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January 18-24, 2006

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Winter Vegetables Are Your Friends

The Brassicaceae family wants to keep your family happy and healthy this season

By Anina Marcus

During a visit to the Monterey Peninsula Farmer's Market, I took a tour of the wide variety of greens available during the winter months. We're not talking about your standard romaine, iceberg, red-leaf and butter lettuce. We're talking quality organic greens—the mix and match variety often served as salads in more upscale restaurants. These come with titles like stir-fried pea shoots with daikon radish over baby bok choy, red/russian kale with pears in a champagne vinaigrette, and frisée/endive salad with toasted pecans.

Mark Marino, an organic farmer with 28 years of experience, is chief grower at the wildly successful EarthBound Farms in Carmel Valley. I called him up for some guidance through this field of greens.

"Oh," he said casually, "the Brassicaceae family."

"What's that?" I asked.

"These are the greens commonly known as the mustards. They include watercress, arugula or rocket [also called Italian cress], radishes, and in my opinion the most underappreciated member—kohlrabi."

"Almost all of these seem to have the word 'bitter' ascribed to their flavor," I joked.

"Well, I like to call them savory. You know, maybe bitter and sweet. The American palate has not been conditioned to accept these strong flavors. The Italians have used them for years and even Dr. Andrew Weill mentions that most antioxidants are stored in the bitterness of the leaves." He pauses, then shouts, "So eat your radicchio!"

One of the vendors to be found at the MPC market is Four Sisters Farms. It was there that I sampled some of the wintergreens. The watercress, fast replacing the ubiquitous parsley as the garnish du jour, has a peppery tang. Arugula, looking like small mustard leaves, is distinguished by its nutty zing. Kohlrabi, a cool-season cabbage relative, has both leaves and stalks that are edible. It comes in purple and white and is a great addition to stir-fries. I wanted to try the white because of its name, "The Grand Duke," but it was unavailable. Kale, happiest during the winter months, can be identified by its frilly leaves. Choose richly covered, relatively small bunches and pair with tart fruits and sweet vinaigrettes for best results.

Asian greens such as bok choy and mizuna also fall into the Brassicaceae family. One of my favorites is the daikon radish. Its flesh is crisp and juicy with a skin that is either creamy white or black. Slice it into thin strips and create a crisscross geometrical pattern over any mixed bed of greens to give it a "plated" look.

The next vendor I visited was New Natives, where there is a whole lot of sprouting going on this season. I bought three quarter-pound bags of pea shoot sprouts, sunflower greens and buckwheat lettuce sprouts for $1.50 a bag. The combined taste is a burst of sweet, nutty, crunchy and earthy, yet each seed retains its individual flavor, unique from the others.

One of the most popular sprouts is wheatgrass made from the wheat berries, which is 70 percent chlorophyll and helps to oxygenate your blood.

New Natives owner Sandra Ward explained, "The seeds release all of their stored nutrients in a burst of vitality as they attempt to become a full-sized plant. You might even say this is pre-digested food."

But don't let all this technical jargon discourage you. These edible sprouts are so delicate, they add just the right amount of texture, flavor and (I daresay) panache!

Happy Grazing at your local farmers markets.

Farmers Market Greens Salad (serves 6)

    1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
    1/2 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
    1/8 teaspoon salt
    1/8 teaspoon black pepper
    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    3/4 pound mixed baby greens such as kale, mizuna mustard, arugula and spinach

Whisk together vinegar, shallot, salt and pepper in a large bowl, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Add greens and toss until coated well.

* Greens can be washed and dried one day ahead and chilled in a sealed plastic bag lined with paper towels to ensure freshness.

Pea Shoot and Spinach Salad With Shiitake Mushrooms (serves 4-6)

    3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
    3/4 pound shiitakes, stems discarded and caps quartered
    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    1/2 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
    1/2 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
    1/2 teaspoon black pepper
    4 cups fresh pea shoot sprouts
    4 cups baby spinach leave
    1 bunch fresh chives, cut into 1-inch lengths

Cook mushrooms in 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and add salt up to 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are golden, about eight minutes, then cool.

Whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, salt to taste, pepper and 2 tablespoons oil in a large salad bowl until blended. Add pea shoot and spinach to dressing and toss to coat. Add mushrooms and chives and toss again.

Earthbound Farms is located in Carmel Valley. Call 831.625.6219 for exact location. New Natives is in Corralitos. Sandra can be reached at 831.728.4136. is a great website listing the farmers markets in your county that are open all year round.


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