Week 4: June 28
What’s in your Share This Week?
Broccoli or Broccolini
The New Stuff: How to eat it, cut it, cook it, and keep it:
A wonderful specialty green that is a staple in Italy. When I was 9, we flew over to Italy for 5 weeks to stay with a friend who had rented a house near Bologna. It was a sprawling estate with an ancient vineyard and a castle built into a stone cliff – the kind of place that captivates the imagination of a little kid! We stayed in the villa below the castle and every day we were visited by an old woman named Maria who was the resident gardener. She would always bring us something from the garden in her wicker basket, and usually it was a weedy-looking spicy green. She was invariably enthusiastic about it and would holler it’s name at us - something that sounded like “Rucola, rucola!” We had no idea what it was. “Como?” And she would repeat, louder, a bit exasperated, “Rucola!”
Like, duh, you stupid Americans. Rucola. The stuff was nasty. Most of it ended up discreetly tucked into the compost.
After a few weeks at the villa, we traveled south to the Adriatic and got to explore the five little villages of Cinque Terra clinging to the cliffs above the sea. We ordered pizza for lunch, and it came out covered in that gross weed, wilted all over our pizza. Damn! The stuff was everywhere in Italy, and the locals loved it! “When in Rome”….well, we tried, but it was hard to gag their beloved green down day after day.
Back home in the U.S. - well, sure enough, a few years later arugula (“rucola!”) became all the rage on restaurant menus. It’s also known by the French term roquette. We soon discovered that there are other varieties – a wee bit less weedy, bitter and spicy that what we encountered in Italy – that are well worth growing and eating.
This tender baby arugula variety makes its way into Abby’s Greens each week, but it’s wonderful enjoyed on its own. There is an arugula pesto recipe on the website, or you can eat the arugula as you would mizuna: as it’s own salad (wonderful with goat cheese, fresh strawberries, and a light vinaigrette), under a slab of fish, or mixed into grain (rice, quinoa, orzo, pasta, etc.) salads. It has a wonderful spicy nip to it, as well as a nutty sweetness.
Store it in the fridge. Should keep for 5-7 days if it’s kept cold.
We could keep it simple and just grow Ruby Red Chard or Fordhook Giant (the white-ribbed Swiss chard) – both of which are familiar supermarket standbys. But we can’t help ourselves. It’s that 51% art thing here at Valley Flora. We want all the colors, all together, all the time. Hence, your Technicolor bouquet of rainbow chard (aka “Bright Lights”).
It takes a few extra step to grow and harvest this chard. At planting, we separate all the baby starts out by color: whites, yellows, pinks, reds, oranges. They all get planted separately into color blocks. Then at harvest, we strip the leaves off each plant, count them, and keep them organized by color. The piles of leaves then come into the shady, cool barn. We figure out how many leaves we have, how many of each color can go into a bunch, and then we set to work “bouqueting.” 3 reds, 2 yellows, 1 white, 1 pink, 2 oranges...it’s very formulaic, and in the end we try to make sure every bunch as every color. Sometimes half the pleasure in food is the beauty of it.
As for eating it, chard – no matter the color – is a nutritious and versatile leafy green. It is high in vitamins A, E, and C, and minerals like iron and calcium. It is completely interchangeable with spinach in any recipe – lasagna, spanikopita, etc. – and in fact is more nutritious because it lacks oxalic acid, an element present in spinach that inhibits the body’s ability to absorb minerals.
Chard is the parent plant of beets; you can see the close resemblance in the leaves of beets and chard. It evolved in the Mediterranean, but is called “Swiss” due to its initial description by a Swiss botanist in the 16th century.
Great steamed or sautéed, chopped into soups, baked into quiche or scrambled with eggs, added to casseroles, or - one of my favorites - enjoyed southern-style: Steam it, drizzle it with a little vinegar, salt and olive oil and serve with black-eyed peas or baked beans and cornbread. Don’t be afraid to chop up the stems and eat them to; they add wonderful color and pizzaz to any meal!
Store it in the fridge in a plastic bag.
On the Farm…
Never have I seen a strawberry field like this one! The season started poorly with the wet weather, but now that the sun is out, whoooooo boy! Our new planting of strawberries is beginning to pump out red berries like nobody’s business, and everyday they get sweeter and sweeter and sweeter…..and bigger and bigger and bigger!
I’m convinced that the main reason this year’s new strawberries are so remarkable is because for the first time ever, I sourced my crowns from an organic nursery in Northern California. Like most strawberry growers in California, I grow out my plants from strawberry crowns that I buy and plant in the fall. These plants are runners trimmed from mother plants grown in high-elevation nurseries, most of which are located in Northern interior California. I order my plants in the summer and they usually come the first week of November, dry-packed in tidy boxes of 1000 bare root plants.
