I should be pulling up all of my greens about now. The soil is warming up, the plants are growing weedy, the tomatoes and field peas need to go in the ground. Next weekend, I'll do it. We're raising the level of the beds up and adding in another. Every year, greedy for more yield, I plant everything a little too close together in unwitting sabotage and watch as the plants strain against each other, craning toward space and light. This year we're making more room for them to stretch their limbs and breathe. In the meantime, I'm clipping as many of the greens' flowering shoots as we can eat, adding them to soups and sautes, braising them simply. This last method tends to be how I prep them most of the time—with a little olive oil, sea salt, black pepper or red chile, and a bit of water to keep them plump and juicy. I serve them in little bowls with their pot liquor, and we'll eat them before a meal, with a fork or maybe just fingers, giving them undivided attention.
Lately, I remembered this: whenever my grandmother fixed a pot of creamed corn with dinner (supper in her parlance), my granddad's habit was corn first: he would ladle enough onto a plate to spread to its brims, and approach it with a piece of cornbread in one hand and a spoon in the other—two corn derivatives uninterrupted by other flavors. Only after this plate was clear would he would move on to the rest of the dishes on the table. I think of him sometimes, with my little bowl of greens in front of me, transfixed by their flavor.
There is something truly compelling about the warmth and generosity of a well-composed vegetable plate. In the best cases, there is a harmony and synergy of flavors and textures that can exceed the sum of the individual components. Even in average circumstances, the abundance of so many different dishes seems to bring a built-in fulfillment to the fore. But a meal like that—or any meal composed of multiple dishes, served simultaneously—is also a little about multi-tasking. It's almost impossible to really focus your attention on any one of those individual dishes with so many others competing for it—that's not really the point. It's a bit stodgy and completely out of sync with the family-style service that seems to dominate these days, but I usually course out our meals. It allows me to let my focus linger, appreciate the depths of something without something else pulling at my sleeve. Always, the greens come first.
Quick-braised flowering greens (radish, collard, mustard, cabbage, turnip, rapini)
For two people, wash and trim about 1/2 pound of flowering greens. Separate any small leaves and leave whole; you can tear larger leaves into pieces. Cut shoots and florets into bite-sized pieces. Keep a bit of water at hand. Heat a large, wide, heavy pot with a lid (a deep-sided saute pan or Dutch oven both work well) over medium heat, and pour in about a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. When it's hot (but not smoking) and easily glosses the bottom of the pan, add a few grinds of black pepper, and then the greens. They will sizzle and begin to wilt instantly; stir them well, sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt, and add about a 1/4 cup of water. Cover the pot, and cook for a few minutes, until the greens are just tender. Lift the lid periodically to make sure the bottom of the pan is covered in thin layer of liquid and that the greens are steaming nicely. If they seem to be drying out, add a bit more water. When they are just tender, taste again for seasoning and add salt or pepper as desired, cover the pot, and rest off the heat for 5 minutes or longer. Remove to bowls and pour any remaining liquid in the pan over the greens. These are lovely hot, warm, or at room temperature.