Produce of the Month: Winter Greens
This month, the sweet ripe peaches and strawberries of last summer have faded to dusty memories and when we look outside at what’s growing in Southern California we see greens, greens, and greens.
There seems to be an endless list of greens, most of which grow this time of year, and a huge number of them are available here in our backyards. This is great news because it means that we can learn in-depth about varieties local to Southern California as we showcase their flavors in our cooking.
Today, we’ll profile three greens to give you a head start on winter cooking. Keep in mind, there are tons of other interesting greens out there and many recipes allow substitutions for one green over another. So take a look at whatever you’ve got at home and let’s get going!
The very well-known: Kale
Kale is a leafy green that has such high levels of vitamins and minerals, it’s often listed as a “superfood.” It’s part of a plant species called Brassica oleracea (which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage) and is an excellent source of calcium and iron. It has been cultivated by humans for 6000 years and its 50 varieties are grown all around the world.
Kale even has its own official day – October 5th!
You can plant Kale in containers or in the ground in SoCal in the fall, winter, and early spring. It benefits from some frost and it is harvest-ready when the individual leaves are the size of your hand. Store it in plastic in the refrigerator and use it raw or cooked. If you find it too dry in salads, try massaging the leaves before eating them.
The familiar: Bok Choy
This sweet white and green winter vegetable, also known as Brassica rapa, is a type of Chinese cabbage. It is native to China (which is why it’s historically been used in Chinese cuisines) but it is now also grown in Europe and America. These days, it is an all-purpose vegetable that can do heaving lifting in stir-frys, steamed dishes, and soups. It packs a great punch nutritionally as well, with high levels of vitamin A and C.
Growing bok choy requires rich, loose soil and cool weather. The leaves grow close together (similar to celery) and should be harvested when they are 12 to 18 inches tall. Both the green part and the white part of the plant can be eaten and are delicious, just make sure to thoroughly wash them first.
The hardly-known-at-all: Water Spinach
Water spinach, botanically classified as Ipomoea aquatica, is native to parts of Asia. Its leaves and shoots are typically enjoyed in their early growing stages and have a mild, sweet flavor. Eaten fresh or cooked, they are nutritious and delicious and should always be used as soon as they are picked. They are a staple in many Asian cuisines. While water spinach may taste slightly like the spinach you’ve had before, it is actually more closely related to sweet potatoes!
If you find water spinach growing here in California, you’ll be looking at a piece of history. Why is that? Water spinach was brought to the US in the 1970s and it started growing out of control. Because this invasive plant crowds out other native species, it has been federally regulated for decades. It’s listed as a noxious weed in many states, meaning it can’t be planted without permission.
These simple recipes are written for specific winter greens, but other greens can absolutely be substituted instead. Pick substitutions with similar structure and texture for the best results, and don’t be afraid to get creative!