Sunday, May 25, 2008

Greens and Beans (Growing Challenge)

What possible kinds of salad greens can one grow when it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (and spitting hail the size of nickels) on Thursday of the same week? Granted, it has been a strange week, but it still points to the problem: if one is looking to grow salad greens when it isn't fall or winter (or early spring) in Southern California, one is almost out of luck. It's warm so the lettuce turns bitter and bolts quickly, the arugula gets hotter than wasabi, the spinach goes to pot, and even the chard (though not technically a salad green) gets sad. For someone who eats a lot of salads, it's a pretty dismal salad-growing scene, I tell you.

Or at least, that is what I used to think.

Let me say here, before I go any further, that I still supplement my salad greens from the farmer's market. I religiously buy bags of baby arugula and sometimes lettuce too. However, I've found that I've been able to supplement these purchases very substantially with the following three crops that seem to be growing quite happily, despite the variations in weather and water that Southern California has thrown our way.

1) Orach (aka Mountain Spinach, French Spinach)
Orach stays leafy in the cool weather, and like other green vegetables, goes to bolt when it warms up, but unlike other leafy greens, the flavor stays great, even as it goes to seed. What's even better is that the flower heads are slightly grainy, salty, and succulent, and taste fabulous tossed in a salad or stir fry too. In fact, I think I sometimes like the flower heads more than the leaves. Overall, the flavor is very mild and slightly salty. The leaves are very flexible and don't have too much texture, but they add a lot of color and nutrients to a green salad. The small leaves are remarkably tender, but the larger leaves need to be stripped of their tough veins before tossing into a salad. Orach is a good vegetable, indeed a beautiful one, and I'm happy to have planted it in late February, for it has been treating my salad bowl quite wonderfully for a couple months now.


2) McGregor's Favorite Beet

I love beets in all forms. My parents have pictures of me as a baby with red beets smeared from head to toe. (Can you imagine what it must have been like to clean up after baby-me? It couldn't have been fun. Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I like beets even when they're green, their greens, that is. One of the venders at the Santa Monica farmers' market sells baby beet greens unmixed with any other green, and on the few occasions a year I get to go to the Santa Monica market, I always buy myself a big bag of baby beet greens as a gift to myself. I love their salty succulence, the way they feel between my teeth as I bite down on my cool salad. This fall, I culled my beet crop relentlessly, every "throw-away" seedling hitting my salad plate. But here, in the late spring and summer, beets just don't grow as well. The roots get woody and bitter quickly, so I didn't plan on planting a summer crop. That was until I found this little heirloom from Scotland (Scotland? Seriously? How can a Scottish plant do so well in SoCal?) who is breaking all my beety-expectations. It's a beet grown primarily for the leaves, which are lance-shaped and tender, even when mature. Although planted in late February, McGregor's Favorite has livened up my salads for only a month or so.


3) Mâche (aka Lamb's Lettuce, Corn Salad, Doucette, Fetticus, Field Salad, Nüsslisalat, and and even sometimes Rapunzel, yes, that Rapunzel)
Once again, this is a plant that bolts, but it grows so fast and the flavor doesn't diminish in the heat, that as long as I have succession-planted a steady supply of this little number, I'm in good hands. And oh, good is indeed the word. The texture of a healthy butter lettuce and a good, green flavor, combined with many more nutrients than lettuce, this is a quality addition to the garden. As well, it reseeds itself happily and provides me with seeds to spare. (Speaking of seeds, would anyone like some mâche seed? I could send a few people seed I've collected from my own plants to get them started in their own gardens. Let me know in the comments if you're interested.) I imagine that once the days are consistently over 90 degrees Fahrenheit here this may not hold up as well, but I've been enjoying this for months and expect to enjoy it another month or so. Then, I'll plant it again in September.


And on to the beans, planted in late February, of which I've already been able to harvest a handful of each snap variety.

1) Pencil Pod (Black) Wax
Although the soft gold color never fails to attract me to wax beans at the market, when I get home and taste them, they unfortunately usually live up to their name: they're waxy, tasteless, and have none of that juicy-beany-goodness that I love in a bean. That experience, so disappointing, hasn't not proven true with this bean. I'm not sure if it is because they are just so fresh when I pluck them and eat them right in the garden, or if it is the variety—an oldie but a goodie—but these are just darn good beans. They snap loudly. They crunch juicily. They make me smile.



2) Blue Coco

Covered in gorgeous green and purple foliage and lavender flowers, this variety is a visual knockout. Luckily, it's good in the kitchen as well as the garden. This bean has two distinct types of crops. When I catch the beans young and slender, they're amazingly sweet and beany, perfect french-type beans to eat raw or lightly steamed. When I'm slower on the draw, the beans mature to be large and flat, and are still great eating, but in this case, they need to be stringed and cooked longer, preferably with olive oil and garlic. In either case, they're delicious. As a side note, like every other purple bean I know, they turn green as soon as they've been blanched.


