A couple of years ago, I worked at a greenmarket for a farmer who grows the most glorious chicories: frisee, radicchio, escarole, puntarelle. They are bitter greens whose underlying sweetness is checked by a bite that can surprise you.
One spring, we had a customer who would buy seven heads of curly endive at a time; one for each day of the week, he said. If his purchases seemed excessive, I understood his fervor. Leafy greens anchor my cooking, no matter the time of year. Summer’s offerings are a little harder to see for all the hysteria around the season’s heirloom tomatoes, but they are worth pursuing — even if your appreciation of leafy vegetables strikes a more moderate tone than my own.
Cooking with greens in the hottest months of the year takes some rethinking. If you have your palate trained on winter’s kale, collards, turnips and other cool-season leafy brassicas, summer’s holdouts can be disillusioning. Though such cold-hardy greens will produce leaves in the heat if given enough shade and water, they aren’t keen on it. You can taste their resistance in bitter, less-tender leaves that are no longer the center of the plant’s attention.
Longer, warmer days trigger plants to launch into bolting: the process of sending out flowers and producing seeds. This switch in gears, explains Gerald Brust, vegetable specialist for the University of Maryland Extension, diverts enzymes and nutrients — flavor — away from the leaves and into the immediate, more important task of reproduction.
You could temper your expectations, making do with cool-season greens throughout the year. But it seems more sensible to work with the greens that don’t just tolerate mid-summer heat but thrive in it. Purslane, callaloo, Malabar spinach, lamb’s quarters, the greens of sweet potato plants: These are less familiar yet no less worthy of the table.
Summer’s greens taste, maybe expectedly, like products of the season. They are more easy-going in flavor, with less of the earth, pepper and bite that so often accompany cold-season greens. (Dandelion is an exception.) Instead, they suggest butter, lemon, brine. A heap of New Zealand spinach I sauteed recently with garlic, chili pepper and olive oil suggested oyster liquor, in the best way, and I nearly went right back to the stove with the rest of the bag.
That type of hot-weather spinach, as well as Egyptian spinach and Malabar spinach, are so called because they bear a resemblance in flavor and texture to the Spinacia family. In fact, they belong to a class of plants called succulents, along with callaloo, sweet potato greens and purslane. The trick they call on for moisture management ensures their leaves stay tender even in hot, dry conditions inhospitable to most other leafy greens.
“Succulents tend to store a lot of water in their stems,” Brust explains. “When it’s dry, they’ll use the reserves.”
They taste the part. Purslane is tender and lush enough to redefine expectations of what a salad should be. You can cook purslane as well; cookbook author Deborah Madison writes, in “Local Flavors” (Broadway, 2002), of Hispanic growers in her adopted town of Santa Fe who suggest sauteing it with onion or adding it to a pot of beans, and the traditional Mexican pork and purslane stew (called, simply, pork stew with purslane), makes use of it aplenty.
But I prefer it raw, with cues taken from Greece and the Middle East, dressed with a vinaigrette or a creamy yogurt dressing. Allison Milchling, manager of the Crossroads Market in Takoma Park, substitutes it for celery in chicken salads. Its small, tart, lemony, paddle-shaped leaves are refreshing, as crisp and, well, succulent as their classification suggests. Purslane grows wild; gardeners less appreciative of its charms consider the glossy carpets it creates a bothersome scourge. But it shows up in markets both wild-harvested and cultivated.
For cooks, greens that proliferate where there has been no human effort to grow them appear to be a generosity of nature. Generosity, though, is probably not the word used by farmers who work hard to stamp them out. Some of the infamous superweeds produced by liberal applications of glyphosate in corn and soybean fields are lamb’s quarters.
That lamb’s quarters displaced two of my roommate’s tomato plants in his garden was both a gleeful discovery and a mild source of guilt, and I have been using the young, tender leaves in soups and pasta, eggs and salad. They have a quiet grassiness and a supple texture; when braised gently, they are tender but not meltingly so.
Dandelion grows wild so prolifically that you’re unlikely to take a walk without spotting some. You can find tidy cultivated bunches of it at local markets — which is probably a safer bet than tugging clusters from your lawn, unless you’ve had the soil tested for heavy metals and other toxins. It’s a little more difficult to love, as those pretty, arrow-shaped leaves have a sharpness to match. It wards off boredom as a mixing green and is even better on its own, as long as you dress it with something that can stand up to its bite; vinegar and lemon work well. If the dandelion greens you pick up are too aggressively bitter for your taste, try soaking them in salted water for a few hours or blanching them in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
Becky Seward, ecosystem farm manager at the nonprofit Accokeek Foundation, likes the interplay of dandelion with a rich dressing straight out of the South: onion sauteed in a little bacon fat (“or lard, if you’re really into it”), plus vinegar and some sugar. “It’s a really good way to cut the bitter,” she says.
A little later in the season, callaloo and sweet potato greens will begin to arrive at local markets. They are unrelated plants (callaloo is a variety of amaranth), but their leaves are both sweet and a little nutty-tasting, with a dense, silken texture. They seem to call out for coconut milk and hot peppers — doubtless a hint from Caribbean and African dishes of amaranth that call for the same treatment.
Sweet potato greens, in particular, are as versatile as any leafy green of winter. This year, I’m planning to use them as the Pennsylvania-based Earth Spring farmer Mike Nolan’s Vietnamese in-laws do: stirred into pho or rolled into spring rolls with shiso and mint. They’ll last nearly until the first frost, so cook them while you can. You have nine good months out of the year to get your fill of kale.
Horton is a Washington food writer.