growth habit than Tatsoi. The heads are delicious steamed/braised if you have any plants that make it beyond the baby salad stage!
Vitamin Green This is my first year in a LONG time growing this brassica. It was part of my second city garden many years ago thanks to The Growers Exchange where I then worked. The leaves are uniform and very flavorful but not at all hot or mustardy (great for the boys). It isn't much of a show stopper in the greenhouse but it is growing fast and easy.
A couple of greens that I did not picture are Mizuna and Pac Choi. I have taken a break from both for different reasons. Mizuna has been a mainstay in the greenhouse since it was completed. This very mild Japanese mustard slows in the heat and so I find it better suited for a fall crop in the greenhouse. It will regrow as a cut and come again crop, always a bonus. I prefer the purple and red varieties to add color to my salads. As for Pac Choi I am out of greenhouse room and I have an epic flea beetle problem in the garden so am avoiding putting out any Chinese cabbage varieties until I can get it under control. That is a post for another day!!
If taste alone isn't enough to inspire you, I was told that a bag of assorted Asian Greens at Healthy (er, WEALTHY) Living Market in South Burlington was going for $15.00!!! Reason enough to make some room for these delicious greens in your garden this year. All seed available from Johnny's who if you live in New England has super fast delivery. Order today and plant early next week!!
Finally... the promised Buttermilk Garlic Dressing. My children will literally drink this stuff. I like it sort of liquidy. If you want a thicker dressing just keep adding mayo till you get to the desired consistency.
1-2 cloves chopped raw garlic (to taste)
1 cup highest quality buttermilk you can find (Butterwork's farm is soooo good)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 T lemon juice
3/4 tsp Worcestershire
salt and pepper to taste
let garlic steep in lemon juice and worcestershire for about 30 min or so. Whisk in buttermilk and then mayo to reach desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Will keep in jar in fridge for a week or so.