3) Contender
A contender indeed, especially in the realm of productivity. I didn't plant many of these guys, but boy, the few that I have are covered with beans. The beans are relatively straight, perfectly cylindrically-podded, and sweet and crunchy. They're an all-around good bean. I'd like to try planting them again in the fall, for I think I can get two happy crops from this variety.


I've been combining all of these crops lately in large salads drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette. But now, I'm putting the challenge in your hands. Consider this palate of vegetables: what masterpiece would you create with them?

15 comments:

Sarahliz said...

This spring has been wicked on the garden. This oscillation between 90s and 60s is making even getting stuff started tricky. My tomatoes seem to be doing ok but my pepper seedlings weren't strong enough when I transplanted them to survive the hot weather we had in April. My spring seeding of chard didn't even come up!
I'll have to try the orach and mache. They sound like they'd be a good addition. Last spring I also had luck in the spring with radish greens for stir fry but you have to get them while they're really small.

ann said...

What an inspiring collection of beans and greens you've got there Christina! I wish I had room for the mache, but after planting my peppers and basil today, I fear I've maxed out the amount of space I feel safe co-opting on our fire escape! Maybe next summer if you've still got some perhaps?

Wendy said...

You always grow such interesting varieties of vegetables. Loved the bean pictures. In fact, I received some "Salford Black" runner bean seeds in the post today. Hope they grow. My garden doesn't seem to be doing very much at the moment.

Lucy said...

The orach sounds rather good. Tried to grow it here, I did, but it never took hold. Shall try harder next time. Love the soft small tongues of mâche, too. Delicious soft green.

What about a lightly cooked ragout of beans? Gently fry an onion in butter, add a clove of garlic, the chopped beans, some double-peeled favas, too if you have some. Simmer briefy in stock. Add some cooked raviloi or gnocchi and more butter, a knob or two, melting on top.

On the other hand your salad sounds ideal!

Who Has Time To Cook? said...

I really love your photography. You also have a real talent at story-telling. Keep up the great work!
--Jean

Christina said...

Sarahliz: It has been a tough spring, indeed. My peppers are alive, but they aren't happy. The tomatoes are though. If you want mache seeds, let me know. I've got plenty to spare.

Ann: Thanks, lady. I'm sure I'll have to share then. Just remind me when/if you'd like them.

Wendy: I can't wait to hear about your Salford Black runner beans. I've never read about that variety before.

Lucy: Oh dear, my favas are long gone. I cleared them out about a month ago after a huge harvest. I had to share with others because it was just too much for me. However, combining the beans I do have with gnocchi is a wonderful idea. And butter, oh yes!

Busy Person (aka Who Has Time to Cook?): Welcome to ATS. I'm glad you stopped by. Thank you for the very kind words.

Mrs. K's Lemonade Stand said...

You may want to give rattlesnake pole beans a try also! :)

Brent said...

Great blog post! I hope you don't mind if I appropriate some of your garden selections for myself this fall. Since I'm just across town, I'm hoping that all that vegetable goodness will translate directly to my garden.

The last of my own lettuce and arugula bolted several weeks ago, but the tomatoes are coming on strong, so I won't have to wait too much longer for meals made entirely from tomatos!

As for how I'd prepare your selections, I like to cook the less tender of my beet greens like I would spinach in a saute pan with a bit of water (after ripping the tough central ribs out) and then plate them with sliced cooked beets on top. A vinaigrette covers the beet combination and I flake out some feta cheese on top.

Your tender greens I might make into a greens wrap sandwich with Thai peanut dressing.

Christina said...

Mrs. K.: I've heard grate things about Rattlesnake pole beans--I think they're on my list for next season.

Brent: Great ideas for the garden goodies. Thanks for the inspiration. As for appropriating the vegetable selections--the more the merrier. In fact, I'd be happy to share seed with you come next planting time, even in you don't have something for exchange. I usually have more than I need anyway.

Another Outspoken Female said...

Is Orrach also known at arrach aka "wild and stinking"?

Christina said...

Hi Outspoken Female: I had to do a little searching around to answer your question. What I found on botanical.com is that, according to Culpepper, the orach that I grow (Atriplex hortensis) is different from the "wild and stinking" orach (Atriplex olida) often used as a medical herb. What I can tell you from my own observation is that there is nothing either wild or stinky about the orach that I'm growing, nor does it fit the description of round-leaves and low-growth. The leaves are pointed and the plant grows quite vertically. I hope that answers your questions. Thanks for stopping by A Thinking Stomach.

littlem said...

We've been having huge success with bok choy. It's way too easy to grow and although we are in Brisbane. The latest crop has battled against drought, high winds and week-long-rain.

tk said...

I remember "Nuesslisalat" (aka Mâche) since I was an exchange student in Germany some 20 years ago. It was commonly served in the student cafeteria. I'll try growing some in NC.

Brock said...

I wouldn't mind trying some Mâche in my garden if you still have any extra seed... and if you think it might do alright in the Niagara Falls area of the country...

Christina said...

TK and Brock: If you're interested in some seed, please email me at niezcka at gmail dot com. You can send me your address, and I'll some your way.