Bright rhubarb and spring greens—fun, easy cooking for the new season
It’s Pink & Green Season
by Susie Middleton
I‘m on a mission—to convince cooks that greens like kale and Swiss chard have a sexy side, that these sturdy stalwarts of the soup pot deserve to come out and play with the rest of the dinner plate. I probably don’t have to convince anyone that my other favorite spring vegetable, rhubarb, deserves star status. Yeah, technically, rhubarb is a vegetable.
But its tart personality—and flavor—just begs for sugar, so we wind up using it most often in dessert. Certainly a good thing, since there’s hardly another fresh fruit to be seen in early May. It might be just a happy accident that all three of these things are pink and green, but I think it’s a spring thing—consider radishes and spinach, too. (It certainly has nothing to do with pink being my favorite color.) So say goodbye to winter’s whites—parsnips and potatoes—and hello to some fresh ways to cook a few spring favorites.
KALE & SWISS CHARD: TWO GREENS, TWO WAYS TO COOK
The trick to cooking greens is simply getting to know their personalities. Kale and Swiss chard, for instance, call for very different treatments. Kale, for all its curly coyness, is one tough cookie. You will want to remove the woody stems (pigs love them, so does the compost pile), and boil the leaves in generously salted water just until tender, usually 5 to 7 minutes. Yes, I did say boil—not blanch, simmer, or steam— but I also said just for a few minutes—not 2 or 3 hours. There is a magic moment when kale goes from rubbery to palatable, so you will want to snag a leaf out of the pot after 3 or 4 minutes and taste it. Keep doing this until you notice that the resistance has gone away. Drain the kale well in a colander and squeeze out the extra water.
The good news is that now you can use your kale a zillion different ways. For a simple side dish, sauté some chopped garlic in olive oil, add a few chopped sundried tomatoes or olives, add the kale to the pan, and toss well. Add a dash of vinegar and a drizzle of honey to finish. Or simply toss the kale with browned butter and a squeeze of lemon. If you’re in the mood for something hearty and comforting, make the delicious Creamy Kale Gratin with Two Cheeses, again starting with kale you’ve already cooked, which you can do ahead.
Even better news—you can also cook and use the pretty newer varieties of kale, like the bumpy Dinosaur Kale (also called Tuscan Kale, Black Kale, Lacinato, or Cavalo Nero) and the frilly, fancy, purple-leaved Red Russian Kale, exactly the same way. I’ve found that Dinosaur Kale (center photo, left), which kids seem to appreciate, cooks in slightly less time than curly kale, about 3 or 4 minutes. I think it has a more pleasing flavor than regular kale, too. Swiss chard, on the other hand, is a tender green, much more like spinach, and it needs only the briefest spin in a sauté pan to cook (no boiling, please). The crunchy, juicy stems are edible, too. Separate them from the leaves, slice, and sauté until softened in a little butter or olive oil before adding the leaves. After that, add a little cream and Parmesan to finish, or, for a lighter dish—and flavors everyone will love—follow the recipe for Swiss Chard with Balsamic, Maple Syrup, and Fresh Ginger.
My favorite Swiss chard is the colorful Bright Lights variety (also called Rainbow chard). I’ve found that the yellow, orange, and pink stems and leaves have a slightly milder, less mineral-y flavor than the traditional red leaves, which makes these greens even more crowd-friendly.
Though we think of greens as spring vegetables—and there is a good supply of both kale and chard around Island grocery stores right now—they won’t be showing up at our farm stands until early June (well, that’s still spring). If you want to grow greens, it’s not too late to start them now and harvest in June. You can keep on sowing chard through the summer heat, but midsummer is not kale’s favorite time (unless you are harvesting very young greens for salads). Plant another round of kale in late summer or early fall for a delicious cool-weather harvest.
RHUBARB: THE FRUITY VEGETABLE
I’ve always taken rhubarb for granted, because once you plunk a plant in the ground, it seems to stick around forever. What I didn’t realize until recently is that rhubarb flourishes only in northern climates where temperatures dip below 40 degrees (not a problem here). So while we may have to wait a little longer to harvest our greens, right now we’ve got plenty of rhubarb to play with.
We like to toss rhubarb with sugar and honey and maple and lemon and cinnamon and…just as long as we don’t eat the leaves (they contain a toxin), we can do a lot with these proud pink stalks. Whether you’re collecting it at Cronig’s, buying it from the farmstand, or harvesting it from your own backyard, rhubarb rocks in the crumble, muffin, and chutney, recipes we’ve included here. You’ll notice these recipes don’t have any strawberries in them; that’s because the berries and rhubarb don’t actually come into season together. But if your heart’s set on combining the two, you can freeze rhubarb (dice or slice it first, and pack it into zip-top bags) until the sweet berries come along in June. Just keep in mind that frozen rhubarb will give off a little more liquid as it cooks.