It’s easy being green

Kermit the Frog sang “It’s not easy being green,” but on an early summer evening in Central Pennsylvania, when the air is soft and smells of sweet hay,  and people’s gardens are shooting up almost as you watch, green can feel like the easiest thing of all.

So it was in Dorothy Blair’s backyard garden a few days ago.

I had interviewed her for a recent Probing Question article on local and organic foods. In one email, she mentioned that she’d just come in from gardening. I can’t resist a garden so I quickly wrote back, “Can I come by and have a look?” and a plan was hatched.

Blair, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, teaches courses on food and cuisine, food systems, community food security and international food issues. Her current research focuses on school gardening, civic food systems, and energy reduction through food behaviors. During a week of thunderstorms, we caught an hour of perfect weather in which to stand together looking at the snap peas twining their way upward and the arugula that overwintered “but is still so good” (indeed it was!)

Harvesting spinach for that evening’s meal

“I bring students from a course I teach, Nutrition 497g: Community Food Security,  out here every year during the first week of September,” Dorothy told me, “and we all plant lettuce. I tell them ‘We’ll have enough to harvest and eat a salad together in November’ and they’re always amazed that we really do!”  This is just one example of her approach to practicing in “real life” what she preaches in academia. One of the lessons she models: that it doesn’t have to be that complicated to be “green” and that doing something good for your health and the planet can be as basic as planting some seeds. “There are different seeds for different seasons,” she emphasizes, “and always room for experimentation. This year I’m trying a type of green bean that’s longer and has a wonderful strong beany flavor. My favorite vegetable changes depending on what’s coming up in the garden…asparagus first, then lettuces, kale, tatsoi, spinach…I love all the greens.”

As we chat, I learn a little about a lot of different things: what “green manure” is, for instance, and why it’s important in organic gardening. I learn that some plants, including the cilantro growing abundantly in Blair’s garden, attract a type of parasitic wasp—and why that’s a good thing! I also learn that a green thumb runs in her family, as she tells me about her grandfather who journeyed from Joplin, Missouri to Hollywood, California and became “a gardener to the stars!”

Finally, I learn that Blair is a seasoned cook who puts all those fresh vegetables to good use all year round. In her as-yet-unpublished cookbook, which is part of a large lab manual her students use, Blair has recipes featuring all the veggies she grows in her backyard, and more.

One of her favorite “go-to” dishes—easy enough for a quick weekday supper, but tasty enough for company, as she explains it—is a pasta and greens dish from Italy. As she writes in her cookbook, “The open air markets in Apulia, a region in the heel of Italy’s boot, attest to the locals’ love of dark, leafy, bitter greens. A cultivated form of chicory is extremely popular. The flavor combination of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and hot peppers tames the bitter greens and gives this dish a marvelous mouthfeel. The orrecchiette, or “little ears” of pasta, are the perfect bland but toothsome foil for the boldness of the spices. Don’t be overwhelmed by the volume of greens. They will cook down.”

The recipe is below. Let me know if you try it, won’t you?  Is it easier being green than you thought?

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