The first two years of farming, I bought them from a place called Lassen Canyon Nursery, near Mt. Shasta. The crowns I received were fine, and they have produced good berries over the years. But I soon learned that conventional strawberry plant production has a dark side. A very dark side.
Strawberries are susceptible to a whole host of diseases, which is why they are one of the most toxic conventional crops grown in California. Many of you have probably heard of Methyl Bromide, a soil fumigant that has been used in California for decades to nuke the ground prior to planting strawberry fields, among other crops. It kills everything – good and bad – leaving the soil sterile. It also has dangerous respiratory, kidney, and neurological effects and is a significant ozone depleting chemical.
The Montreal Protocol severely restricted the use of Methyl Bromide internationally – with a planned complete phase-out date of 2005. But the Strawberry Commission and other industries in the United States have successfully lobbied for “critical-use” exemptions. In 2004, over 7 million pounds of Methyl Bromide were applied to California fields, for production of tomatoes, strawberry fruit & strawberry plants, ornamental shrubs, and the fumigation of ham/pork products.
Which is why I was thrilled to hear about an organic strawberry nursery in Northern California. Prather Ranch produces organic hay, beef cattle and strawberry plants on a 10-year field rotation (meaning, strawberries only get planted in the same place every ten years, which is an optimal arrangement in terms of controlling diseases in strawberry crown production, without the use of toxic chemicals like Methyl Bromide).
I sourced my plants through them last fall and I noticed a difference right away. Out of the box, my crowns were healthier and more vibrant with a strong root system. We planted them in early November, and over the winter they established themselves in the field. By March, the new plants were putting on growth – more vigorously than I’d ever seen - and already beginning to flower. Last week, the berry harvest started to come on strong and I have been amazed. The berries are consistently larger, redder, sweeter, more prolific, and more perfectly formed than any crop I’ve ever harvested before. The plants are healthier than anything I’ve ever laid eyes on. It is a joy to pick them – which is saying something when you spend 10 hours a week stooped over in a strawberry field!
We haven’t done anything different in the way we’re growing them, which is why I believe the organic stock is making all the difference. They are far outstripping the conventional plants I’ve grown in the past in terms of flavor, appearance, and vigor. I’ve heard the same feedback from the other growers I know who have sourced from Prather.
But here’s the bad news. Prather Ranch – which is apparently the only organic strawberry plant nursery in the country – is suspending production of their organic strawberry crowns this year. The reason? Not enough organic growers are buying organic crowns from them. This is in spite of the fact that organic production of strawberries in California tripled between 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, Prather’s nursery manager told me that large quantities of his beautiful plants sat unsold in the cooler this winter.
“But wait,” you’re thinking, “don’t certified organic farms HAVE to buy certified organic seeds and plant stock?”
The answer is yes, and no. There are loopholes that allow certified organic operations to purchase or use non-organic seeds and plants, based on price, variety, quantity, availability, etc. As a result, a lot of organic growers are still buying conventional strawberry crowns – because they fear that organically produced crowns will not be disease-free. Not only that, the majority of strawberry production comes from huge agribusiness operations like Driscoll’s. They are far and away the largest single marketer of organic strawberries, they grow almost entirely their own proprietary varieties in their own nurseries, and few of their nursery plants are organically grown. They can grow their own plant stock using Methyl Bromide, but still market their fruit as organic.
I am devastated that I won’t be able to get Prather’s plants – or any organic plants - next year. Losing Prather is a huge step backwards in our progress towards a more sustainable agriculture. We could reverse the trend, though, if the organic certifying agencies would require that all growers use organic strawberry planting stock. It will only work if everyone – Driscoll’s included – is required to take the leap at the same time. As our friends at High Ground Organics (in California) put it, “Using organic plants needs to be part of the very definition of what an organic berry is.”
Our farm is not certified organic, meaning we are under no obligation to follow the organic rules – but we do anyway, because we believe in it. I paid twice as much for organic strawberry crowns from Prather last fall because I wanted to vote with my dollars and support the transition to organics at an industry-wide level. And I would do anything to spend twice as much again for such healthy plants, if only I could. Instead, I will probably be going back to Lassen Canyon Nursery stock until the policy is in place to create enough market demand for Prather’s plants again.
If you want to voice your opinion on this matter, the best thing would be to write to the certifiers and rule-makers themselves. CCOF is the California certifying agency. Oregon Tilth is our very own certifier. QAI certifies some of the large organic operations in California and elsewhere. And then there’s the National Organic Program itself, which shapes policy and the organic rules nation-wide.
260 SW Madison Ave, Ste 106
Corvallis, OR 97333
Quality Assurance International – QAI
Contact: Kathleen Downey
9191 Towne Center Dr., Ste.510
San Diego, CA 92122
National Organic Program (USDA)
Agricultural Marketing Service
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Mail Stop 0268
Washington, D.C. 20250
Phone: (202) 720-8311