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'If it bolts,
give it a
new name.'

New Life for Over-the-Hill Salad Greens

Braising Mix Barely Needs to Be Cooked

The Chinese long ago were onto a marketing gimmick that California’s salad mix growers have recently picked up. When a vegetable gets too old for its original purpose, give it a new name and put it to a new use.

Take bok choy, for example. "If it bolts on you, no problem. Call it sun choy," says Scott Davis, of Champion Seed Co., an Asian seed specialist in Fresno. Use the flower stalks like Chinese broccoli. Ornamental Edibles, another seed company that supplies many farmers-market growers, sells a bok choy variety whose purpose is to bolt, producing edible yellow flowers.

Many of the greens that as babies have come to grace salad mixes, such as mustards, chards and kales, are just as good in more mature stages of growth when cooked lightly. The growers call them braising, or saute, mixes.

"It’s a wonderful way for the farmer to sell salad mix that has gone over the hill," says Karen Siske, director of the commercial division of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Some aficionados of this type of mix advise against actually sauteing them. Alex Khu, of Ornamental Edibles, recommends dousing the greens in a hot dressing instead, which wilts them slightly but does nothing to mar the beauty of the raw greens, with their striking shapes and vibrant colors.

Some of the greens in a braising mix--colored kales, for example--are a bit too rough for salads, but aren’t quite tough enough to stand up to cooking. They are prime candidates for the hot-dressing treatment.

Saute mixes come in several variations, Asian and Italian being the most popular.

One of the rising stars among Asian greens is a mild, Japanese, spinach-like green with elongated spoon-shaped leaves, called komatsuna, also known as mustard-spinach. "We knew nothing about this vegetable" until recently, says John Wooten, a Camarillo farmer who sells dozens of unusual fruits and vegetables from around the world in Ventura County farmers markets. "We are very enthusiastic" about it, and like it stir-fried and steamed, he says.

Komatsuna was also new to Siske, of Johnny’s seeds. When she first sampled it a couple of years ago, she was sufficiently impressed that she knew right off she would have to make room for it in her catalogue. It promptly vaulted past a couple of dozen bok choys and other Asian greens that are in the seed company’s test plots, patiently awaiting their chance for the limelight.

In the Italian category, one of Kenter Canyon Farms’ best saute greens is a chicory variety known as paudazuchuro, which "has the appley taste that well-blanched radicchio gets," says Andrea Crawford.

Bill Coleman, who grows dozens of exotic greens near Carpenteria, recommends purslane as an unusual addition to a saute mix. It is a common weed also known as Mexican spinach. The Shepherd’s Garden Seeds catalog offers a cultivated French variety. Its "juicy oval leaves taste tart and lemony adding a cool crunch and refreshing citrusy-green flavor mixed with other greens," the catalog attests

To be sure, a 19th century writer named Charles Dudley Warner offered a strikingly different assessment of the sometimes troublesome weed. "Purslane," he declared, "is a fat, ground-clinging, spreading, greasy thing, and the most propagatious plant I know."

While shopping around for exotic greens, don’t forget the old standards, such as chard, mustard, and turnip and beet tops, which are ubiquitous in Southern California farmers markets. Randi Stacy, who grows on a few acres in Pomona and sells at the farmers market in town, is one of many farmers with a wide and continually changing selection, ranging from red mustard on the spicy end of the spectrum, to German creasy greens and spinach mustard, or komatsuna, on the milder side.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef