Tim Sommer loves to preach the gospel of spring greens; and he's got the voice to do it. When describing mizuna, for instance, he starts near a whisper as he kneels to pick a leaf. Then, as he rises again, his tone rises, too. He extols the virtues of that serrated leaf, its health benefits, its texture, its taste, and by the time he offers you a bite, he's approaching full-out hosannas mode, arms spreading under the cathedral-like arch of his Middleton greenhouse, testifying to the under-appreciated, glorious gift of all leafy greens. Sommer has the preacher's touch, and by the time he's done, you can't help but believe.
I'm already a member of the church of spring greens, but a pilgrimage to Sommer's Purple Sage Farms in April is like a reaffirmation of faith, a trip to a promised land full of tender plants in rainbow colors, some hugging the ground, some forming loose, lettuce-like heads, some with leaves the shape of canoe paddles, some as filagreed as lace curtains, and some standing waist high, dusted in flowers the color of tiny suns.
"We have things like mache," Sommer says as he points to a diverse patchwork of plant varieties growing in one section of the greenhouse. "And this is minutina, mizuna, tatsoi, miner's lettuce and shepherd purse. And here is another one that I love: This is the ruby red streaks, a kind of a cross between several Asian mustards."
He hands me a delicate, feathery leaf as showy as if plucked from a vegetative peacock. It's flavor is spicy, complex.
We Americans have come a long way since the meat-and-potato '50s, when most ate nothing greener than iceberg lettuce and the occasional bacon-lacquered spinach leaf. But greens--like rapini, kale and collards--are hardly a recent invention. Julius Caesar was said to be fond of collards. Rapini, or broccoli raab, was an ancient favorite in both the Mediterranean and China. Miner's lettuce--which dots Sommer's greenhouse with saucer-shaped leaves surrounding minute, white flowers--was eaten by California miners during the gold rush days.
For most of us, though, unusual lettuces and leafy greens are a relatively new addition to our daily diets, making their way onto our plates as colorful but mildly flavored mixes, sides of spinach or, for the more liberal of palate, arugula. Darker, firmer greens like kale, chard and bok choy are still a hard sell for many, although news that they're stuffed with vitamins, calcium, iron, fiber and folic acid has improved their popularity.
Still, Sommer thinks we've got a long way to go before making the perennial sow thistle a national favorite--although its taste is far more pleasant than its name suggests. Sommer hopes we will one day push a lot further into the vast, unexplored world of greens, especially during spring, when, in a kind of chlorophyll-packed resurrection, they sprout from seemingly lifeless ground.
"Here's another great early green," Sommer says as he hands me a curly pea shoot tendril with yellow flowers artfully attached. "These have been used forever in Asian cooking but I love the whole pea stem right in a salad."
He pauses to let me try it, then asks, "Does it taste like the snow pea?"
"Oh yeah," I assure him between bites. "It's absolutely delicious." In fact, it's got more snow pea flavor than a snow pea.
After grazing through several more deliciously leafy revelations, I involuntarily begin testifying myself.
"It just shocks me," I say, mouth still full, "how much variety and depth of flavor there are in all of these things. In these last few minutes, we've tasted a dozen different kinds of really flavorful greens, and I don't think most people realize ..." I pause, having noticed my arms are now outstretched. "We think of greens as just being a placeholder on a plate."
Sommer looses a beatific smile, a smile this clergyman of the leafy green must let spread across his face every time he knows he's pulled another convert into the fold.
We walk to one last greenhouse, and when Sommer opens the door, I can say nothing more revelatory than "Wow!" The enclosure looks like a field of wildflowers, an uninterrupted waist-high carpet of gold. The crop of blooming kale shows both the promise and pitfall a farmer faces growing spring greens.
"We've had this planted here for maybe five months," Sommer says. For most of that time, the plants were too small to harvest, then for a brief period, they were just the right size to sell as the kale you'd recognize in a produce aisle.
"Then all of a sudden, with this bright spring light and temperature, it bolts and we've lost, in essence, our whole crop," Sommer adds.
That's the bitter truth and practical burden of spring greens. They flourish in that brief, temperate sliver of time between winter and summer, darkness and light--then they're gone. But that doesn't discourage Sommer. After all, he's been growing greens for 20 years.
"We have tried to have things that are unusual," he says. "Things that are worthwhile as food, things that California can't ship in here on top of us, things that should appeal to a chef because they have character and flavor and visual interest." Sommer slowly spreads his arms to deliver one last single-sentence sermon. "It's the wide world of food right here."