By: David Nuss Photos by: Sarah Martin
I fell in love with farm-to-table cooking after I completed my chef certification in NYC in 2008. While my fellow students were finding internships at five-star restaurants in Manhattan, I headed to a Quaker Farm/summer camp in the Pocono Mountains to prepare meals using ingredients from the farm – the only exceptions being grains and lentils. The campers milked the cows for yogurt and cheese, gathered eggs from the chicken house for quiche and frittatas, and harvested endless amounts of fresh produce. Every once in a while a favorite cow, chicken, or pig would wind up on the plate!
Working at the Quaker farm has been my most influential culinary experience, so important that I chose to cook there for five summers. One of the most important things I learned was how to process MASSIVE amounts of greens. There are so many kinds of salad greens, which I would like to discuss in a future article. And there are many “heavy duty” greens such as collards and turnip greens, which I can address in another article as well.
For today, I want to address the “middleweights” such as spinach, arugula, and the many varieties of kale, as well as herbs such as basil, mint, and cilantro which, outside of pots, grow in abundance. For the adventurous, the approach I describe can also be applied to so-called ‘wild edibles’ like dandelion greens and chicory – as long as you know your plants.
The first thing to learn about greens is how to wash them properly. Total submersion is the key. Fill up a sink or large bowl with cold water and let the greens soak for a bit, allowing the dirt to fall off the leaves and sink to the bottom. On the farm I would actually do this three times in our three-compartment sink – “triple-wash” – to ensure a grit-free meal. If you’re using a large bowl, make sure to lift the greens out of the bowl rather than pouring them out with the water, which just puts the dirt back on the leaves. Then use the amazing tool known as the salad spinner to dry them. On the farm we had a 5-gallon version. If you don’t have a salad spinner you can shake out the leaves and lay them on towels.
We also had two food processors, and these turned out to be my best friends in the kitchen. Huge piles of greens can turn into a few cups after they’ve been processed, and it’s amazing the quantity of greens that can be consumed once they’re chopped. This sent me exploring culinary definitions: Can “pesto” be made with ingredients other than basil and pine nuts? Are there any limits on what defines a “chutney” or “green salsa”?
From these questions, I developed a basic formula for “green sauce” that goes something like this:
• 4 cups (approximately) washed greens, rough-chopped
• 1/2 cup nuts or seeds, raw or roasted
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1-2 garlic cloves
• Salt to taste
From there, your dish can be designed by the function you want it to serve. Do you want it to be more of a tangy relish? Add some citrus, say the juice of a lemon, or a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. Looking for more of a salsa? Add a half serrano pepper. A traditional pesto? Add a half cup of parmesan cheese. And for chutney, maybe a handful of raisins and a tablespoon of grated ginger.
You can make the sauce creamy, like a spread, if you let the food processor run for a while. Or you can make something that has a rougher texture, with the individual ingredients more apparent, if you pulse the ingredients. All outcomes have their purpose. It is OK to mix your greens: for example, arugula with basil, or flat-leaf parsley with spinach.
My mind gets creative with these dishes. I feel like I’m making a painting, writing a song, or telling a story. There are ingredients that bring out brightness, like lemon, while others accentuate the dark, for example a tablespoon of red miso. Your dish could use dandelion greens to create a bitter tale of revenge, or maple syrup to remind of a sweet romance. A dish can dance with a sassy salsa beat by adding a few candied jalapeños, or resonate like an Indian raga by stirring in some curry seasonings.
Explore, explore, explore, and for more specific guidance based on the kinds of ingredients you have on hand, just research, for example, ‘cilantro mint chutney’ or ‘kale pumpkin seed pesto’ and get creative.