Off to the market Saturday morning with Chef de Cuisine Matthew Riznyk of Great Performances in tow to celebrate and explore the color we least expect to see in the middle of the winter -- GREEN! It is truly the season of the storage vegetable and time for farmers to be heading for well deserved vacations on warm beaches, snow covered mountains or destinations they dream of during those long, endless summer days.
Needless to say, winter is not what it used to be -- and it is not the mild temperatures of 2011/12 we are referring to -- it is a technological revolution in farming brought on by consumer demand for quality, tasty and abundant year round local produce. Introduce the greenhouse and hoop house and suddenly the landscape of what you find in the farmers markets and NYC Greenmarket changes radically.
Our mission was to sample the greens, ranging from micro-greens and sprouts to full size lettuces and other leafy specimens, at the Union Square Greenmarket. And though we thought we would rate and rank them according to flavor, what we found was that though farmers had some overlap in product, they also specialized with unique items, creating several points of differentiation for market shoppers. Not only product, but also personalities varied as well from gregarious to grumpy.
The tasting began under the Monkshood Nursery & Garden tent with the exuberant participation of Farmer David Rowley (AKA Mr. July in the infamous 2009 Farmers of Columbia Country Calendar). Monkshood is in Stuyvesant, a tiny town in Columbia County. It is a NOFA certified organic farm. We came with prepared bowls and plates and with sea salt and light citrus vinaigrette to enhance the flavors of the greens. Just the salt alone serves the purpose of bursting the cell walls of the plant and releases flavors, according to David. The range of micro greens consisted of China Rose Radish, Oriental Spicy Mustard, Sunflower Shoots, Mung Bean Shoot and Pea Shoots, grown in trays in the greenhouse and priced at $20/lb. or more palatably at $5/quarter lb. Most popular: Pea and Sunflower, with radish gaining a following. The big greens included Spinach, Mizuna mix, Arugula and a spicy Mustard mix -- all grown in-ground in the greenhouse. The radish micro green was fantastic -- full of flavor and intensity, the perfect final addition to a fish dish or a grain salad or paired with sweet roasted beets as a vibrant contrast.
David, who hails from Southern England, outside of Brighton, has been farming for 23 years, the last 10 in the Hudson Valley. What brought him to our shores? "Never look back, only forward" he says by way of explanation. He does lament the dilution of organic standards in the US in comparison with UK rules, a result of giant agribusiness as it muscles its way into the expanding organic market. Monkshood can be found on Sunday at Columbia University and in the Jackson Heights Greenmarket. This was his third week in Union Square, where he is breaking all his previous selling records. His product is outstanding; his passion permeates the tent and everything he grows. Before we leave, Trevor, the purchaser for Blue Hill, stops by to show David the most perfect tiny turnip. You had to see it to believe it!
Next stop -- Windfall Farms, a market fixture since 1990 is located on 15 acres in Montgomery NY (Orange County). Farmer Morse Pitts is a greenmarket 'elder' and a leader and eloquent spokesman in this latter day green revolution, championing the needs of the farm community as well as the local consumer. His farm-to-market truck is actually a converted school bus that runs on bio-diesel and is linked to the market tent. It is a memorable signature vehicle.
We enlist the help of young Ben who is weighing produce and manning the cashbox. At the farm, Ben picks, plants and weeds and has been at Windfall for several years -- arriving from mid-coast Maine; he is 21. We try the Cressida, pea shoots, arugula and a micro-frisee of chicory. There are 2 types of sunflowers -- one with bigger stems and great crunch, the other, more leafy. There is a fabulous Dwarf Grey snow pea shoot that grows in a low tunnel in ground and takes longer to grow. Most others are from in the greenhouse, in trays and might take 10-14 days to grow to desired size. There are close to a dozen different greens including Buckwheat, Purple Radish, Hong Vit Radish, Red Mustard, Mizuna and Arugula. Ben says the Sunflower and Pea Shoots are most popular because of their sweetness. He recommends using them as salad or in a salad -- just don't wilt them.
When asked about certification Morse Pitts is very clear that he does not use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified seeds and does not seek certification to meet federally mandated standards which have been comprised by big business. We depart, enthralled with the Sunflower shoots, impressed by the $48/lb. price tag on these very special greens and smitten by Ben who confesses that he loves people watching at the market.
Next stop is Two Guys from Woodbridge -- yes, that is the name of their operation. They are not the photo-friendly type, but permitted us to shoot, buy and eat their hydroponically grown greens. I often shop here and love how the full size greens are bunched at the root (a hydroponic bundle) and packaged bouquet-like. It is a wonderful gift I bring to friends. Their micro greens are sold boxed in small and large clamshells, and are certified Organic. The farm is in New Haven County, CT. It was fascinating to listen to them describe the flavor benefits of hydroponically grown vegetables. They can more readily monitor the minerals the plants receive and can achieve better balance of nutrients than conventionally grown plants in soil. "When the plants get all the proper nutrients, they taste better." The farmers are experimenting with tomatoes, though the heat required is a financial obstacle.
We tried micro greens we hadn't tasted elsewhere; collards and broccoli, both members of the cabbage family. I could not express the flavor values but Matt could. The broccoli reminded him of "the smell of leaves when tearing them and the collards were 'musty,' tasting like the woods would smell...in a good way. They have a little spice, not like mature collard greens." This is why I made this outing with a chef.
We were done, our heads spinning with tiny greens and flavor profiles. We may have both been thinking of getting some real food by this point till we passed Hudson Valley Organic with siren-like boxes of sprouts. Farmer John Adams, a sprout man since 1981 and a 27-year Greenmarket presence, grows on 20 acres in Wawaring (near Ellenville), in Ulster County. It is where the Catskills meet the Shawangunks. And it isn't since the heydays of the hippies that sprouts have been in such demand, he says. So we learned a few things: sprouts grow in water in the dark. They take 3-4 days to mature. They are aerated, by stirring, during this process. The broccoli mix is good for you with concentrated anti-oxidants and still tastes great. We tasted radish, broccoli and a fabulous mix of kale, broccoli and radish, which was our favorite. And at $2-$5 a box, these yummy sprouts were priced from the hippie era. The farm also features microgreens, at $5/1.5 pint box.
And you know John Adams has been at this a long time. The license plate on his truck reads ORGANIC.
Our favorites: Monkshood Nursery Pea Shoots and China Rose Radish micro greens; Windfall Farm Sunflower Shoot and Hudson Valley Organic Sprout Mix.