I’ll be honest — the temptation of driving by a North Fork farm stand in the summer is hard to fight. It seems like every 30 seconds, I can’t help but hit the brakes and fill my trendy reusable canvas tote with a lush rainbow of produce. Walking back to my car, I am Ina Garten, ready to be inspired by my endless creativity in the kitchen.
But then I get home and unload my bag and have a reality check. I am not Ina Garten. What do I do with beets that enticed me with their juicy red color but taste a bit like the earth? Or the radicchio with its beautiful lacey purple edges and decidedly bitter flavor? I was so tempted by their pretty looks, I forgot that I have no idea what to do with these veggies.
Maybe you’re like me and got bamboozled by the beauty. Or maybe you received a few items in your CSA box this week that leave you scratching your head. I chatted with the farmers behind some of the best North Fork farm stands about how they enjoy the, let’s just call them, underrated produce items.
BITTER GREENS: Steep them in flavor.
If coffee has taught us anything, it’s that bitter doesn’t mean bad. Brenna Leveille of Sep’s Farm in East Marion looks to Southern cuisine when cooking her favorite overlooked veggie — collard. “They are enormous and that can intimidate people from trying them out,” she said. “Prepared in the traditional Southern-style, slow cooker method with farm fresh ham and bacon, it is just outstanding. The greens retain their texture and flavor and are enhanced by the flavors they soak up from the meat in the cooker.”
As for mustard greens, a staple in many Asian cuisines, the best way to prepare them is in a simple broth of fish, chicken or miso, suggests Cristina Cosentino, director of farm operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farms in Shelter Island. “Put the vegetables in the broth with a nice piece of white fish that’s super delicate, beautiful and delicious,” she said. Cosentino also recommends fermenting mustard greens kimchi-style.
ENDIVES: Bathe and dress them.
Escarole and radicchio, part of the endive family, always look so pretty on the farm stand with their delicate veiny leaves and vibrant colors. They can be just as delicious as they are beautiful, but the key is to know how to work with them. For escarole, that means boiling it in salted water for 10 minutes. For radicchio, soaking it in an ice bath for 30 minutes reduces its bitter flavor. Although the pre-treatment helps take the edge off, balancing out the endives with fat and sweet is also key. Cosentino recommends sauteeing the escarole with garlic and oil and adding cannellini beans or a rich cheese, like gorgonzola, plus balsamic vinegar, orange and figs. With the radicchio, char the outside on the grill and toss with olive oil, vinegar, pancetta and anchovy “if you’re feeling naughty.”
BEETS AND SWISS CHARD: When in doubt, pickle it out.
Pickling a veggie that isn’t cucumber is a highly overlooked way to mellow out strong flavors and textures. For example: Beets. “Sometimes people who aren’t familiar with beets hesitate to try them out,” Leveille said. “Beets can be perceived as having earthy flavors and being a time consuming product to process.” But she says her family eats them frequently in pickle form. Sonomi Obinata of KK’s The Farm in Southold does the same to swiss chard. “We make pickles with the colorful swiss chard stems because they can be hard like celery,” she said. Pickling is simple. Bring equal parts water and vinegar to a boil with sugar, salt and spices for five minutes. Pour over veggies in a sealable container and refrigerate for at least a few hours. You’ll need to roast or boil your beets first until tender, but the swiss chard you can pickle raw.
RADISH TOPS: Whip up green rice.
You know radish bulbs make a nicely peppery garnish, but what do you do with the rest of it? You can use the entire vegetable, Obinata said. Simply sauteeing the bulb brings sweetness. She even recommends adding the leafy tops to cooked rice. “It turns the rice green and gives flavor and color.”
FENNEL AND BOK CHOY: Make a summer salad.
Why use boring romaine? Fennel is like a mini salad in one veggie. Cosentino likes to chop it up with oranges, salty black olives and olive oil and garnish with the fronds. Obinata goes the same route with bok choy. “Slice it thin, add a sesame or soy-based dressing and crispy noodles or crushed peanuts,” she said. “It’s very sweet and has a nice texture.”