BRATTLEBORO—As the green things of spring and summer begin popping up all over Windham County, the time is right for green things to pile up on our dinner plates and in our salad bowls.
The delicate leaves of salad greens are among the first crops available at farm stands and farmers’ markets, and their cheerful appearance helps us shake off the last vestiges of a long, cold winter.
Purchasing these greens from our local farmers means they can begin earning some income from these early crops, as well.
Plus, they are easy to prepare.
When we would rather spend more time outside and less time laboring in the kitchen, throwing a handful of salad in a bowl is a satisfying way to eat well without a lot of effort. Add whatever protein you like, toss with a simple vinaigrette, maybe add some cheese and bread on the side, and you have a simple meal.
Many local farmers grow interesting salad greens and blend their own salad mixes, making eating salad a lot more interesting than filling your bowl with a bunch of shredded iceberg lettuce, or gambling on the freshness of a long-distance box salad from the grocery store.
At the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market on a recent overcast Saturday morning, Old Athens Farm’s Rebecca Nixon said to a customer, “If you want the freshest, best produce possible, go to the farmers’ market.”
Nixon’s Westminster farm, which she owns with her husband, Michael Collins, offers arugula and spinach, as well as a triple-washed, custom-blended salad mix.
“Salad mix, microgreens, whatever people want to call it,” said Rebecca Nixon. “It’s different every week,” she said, noting “there’s cress in there, baby kale. It’s not too spicy because people don’t like that.”
“We ran out of red leaf” for the week, said Nixon, at 9 a.m. that Saturday, pointing to a big bin that had just been overflowing with fluffy heads of tender, green-and-garnet lettuce.
“Michael took it all,” she explained, pointing to Michael Fuller, chef at T.J. Buckley’s Uptown Dining, who had just snuck away with a big bag of goodies he purchased from Old Athens Farm for his Brattleboro restaurant.
Marisa Miller of Putney’s Lost Barn Farm features pea shoots as a salad option. “The seeds are smaller than snap peas,” Miller said, adding, “when they are three inches tall, we cut them.”
She said the petite leafy shoots taste like peas, and are tender enough for salad, but also work nicely as a stir-fry green.
Karen Manix at Walker Farm reported June 4 was the first day her farm stand had edibles for sale. (Since their opening day of April 10, Walker Farm has been selling plant starts and other gardening wares.)
Included in their inventory of fresh, certified organic vegetables grown on their Dummerston farm are a few types of ready-to-eat salad greens.
In separate bins in their reach-in greens cooler are tender baby spinach, and their baby lettuce mix. The latter, Manix said, has “seven or eight varieties” of lettuce; some are red, some green, and “some in-between,” she said.
The mix changes depending on availability, and the flavor is sweeter and not spicy. For a little spice, toss in some greens from the bins holding their zesty arugula and piquant mizuna.
Manix also highlights their baby kale salad mix. “It’s very tender and sweet,” and unlike mature kale, it needs no massaging in oil to soften the greens for salad purposes.
John Miller at Old Schoolhouse Plantery also offers a salad kale that can be eaten as-is: Sutherland kale.
“It’s so tender,” he said, “it’s just like lettuce. You just chop it up.” Sutherland kale, once found in nearly every Scottish croft, almost went extinct, Miller said. “One person kept it going for fifty years,” he said, “and sent it to an heirloom seed company in the UK.”
Miller grows a few other salad greens unfamiliar to most American palates. His specialty is offering plants, both edible and ornamental, that widen the horizons of both diners and gardeners.
Celtuce, also known as stem lettuce and asparagus lettuce, originated in Asia. “You wait until the stems grow to eight inches, or 20 centimeters, then you pull off the leaves,” Miller said. The stem is the edible part. “The leaves drop off as they grow.”
Good-King-Henry, a substitute for spinach, is another green Miller loves to grow. It’s related to Lamb’s Quarters, he says. Miller noted how hardy the plant is, pointing out to a visitor to his farm a few plants that survived outdoors throughout the winter.
Other unusual greens Miller grows are Bearded Brothers, an Italian deer-tongue-type of lettuce; Red Sails, an oak leaf type; and Bear Necessities kale, a new variety Miller said is a cross between kale and mizuna.
Miller encouraged people to try different vegetables. “There’s a rainbow out there,” and we should eat it, he said.
Guilford’s Circle Mountain Farm plants a variety of salad greens in 12 beds, said farm owners Amy Frost and Justin Nye, with five beds rotating between different plants.
They plant salad greens every two weeks, and harvest the leaves by hand, with scissors. Frost and Nye said that this time-consuming, labor-intensive method allows them to see each leaf they pick, and makes for better quality control.
For most of the season, Circle Mountain offers two salad mixes: regular, and spicy.
Frost and Nye express pride in their spicier greens, such as mizuna, arugula, and mustard greens. In addition to flavor, these greens are hardier.
“We don’t put lettuce in our salad mix,” Frost said.
Nye explained, “It doesn’t store well.”
The closest green to lettuce Frost and Nye put in their salad mix is what Nye calls a “lettuce-y type of Chinese cabbage that doesn’t head up, and it holds up well."
Frost pointed out a leaf-type radish, that, unlike common radishes, is not grown for the root, but the tasty, tender leaves. Later in the season, she said, they add a Hopi variety of red amaranth to their salad mix.
Green Wave, a mustard green, is “the spiciest one we grow,” said Nye, but early in the season, it’s mild enough for their salad mix.
Frost noted red mustard and other brassicas “will cross-breed with landraces” — locally-adapted crops — and “that’s the cool thing,” she said, because “you get more resilience and natural selection.”
While “baby greens” are a popular choice for salad mixes, Frost said she likes to pick her greens when they are a little more mature. “You can feel it, it has more body” when the greens are slightly beyond the baby stage.
A unique component of Circle Mountain’s salad mix is the addition of viola flowers. Smaller than nasturtiums, they are sweet in flavor and aroma, and their purple, yellow, and white hues add visual interest to the green mixture.
As the season progresses, the salad mix slightly changes to reflect availability. “Our mix is pretty consistent, but we endorse the surprise,” Frost said.
Nye said some farms use a pre-mixed Mesclun seed mix, but Circle Mountain’s salad mix is not. “It’s mostly Amy’s recipe,” he said, adding, “we’re more intimate with our mix."
“It’s fun” making the salad mix, Frost said. “It’s enjoyable to figure that stuff out. What grows well, what we like, the color and shape. Eat beautiful things!"
“It’s good for morale,” Nye added.