Alex Garcia / MCT

Spring into greens

Springlike spates of weather in January and February spurred local gardeners to early action.

Reveling along with the plants in rare wintertime warmth, I got to work excising weeds from the beds. Now that it's officially spring, I can harvest my "winter" garden of beets, scallions, baby leeks and, most importantly, kale and collards. If they aren't already, greens should be a garden staple: easy to grow in almost any soil — even containers — and steadfast through all four seasons.

Chard certainly could be included in this category. But a couple years back, I mounted a campaign against chard's garden status at the expense of collards. While I'll credit chard for some stunning colors, depending on the variety, I've always thought the showy green lacks the flavor of subtler-hued compatriots.

My mother-in-law was keen on kale but skeptical of unfamiliar collard greens. It took just one meal of pasta with sauteed collards to convince her of the green's versatility, as well as its pleasant taste and texture that — in young specimens, at least — aren't the product of lengthy boiling or braising in the Southern tradition.

So after little, yellow flower heads appeared on summer's greens, we hastened to install their replacements. They sprouted almost immediately in the still-warm days of early fall but all too soon were stymied by cloudy, cold days.

The plants persisted, though, thanks to natural waxy deposits that keep cells from absorbing too much water and rupturing in a frost. Winter weather causes the greens' sugar content to build up and work like natural antifreeze.

Yet it seems a wonder that, after hunkering down under rain, pests and leaf mulch, greens need only a few weeks of stretching stems toward the sun to yield up substantial leaves, sweetened by their stint in the cold.

On the other side of the garden, no amount of weeding would have salvaged the arugula. Also planted in fall, it already had become leggy and produced tiny buds by February. Strange, given its delicate, tender leaves, that arugula grows at a weed's rate in some of the worst weather.

In December and January, when I couldn't bring myself to deprive the kale or collards of a single, precious stem, I plucked away at the arugula anytime I needed a green addition to meals. Granted, the arugula didn't proliferate fast enough for entire salads, but the leaves were a welcome bright spot in pastas, atop pizzas and in sandwiches.

Then the arugula petered out just as larger greens were nearly ready to take its place. No matter — because now is the time to sow more arugula, along with lettuce and "spring-mix" seeds. They'll sprout within weeks in the warmer soil under intensifying rays of sun.

Another green that survived winter but could use reseeding is mache, also known as lamb's lettuce or corn salad. Even more delicate than arugula, mache is popular in France, where I first encountered it as a student.

In our garden, the mache's growth was sporadic and its foothold tenuous. Perhaps if we'd seeded an entire bed, I would have had enough for a salad. Until then, I settled for using it like arugula: as an accent to heartier fare.

Similar to the pasta that won over my mother-in-law, this recipe is representative of dishes I cook year-round but particularly with seasonally scanty greens. Although it calls for arugula, mache, baby spinach or dandelion greens could be substituted in the same quantity. If it's heartier greens — collards, kale or even chard — you have on hand, simply simmer them with the radicchio or switch them with the bitter vegetable if you want a milder, finished dish.

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