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Build healthy meal around season's abundant fresh greens

By Denise Miller
Of the Journal
          Planning your meals around vegetables isn't always easy. But when you have fresh, delicious vegetables, consider giving them center stage.
        Leafy greens deserve our attention for a number of reasons. They are delicious and versatile. Their health benefits are numerous.
        Finally, fresh greens have a long growing season in New Mexico. Accessible from early spring through the winter — particularly when savvy growers use season extenders like row cover or hoop houses — they also grow quickly. Many within 30 days.
        Through the rest of the season and during the winter, look for a great selection from Agri-Cultura Network, whose valuable work with new farmers is producing great selections of salad greens, arugula, spinach, chard, mustard greens, collard greens and kale, among other late season crops.
        Farmers in training
        Agri-Cultura Network is a farmer-owned collaborative based in the South Valley that trains farmers, seeks to open new markets for locally grown produce and is taking steps to extend the growing season, project coordinator Patrick Staib says.
        Beginning earlier this year, three farmers — Jeff Warren, Joseph Alfaro and Fidel Gonzalez — started learning about land preparation, water use, crop selection, equipment and business management. After the farmers conclude their training, six new farmers will follow that path.
        The Agri-Cultura Network project was funded with a grant from the National Institute of Food & Agriculture. It is under the direction of Don Bustos, a longtime farmer and program director for American Friends Service Committee, which seeks to create economic viability by training small farmers in sustainable practices.
        The collaborative is working to extend the growing season by building six large cold frames on land in the South Valley, which is owned by its partnering organizations or the county, Staib says.
        Those South Valley based organizations are La Plazita Institute, a community group that works with at-risk youth and on gang intervention; Valle Encantado, which promotes economic development in the Atrisco neighborhood; and e-merging communities, which serves urban Native Americans. Each not-for-profit organization holds the land use agreements for the farming activities.
        Staib points out that while there is a long tradition of farming in the South Valley, what is new about the Agri-Cultura Network is that "there is some support on a federal level to take a more coordinated approach, instead of having these small groups compete with one another for limited dollars."
        Bowl of greens
        All greens from Agri-Cultura Network are grown chemical-free, picked within 24 hours of sale, and are triple-washed and dried. From Agri-Cultura Network, look for:
        • Swiss chard, which has a rich taste and substantial texture. Swiss chard wilts when steamed or simmered, but doesn't become as mushy as spinach can.
        • Spinach. The many types range from the wrinkled, bumpy leafed varieties to those grown primarily for baby leaf spinach for salads. Spinach loves cool weather and does well even with a little frost.
        • Kale, which is equally useful in salads, stir-fries, soups and steamed dishes. Types range from the ruffled and curled varieties to the relatively smooth. Colors include green, white, purple, blue-green and red striped.
        • Lettuces, such as head lettuces, leaf, French, Romaine and butterhead. Mesclun salad blends may include different types of lettuce as a base, with chervil, radicchio and others mixed in for a gourmet taste. Mesclun, a French term, means a mix of different salad greens.
        One of Agri-Cultura Network's specialties this time of year is a wonderful braising mix for sautéing. To dress up your greens, all you need is olive oil, a little onion and garlic for a delicious, healthy side dish.
        Buying fresh produce from growers like Agri-Cultura Network not only tastes great, but according to Staib, people also should know that "they're also reinvesting in their community and helping perpetuate a way for the community to feed itself — and that is a knowledge base that has largely been lost."
        Serves 2
        1 pound collard greens, chopped
        1/2 red onion, sliced
        For Mediterranean dressing:
        1 teaspoon lemon juice
        1 medium clove garlic, pressed or chopped
        1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
        Sea salt and black pepper to taste
        1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
        Optional for dressing:
        6 kalamata olives, sliced
        3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
        5 drops tamari soy sauce
        Dash cayenne pepper
        Fill steamer with two inches of water. While steam builds, slice collard greens leaves into 1/2-inch slices and cut again crosswise. Cut stems into 1/4-inch slices.
        Steam collard greens, and onion slices if desired, for no more than 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Toss greens with remaining ingredients and any optional ones while greens are hot.
        The dressing doesn't need to be made separately. You can mix it in with the greens.

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