March may mark the opening of local farmers markets. But as most shoppers know, green vegetables are scarce next to vendors' remaining root vegetables — beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes and onions. Fatigue for those starchier staples of winter understandably accompanies spring's arrival.
"They're just ready for anything fresh," says Applegate organic farmer Chris Jagger. "The fresh greens are really what fly off (the table) now."
The season's greens, however, can be a study in extremes. There are the tiniest, tenderest, greenhouse-grown leaves for salads and then the toughest, most fibrous cabbages and field greens, such as collards and kale, for braising and stewing into submission. Straddling the middle ground in March are bok choy and similar Asian greens.
"It's kind of nice to keep it a seasonal item," says Jagger, one of the few local farmers of bok choy, which can grow year-round. Jagger's costs $3 per pound at the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market Tuesdays in Ashland.
A cabbage-family member often marketed as "baby" heads, bok choy doesn't stay small for long, even in winter. After sowing "salad mix" for winter harvest in my home garden a few seasons ago, I could hardly believe that bok choy had covered the spot seemingly overnight. The seed packet must have been mislabeled, I mused.
In reality, Asian greens are common salad-blend components, their raw leaves favored when young and succulent, says Mary Shaw of Ashland Food Co-op. And unlike mesclun mixes, she says, Asian greens don't need to spend the winter in a greenhouse or "hoop house."
"I think it's one of the most indestructible, fast-growing greens," says Shaw, explaining that the Co-op's raised bed of bok choy has thrived since its fall planting without even garden cloth to cover it on winter's coldest days.
"They winter over super well."
The Co-op's culinary staff cooked with its bok choy — also known as pak choi or Chinese cabbage — throughout January, providing customers with samples of fried rice and tempeh-stuffed leaves, a concept similar to the classic cabbage roll.
Jagger tells customers to keep their cooking of his bok choy "real basic," just stir-fried or barely simmered in an Asian-style noodle soup. His Blue Fox Farm did supply one Ashland restaurant, Tot, with enough bok choy — among other organic vegetables — last year for its signature salad of papaya, cucumber and grilled tofu.
Bypassing bok choy's "baby" stage, Jagger lets each head get big enough to weigh about one-third to a half-pound. Harvesting larger plants makes growing bok choy profitable for small farmers, says Jagger.
"We call it an adolescent bok choy," he says. "It has substance to it."
A relative of bok choy that cooks may encounter in stores is choy sum. With slightly darker green leaves, this fellow cabbage-family member has stems a bit less crunchy than bok choy. Bitterness of both greens mellows with cooking.
Try this hybrid of stir-fry and salad with either bok choy or choy sum. The recipe's carrots, cabbage and scallions also are in season at the Growers & Crafters Market.
For more information about produce availability and an interactive map of market locations, see the Mail Tribune's guide to Rogue Valley farmers markets at www.mailtribune.com/growersmarket.