If there’s one thing Bay Area backyard gardeners can count on at this time of year, it’s kale. Our cool, typically damp winter weather is tailor-made for hearty winter greens, ones that can thrive through hard frosts, even snow. And though winter’s rains may be passing us by, with a little irrigation, the crinkly kale, dino kale, red or white Russian kale should be growing like crazy in whatever pot, plot, or raised bed you’ve got planted.
Shop the farmers’ markets these days, and while the first, $8/lb sugar-snap peas may be starting to appear, the backbone of the veggie tables are dark-green, iron-rich greens: punchy mustard greens, mellow collards, rainbow-ribbed chard, plus green or burgundy beet tops, the gift of two-veg-in-one that comes free with every bunch of sweet roots.
So: time to love your greens. We served a lot of greens during my time cooking at the Headlands Center for the Arts, yet we were pretty content to do them the same way each time. A handful of minced shallot was flung into sizzling olive oil, chopped greens were added, then the whole was stirred and stirred until just wilted and tender. To finish, we tossed in a quick splash of sherry vinegar or a couple of lemons, sliced into eighths and crushed a little to release the juice and aromatic oils. I do mine at home much the same way, with slivered garlic instead of shallots, and a healthy shake of red pepper flakes for a little burn. Nice with rice and tofu, nice with polenta and sausage, nice leftover cold out of the pan, eaten with your fingers while doing the dishes.
Now, though, during greens’ moment in the sun, dinner is not enough. Greens need to find a home at every meal. A lot of farm mornings began with eggs and kale, as we counted down the weeks until the potato harvest. I love green eggs and ham, made from emerald-green minced nettles sauteed and stirred into scrambled eggs with a bit of proscuitto draped on top. And, then, for lunch, there are kale chips, kale Caesar salad, pasta with kale, Portuguese caldo verde with kale, potatoes, and linguica sausage, kale every way.
But have you thought about a kale sandwich? I did, this past weekend, when I was making breakfast and lunch for a staff and board members’ retreat, 25 people needing muffins and sandwiches to help them forget that a sunny, beautiful beach was just five minutes’ walk away from where they were trapped around a darkened conference table with spreadsheets and PowerPoint. My solution? Quinoa-almond-citrus salad, lentil-beet-mint salad, chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies, apple-cherry cider, turkey sandwiches, and the veggie crowning glory, kale sandwiches. Oh, you may laugh, but they were lively, colorful stacks that turned out to be much more than the sum of their vitamin-packed parts. The elements? Sauteed greens and onions piled on whole-wheat focaccia dabbed with Dijon mustard, layered with thin slices of roasted winter squash, topped with Weirauch Farm and Creamery’s Tomme Fraiche or creamy Doubloon cheese, and finished with a smear of tart-tangy plum chutney or punchy arugula pesto.
It takes a while to make a sandwich when you’re making everything from bread to pesto from scratch. So, while homemade focaccia is always the best, feel free to substitute any good bread of choice, from Acme’s herb slab to the sesame loaf baked by Morell’s Bread (pictured here). The chutney, luckily, I’d made earlier in the summer, to rescue a batch of less-than-stellar jam. Boring, slightly-too-sweet stone-fruit jam, it turns out, can make a very successful base for chutney, once it’s jazzed up and cooked down with cider vinegar, chopped onions, and plenty of aromatic spices. If you don’t have a pantry full of chutney on hand, I’d recommend any of Alison McQuade’s excellent, small-batch chutneys, sold under the name McQuade’s Celtic Chutney. Or, you can retrieve that slightly shriveled, almost-wilted bunch of arugula from down in the vegetable drawer and buzz it together with a couple tablespoons of walnuts or pine nuts, a couple cloves of garlic, salt to taste, the juice of a lemon, a splash of water and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Puree until smooth, and taste. It will probably taste too tannic from the walnuts, too sharp from the arugula, and leave you wishing for summer’s fragrant basil.
No worry, though: a solution is at hand. Crumble in a moist, creamy-mild Doubloon cheese, made by Weirauch Farm and Creamery in Petaluma. Instantly, the spread is tamed, its punch tempered with creaminess. When you’re picking up your Doubloons, get another one, this one rolled in herbes de Provence, along with a wedge of their springy, buttery Tomme Fraiche.
Now, onto your squash. Butternut, kabocha, pumpkin, whatever hard-shelled winter squash you’ve had languishing on the counter since your last CSA box. Not acorn, though; too pasty and stringy. You want dense, sweet and nutty for this. Peel and seed your squash, and slice the flesh into thin half-moons. Oil lightly, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and roast at 400F until tender.
While the squash is roasting, slice up an onion, red or yellow. In a wide pan, saute it in olive oil until tangled and translucent. You can let it go farther and get browned here and there, halfway to caramelization. Keep some texture, though; you want recognizable loops, not onion jam. Wash but don’t dry your greens, which don’t have to be kale but should be some mixture of sturdy greens, rather than something weepingly delicate like spinach. I used a mixture of collards, mustard, and beet tops, but any tough-ish greens will do. Shred your greens and toss them into the hot pan full of onions. Stir and season with salt and pepper until greens are wilted and just tender. Take a bite; you shouldn’t feel like you’re chewing on a raincoat, but they shouldn’t be boiled to mush, either. Pull off the stove and let cool.
Now, the assemblage. Slice your focaccia horizontally, if using; otherwise, slice your bread. Spread chutney or pesto on the inside of one piece. Add a few pieces of Tomme Fraiche, or crumble on a tablespoon or so of Doubloon. On the second slice of bread, spread a dab of Dijon mustard. Pile on some greens and onions. Layer on some slices of roasted squash, as if you’re laying out a row of cards in solitaire. Put the halves together with a firm but gentle squish. Enjoy!