By Lara Vaienti
“Greens,” a term referring to a group of tender leafy green vegetables from different plant families, distinguish themselves by their more or less pungent bite and the abundant nutrients. A mound of these, mixed with fragrant, savory herbs give a glorious twist to each recipe.
Widely used in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries, not until recently have greens and fresh herbs had a more widespread appeal in the United States.
Now that greens are gaining greater recognition for their nutritional benefits (they are rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C and minerals), they are no longer considered a regional item and have become available everywhere. In a place like Montana, where a blanket of snow covers all for most part of the year, it seems a mirage to think of fresh, fluffy greens on our platter.
But some people work hard enough to provide us freshness, despite the rigors of the climate. Averial Heath is one of them. With her half-acre of land (under cultivation) in Belgrade, Montana, and by her own effort only, she produces greens and a little bit of garlic for the Food Co-op in Bozeman, and a few restaurants in Gallatin County.
Heath is dedicated to organic farming and is part of the Montana Organic Association with numerous other farmers.
Organic growers utilize a wider range of cultural practices in a manner believed to be safer for the environment and better for the consumer. Organic production entails the growing of crops without synthetic pesticides or standard commercial fertilizers.
“I believe organic food makes a huge difference to quality, other than to our health and environment,” Heath says proudly.
The taste and texture of her leafy greens freshly picked from the field reveals, indeed, a flavorful, fragrant experience.
Many of the cultural techniques for lettuce and salad-mix are similar, regardless of whether the crop is grown in a greenhouse or in the field.
Greens start to sprout in April in Montana, and as Heath explains, they need to be kept covered until the weather feels more stable. Some crops, like spinach, are more cold resistant; others like radicchio (great for salad and tossed on the grill), demand very particular horticultural requirements and temperature.
“Not because I grow them, but I’m amazed on how much sweeter my spinach are compared to others’,” she comments satisfied walking through her crops. “I don’t think it matters the way I grow them. It’s the concentration of minerals and nutrients that affects the way they taste.”
Other small farms strive to let the freshness delight our meals. Those people also strive to become more involved in the local food system and economy.
Matt and Jacy Rothschiller, of Gallatin Valley Botanical, cultivate greens, herbs and a variety of other vegetables. They, too, practice only organic agriculture to obtain their harvests, even if they aren’t called certified organic producers.
Organic agriculture has now come under federal regulation. All growers wishing to label and market their produce as organic must become certified (exempted are the small farmers who market less than $5,000 of organic products annually).
While federal regulation is new, the essential nature of organic farming remains the same.
“The difference is only in the name and in a bunch of papers,” says Matt Rothschiller, who sells their produce to different high-end restaurants in southwestern Montana (among those: the Gallatin River Lodge, Savory Olive, Chudam’s in Livingston, Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky).
The Rothschillers just added to cultivation another two acres of land to the already fruitful previous two, allowing them to sell delights from April to March. “Last year we had so much request from chefs, that we did not have enough produce left to go at the farmer’s market,” explains Jacy. “We like the farmers’ market and we are planning to start subscribers, too.”
Once people(from the Bozeman area) sign up for subscription boxes, the Rothschiller will provide them (from around mid June to late October) with weekly boxes of fresh produce out of their field.
Where and how food is produced and how far it travels can determine whether people will prosper, local communities will thrive and Montana’s open space will remain intact and enjoyable. Some restaurants, which support the long-term protection of renewable food sources and the preservation of regional preparation methods as a means of restoring the connection between people and their foods, mainly obtain their ingredients from local farmers.
The Savory Olive restaurant in Bozeman, MT, relies heavily on local agricultural producers, shortening the distance between the field and the fork.
Heather Hand, the restaurant owner/chef (with chef Eric Stenberg), also relies heavily on organic greens for most of her dishes preparations.
“I love greens because they are so versatile,” says Hand, trained in Europe to cooking the Mediterranean style. She was also trained to always use fresh ingredients and extend the season as long as she could.
Hand uses all sorts of greens for her dishes (dandelion, mache, arugula, endive radicchio, sorrel, spinach, baby Russian kale, mustard and other greens from the kale family), and especially in late-spring/summer, when many farmers are able to grow them in Montana within eight miles-distance. During the summer, seventy-five percent of the restaurant’s produce comes from Montana.
Oftentimes Hand’s clientele does not even know of the existence of this or that herb or green. But most customers end up loving the twist these “fancy” leaves give to whatever dish they have selected. “It’s fun to introduce people to stuff they easily never heard of,” says Hand. “When they try it they are pleased and will probably look for it when shopping next.”
Greens are considered gourmet or specialty crops when compared to the “mainstream” iceberg-type, head lettuces which, even though they have coarse texture, a watery flavor and a less attractive color, have in general a deeper market. “We don’t grow those big insipid lettuces,” says Matt Rothschiller. Unless if for decoration, chefs have no use for it. Who likes flavorful food, prefer baby lettuce and different greens in their salads. Mesclun mixes are usually a combination of both.” Chefs like better the texture of mesclun mixes (contain any mixture of young leaf lettuces, greens and herbs) because they hold dressings well, taste great and are visually, more appealing.
More and more people in Montana see organic produce and agriculture as an integral part of a healthy, sustainable system, and are willing to give it a try.
Kate Huston, who works at the Food Co-op, is enthusiast about starting to sell soon her own produce (greens, herbs and flowers).
“By working at the Co-op I got more and more into organic, and I wish people would be more aware on how food is grown and where it comes from.” Huston explains. “I love growing produce that is not depleting the land where it’s grown, also the fact that it’s sustainable for the people who eat it.”
Arugula-Radicchio Salad ( courtesy of the Savory Olive restaurant)
Ingredients: one cup of young arugula leaves
Half head of purple radicchio sliced thin
One fourth of a cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Toss arugula and radicchio with the parmesan cheese and the designed amount of dressing;
Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and serve.