An Appetite for Green

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By Malu Lambert

Photography & Styling by C&D Heierli, Recipes by Diane Heierli

Food Assistant Juliet Douglas

“If you don’t eat your greens, you won’t get any dessert.” Doting mothers have trotted out this refrain since time immemorial. Not just lip service though; green vegetables are powerhouses of health. These days we have a greater variety to choose from, making it much easier to get to that dessert.

In The Antioxidant Miracle Lester Packer writes that the carotenoid family—a group of colouring agents found in dark-green leafy vegetables—helps reduce free radicals in the body. Additionally, he says green vegetables have powerful antioxidants, such as lutein and xeaxanthin, which may protect against a long list of ailments including coronary-artery disease, cataracts, macular degeneration, cancer and whatnot. 

The science is a mouthful. And so is the lore. Sailor cartoon, Popeye, put spinach on the map. His superpowers supposedly came from the leafy vegetable’s high iron content, an idea based on a false assumption. Allegedly, a Reader’s Digest article claimed a decimal point error made in the 19th century research of spinach’s iron content led to its ‘erroneous promotion’. 

While spinach may not help with fisticuffs, it does indeed have high iron as well as vitamin A content, along with other dark, leafy greens.

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A Walk on the Wild Side

Cabbages so green they’re almost blue, swell out of the moist, turned earth of Babylonstoren’s vegetable and fruit garden. In the next row an army of broccoli plants crowd each other, some of them sporting purple hearts. Head gardener, Liesl van der Walt, is showing me around the eight-acre garden, home to 300 different varieties of plants. Everything harvested here is used by the farm’s two restaurants: Babel and The Green House.

Garden-variety BROCCOLI is known as heading broccoli, and it has some unusual cousins too. There’s SPROUTING BROCCOLI, which has a small main head with side shoots often purple or green. Then there’s the ROMANESCO BROCCOLI, the colour of Granny Smith apples, it has a studded star-like texture like something out of a sci-fi movie.

“‘Bright lights’ are also beautiful to plant,” says Liesl indicating a patch a couple of metres away. On closer inspection, the aptly nicknamed, SWISS CHARD leaves are alternately threaded with violet, orange, red and yellow; a mimicry of the bright stems buried beneath the soil.

“You can use the plant as décor,” she says. Simply pop a bunch in a vase as you would with flowers. They look beautiful on a plate too, steam or char-grill on the braai, and serve with a grating of Parmesan to help bring out the inherent umami flavour (savouriness) that’s so common in dark, leafy greens. 

An advocate of ‘companion planting’ Liesl shows me a bed of FENNEL, SAVOY CABBAGE and PARSLEY in alternate rows. CURLY PARSLEY, the most retro of all herbs has come back into fashion on garden and plate alike. Both Italian and curly parsley are prized for the bitingly pungent ‘green’ flavour that’s an instant refresher to a dull dish.

It’s neighbour, fennel, has a sweet, savoury flavour, almost like a combination of celery and aniseed. The bulbs, when roasted, yield to the sweeter attributes, and are a dream when paired with spicy meats, such as Italian sausage. The aromatic feathery foliage can be used to dress fish, sauces or salads.

Nearby, climbing up wooden trellises, are young PEA plants catching the sunlight. The peas still forming in their pods have a while to go, but the edible white and purple flowers dotting the vines as well as the curly pea shoots are ready for picking.

Fresh peas, simply plucked out of the pod, taste like summer itself. The chartreuse globes have endless uses; from the staples like pea and ham soup or mushy peas, the classic accompaniment to fish and chips, to the more inventive, such as green pea hummus, and beyond.

A cousin of the pea, the BROAD BEAN or fava bean is mostly eaten green in Western civilization. In Middle Eastern and African countries the beans develop fully and are then dried, in what is said to result in a more nutritious legume. 

Adjacent to the beans are the less common DRAGON TONGUE BEANS, so named for their curved green pods with purple splashes, as if a painter had taken to each one individually. These are best eaten raw, shell and all, as the cooking process leeches the colours and in turn the flavour.

“Salads grow all year round,” says Liesl plucking a leaf of WATERCRESS and handing it to me. A mustardy zing fills my mouth. In the not-so-distant past our options at the grocery store were limited to ICEBERG LETTUCE, and if it was a good store, perhaps COS LETTUCE. Now we have an abundant parade of salad leaves in not only type but in variety too. Side-by-side on the supermarket shelf we can find BROAD FLAT LEAF ROCKET, SPINDLY DARK GREEN WILD ROCKET as well as a tub of MICRO ROCKET.

ASIAN GREENS have also found their way onto our shelves. Mizuna, dark green leaves with a peppery taste as well as plump tatsoi leaves both give texture and character to a salad. Bok choi, the more grown-up version of tatsoi, has white bulbs (or light green if young) that are meaty and firm, perfect braised in a soup or stew.

We’ve come to a dense forest of KALE, not as supine as the greens we’ve just passed, but the knobbly leaves pack savoury flavour. A form of cabbage, there are a number of varieties, from the curly leafed kale planted here, to plain leaved and rape kale as well a cross between the two known as leaf and spear. There’s also a breed known as cavolo nero or dinosaur kale. All types of the cabbage are remarkable in that exposure to frost actually sweetens and deepens the flavour.

Keeping it in the cabbage family, Liesl shows me a patch of KOHLRABI. It’s a stout, thick-stemmed vegetable with flavour similar to both broccoli and cabbage. The young plant is said to be sweeter tasting, in particular the stem, which can be crunchy and juicy, much like an apple.

Our walk has come to end, but soon, with the changing of the seasons, there’ll be a new forest of green vegetables to inspect. I’m looking forward to generous bushes of BASIL, sturdy stalks of ASPARAGUS, and of course, the crown of the vegetable world, the ARTICHOKE.

With the diversity each season brings, eating greens needn’t be a chore.

Cultivating a Green Thumb

Have good health at your fingertips by growing your own vegetables. You don’t need a lot of space; a sunny patch in the garden will do, or if you have only a balcony plant seeds in old gutters or wooden crates. Liesl van der Walt shares some of her secrets on home vegetable gardening:

1. Make sure you have sun. It sounds simple enough, but too often what you think is the ‘perfect patch’ foryour vegetable garden just isn’t getting enough of the life-giving rays

2. A successful crop depends on the soil. Start out with the cleanest soil possible, and buy from a reputable supplier. Also make sure there’s adequate drainage. 

3. Plant what you and your family want to eat. There’s nothing worse than when a bumper harvest comes in, and nobody wants to eat it.

4. Sow what you need. Don’t overdo it, not only will you tire out the soil, but you’ll also be wasting the resulting crop.

5. Grow your own salad. Salad leaves such as rocket and watercress grow quickly, and you can plant them all year round.

6. Plant with diversity in mind, not only will the combination of colour and texture look good, but ‘companion planting’ also helps keep away harmful pests. Visit www.livingseeds.co.za to order heritage and heirloom seeds.

7. If you’re planting with an organic crop in mind then it only makes sense to use organic pesticides. Liesl recommends talking to the team at Ludwig’s Roses (012-5440-144).

8. Feed the plants twice a week to ensure a bright, bouncy crop.

Click below to try these green recipes:

Ricotta & Mint Gnocchi with a Creamy Pea Sauce & Crispy Pancetta

Green Spring Salad