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The Greening of Winter Tables

Winter means a return to hardy leafy greens that can stand up to frost in the garden as well as bold culinary treatment in the kitchen. Winter greens include the more common spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and collards but also less used leaves such as beet greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens. Chefs also avail themselves of so-called Asian winter greens, including bok choy, red mustard greens, and mizuna. Inexpensive, flavorful, and versatile, this large class of leafy vegetables offers many cooking options but also one central challenge: customers are sometimes reluctant to try them.


John Somerville, executive chef of the Lark, an elegant country inn in West Bloomfield, Michigan, favors chard for his winter menu, but he admits that the vegetable is not an easy sell. “It’s a challenge to get customers to try it around here, but once they have it they love it. It is a green that is well suited to braising and, when mixed with shallots and garlic, picks up a real earthy tone.” Although winter greens are much appreciated in Southern cooking, especially in the form of collards, in other regions they’re generally associated with mushy, gray, overcooked vegetables. That misperception, however, is gradually changing as more chefs like Somerville convert the public palate.


Co-Owner and Chef Tory Miller of L’etoile Restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, has a constant supply of fresh local spinach that grows throughout the cold winter. He believes it tastes better than the summer variety; this cool-weather spinach “is like nothing in the world,” Miller says. It comes from the Snug Haven Farm in nearby Belleville, where owners Bill Warner and Judy Hageman build hoop houses over vegetables. “They use snow to water the spinach,” Miller explains. “The spinach fights its way up to the top and gets stronger . . . as if it had antifreeze inside.”

 

The lush spinach leaves as well as the stems have plenty of natural sugar. “I just put it in a pan with butter and water,” says Miller, who serves the spinach with steak, because the meat stands up to it. “We still get crunch even after it’s wilted.” When guests try the simply prepared green, Miller says, “They often say ‘you must have done something “cheffy” with this. It doesn’t taste like spinach.’” Miller has served the winter spinach with halibut or light fish, but he contends that the vegetable outshines seafood.


At the Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, farmer Lee Jones also grows “ice spinach,” as he calls the winter crop, adding, “It’s the same idea as ice wine.” Cultivated in cold frames (the same as hoop houses) that prevent the cold winter winds from damaging the leaves, the spinach grows slowly over several months. “Last year we had crops that were frozen and thawed 67 times during the winter.” The result, according to Jones, is spinach with much more weight, texture, color, flavor, and sweetness. “It’s three to four times heavier than summer spinach . . . which is the worst product, because it grows too quick.”

 

Mix and Match
Somerville is a fan of Swiss chard. He braises about five bunches of chard a night, first separating the leaves from the ribs so the chard won’t have a strong or bitter taste. After washing it, he puts it in a vegetable spinner. In his kitchen, Somerville sets up a vegetable braising station. Every cook on the line has eight to ten additions to the mis en place “to enhance the flavor of vegetables,” he explains. In addition to the shallots and garlic, there are finely chopped chives, freshly picked thyme leaves, and a rich vegetable stock he makes from trimmings. For one popular dish, Somerville adds chopped onion, some of the other elements from the mis en place, and finally cream, arrowroot slurry, and grated Reggiano Parmigiano. “I don’t let the cheese melt; I like it to stay chunky,” the chef comments.


Odette Fada, executive chef at San Domenico in New York and a native of Italy, is no stranger to cold-weather greens: “I like any kind of cabbage and kale. They’re really wintery foods . . . especially Tuscan kale braised in a soup.”


At Terzo in San Francisco, Chef Mark Gordon uses kale in a multitude of menu items. He considers most greens to be interchangeable in recipes but advises, “Kale is different because it tends to be tougher. You can’t just quickly saute it and serve it like chard or spinach. Actually you could, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.” Gordon treats it the Italian way: boiled in salted water until tender, then drained, cooled, and chopped. At that point it can be added to other ingredients or seasoned and cooked again.


Greens Are Golden
Although there is no real winter to speak of in New Mexico, Chef Mark Ching, who runs the restaurant operations at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo likes to use winter greens in his self-described “Mexasian cooking,” combining traditional New Mexican cuisine with Asian sensibilities. Ching says, “There’s a lot of layering of flavors in both cuisines” that guides him and allows for innovation. He uses mustard greens for their distinct flavor and makes “ravioli” using the greens to encase a filling of shiitake and oyster mushrooms and tofu cheese seasoned with shallots, garlic, thyme, and parsley. Ching coats the blanched, drained, and chilled greens with egg whites and seals them around the filling. Rather than boiling the mixture like true ravioli, he sautes the filled leaves in a little olive oil and serves them over a small mound of fresh tomato relish, topping it with a grilled salmon filet.


Ching also works with contracted produce companies to supply the resort’s two restaurants with winter greens, but he says he had to teach the company how to find exactly what he wants. Somerville has had some supply issues too. He is dismayed by the fact that greens in winter often come from emerging markets in South America and he doesn’t know how they are shipped or grown. He prefers to use regional foods when at all possible, “but that is a challenge in the cold seasons,” the Michigan chef admits. “I buy frisee in winter, and Belgian endive.” Fada buys local kale until December at New York’s Union Square Farmers Market. For Tory Miller, it’s easy, of course. He uses 45 pounds of the local winter spinach a week, with twice-weekly deliveries from the farm. Miller reports that the spinach used to go to Chicago first, “but now, we’re the best customer.” It comes in plastic bags in a big box. “We lay it out on towels in the walk-in.”

 

Answering the demand from chefs, Lee Jones has created an Asian blend of winter greens as well as a cruciferous mixture of young leaves from kale, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables. “We pick them at about four weeks,” Jones reports, “so they’re very tender, never rank. Chefs can even use them raw in salads . . . and then their antioxidants are really high since they haven’t been cooked out.” Unique among growers, Jones also allows his chef customers to choose their greens at eight different stages of growth. “We have a chart they can refer to,” he explains. Jones sees the demand for his winter greens escalating, especially given health trends. “Food enthusiasts and chefs used to ask me ‘What is the most flavorful, or great looking, or unique vegetable?’ . . . but now the request I hear a lot is ‘What’s the most healthy?’”

 

Chef Gordon can relate: “People see green and they think ‘healthy.’ A lot of my customers want some greens on the plate because they recognize it as something that’s good for them.” For Gordon and other green-friendly chefs, it’s an easy request to fill. And, not surprisingly, a delicious one too.

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