“What passes for cookery in England . . . is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables. ‘In which,’ said Mr. Bankes, ‘all the virtue of the vegetable is contained.'”
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
At Stonebridge Farm, we like to say that fresh is a flavor. Some students discovered that this weekend when our friend brought four of her sustainability students to the farm to help us weed the newly emerging spinach and carrot beds. As we worked with horis and hoes in the soft spring sun, one young man, a former student in John’s calculus class, asked me what my favorite thing was at the farm.
“Besides John?” I teased him.
I have so many favorites here, I had to think a bit. “The flowers,” I said, “and the chickens because they’re so friendly.” From his laughter, I don’t think he’d ever heard that chickens are friendly before.
Another new discovery was the taste of vegetables right out of the garden. After we finished weeding, we picked radishes for everyone to take home. I told the students they could eat some as they picked. “Is this what a radish tastes like?” one asked in wonder. “I’ve never tasted one like this before.”
“That’s because,” another friend said, “you can’t get a fresh radish at a grocery store. Not fresh like this anyway.”
“Fresh is a flavor,” I told them. “This is what fresh tastes like.”
When we moved to the spinach bed, another student declined the offer of spinach. “I don’t like spinach,” she assured us.
“Just try a leaf, okay?” She tentatively chewed a piece–and then smiled.
“This is spinach? . . . Okay, I’ll take some.”
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. How sad for 18-year-olds—from upper middle-class families who undoubtedly have some access to raw vegetables in stores—not to know the fresh taste of vegetables. A salad bar may be the closest they’ve encountered and that’s just not the same.
Fresh is a flavor. Years ago, before processed food composed the majority of people’s diets in this country, even the Morton’s salt company knew about the flavor of fresh. Here’s an ad from a 1940s Life magazine that features the taste of “tender, young” vegetables as part of a flavor duo:
At Stonebridge, spring means fresh, tender vegetables like the ones pictured in the ad. Our members anticipate the sweetness of newly harvested spinach and the sparkle of plump radishes on opening day. Our season starts a few weeks earlier than most CSAs in our area because we can grow early vegetables so well in our foothills microclimate. Green onions, radishes, and lettuce offer a first salad to our members, while spinach and chard are the main ingredients of so many of our favorite meals: lasagna, fritters, enchiladas, quiche, and pastas. Even fresh chives can flavor the filling for a goat cheese tart.
In the foraging class we recently hosted, we learned about other spring plants that provide delicious and nutritious meals. Dandelion greens, of course, are great in salad (watch a 92-year-old cook prepare her Depression-era salad here), but did you know that nettles make a wonderful saag? We got to sample some, along with nettle gnocchi, at our workshop, right after we picked nettle tops for everyone to try at home, a new taste for spring since it’s one of the first plants to emerge. (You can learn more about foraging at Hunger and Thirst for Life).
Asparagus, too, means spring. We have two patches on the farm, one we planted and another along the fence line that we didn’t. There the birds “plant” the asparagus as they sit on the wire and sing. We let some of those plants go to seed every year to help them spread.
And in the foraging class, our teacher discovered another wild spot for asparagus near a bridge over our irrigation ditch where we’d cleared willows last fall.
With asparagus at $5 a bunch in the store, we’re rich in asparagus. Tonight I’ll drizzle some fat spears with olive oil to roast and eat with grated goat cheese and walnuts over pasta. Last week, I placed a few spears left out of the previous night’s quiche on a pizza—delicious as it roasted on top of the cilantro pesto.
This is what fresh tastes like as April turns to May: the virtue of spring vegetables, the scent of lilacs and dogwood, and the down of dandelions drifting in the breeze.