The local ingredient: Greens at the Greenhouse

Baby lettuce sprouting in the greenhouse. —Gabrielle Mannino

March is about the time I start craving fresh lettuces and greens. It’s a tough time to find super-fresh local vegetables, and supermarket greens usually look like they’ve traveled the distance from the West Coast or Mexico.

It’s also about this time I remember the Greenhouse in Oak Bluffs, a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse filled all winter long with vibrant lettuces, greens, and fresh herbs. Opened in 1985, this community nonprofit was ahead of its time, offering local food year-round to Vineyarders. For a low membership fee and a small working contribution, you can pick a variety of lettuces for your salads and greens for dinner for practically nothing. It’s is one of the best deals around, and one I am taking full advantage of.

Just entering the greenhouse in winter is a treat in itself. On a sunny day, it can be a balmy 75°. As you walk along long rows overflowing with various shapes and shades of green, you can find seven or eight types of lettuces alone, including romaine and baby arugula, along with mache, a small rounded leaf with a buttery texture and nutty flavor, and mizuna, a frilly Japanese green with a mild mustard taste. Among dark leafy greens, you’ll see rainbow Swiss chard, spinach, collard greens, and three different types of kale, including Italian, curly, and red Russian. There are even a few Asian greens like baby bok choy and tatsoi, a beautiful vegetable with tiny paddle-shape leaves and pale greenish-white stalks, perfect fresh for salads or quickly stir-fried. So how do you find and shop at this not-so-secret winter garden? It’s tucked behind a few buildings just off New York Avenue, near Dick’s Bait & Tackle. Look for the sign sprouting colorful vegetables and flowers that reads “The Greenhouse.”

The Greenhouse in Oak Bluffs. —Gabrielle Mannino

If you stop by, you might find Diane Sylvia, the Greenhouse manager, tending to the plants in various stages of growth and helping the members. Or you might see a volunteer named Paul, a local building manager who might be fixing the outlets or figuring out which wood is best to replace the growing boxes, which are waist-high for easy picking.

Longtime president Thalia Scanlan, a master gardener and heirloom tomato aficionado, can be found on most Wednesdays, along with a core group of volunteers who gather on one of the greenhouse’s traditional volunteer days. The group gathers in the morning to plant seeds and transplant seedlings, and stop around noon or 12:30 to share a giant salad picked from the greenhouse and a homemade soup.

Membership is $40 a year. Members contribute some amount of time during month, typically planting the very lettuces and kale or spinach they end up picking later. The greenhouse also grows other vegetables, and some flowers, and is best known for its big fundraiser of the year, the tomato seedling sale on Mother’s Day weekend.

“Normally, people who are members come in and do a little work, plant some seeds,” explains Scanlan. “It’s a question of spending a little time and you are able to pick something in return. Hopefully, most of our members are there because they enjoy what they are doing; they are enjoying the smells and putting their fingers in soil.” It’s also a great way to learn about gardening, and to get questions about your own home gardening efforts answered.

One thing you notice about the Greenhouse is the flexible way it runs. The system operates on the honor system, and the vibe is extremely low-key. There are no hard and fast rules about the amount of time someone needs to accrue in exchange for food.

“I go when I can. If I can’t go, it’s not a huge deal,” says Kathy Laskowski, an Oak Bluffs resident who got involved about two years ago. “I like working there. I like the people there. It’s such a great place to go to in the winter; you get your fresh produce at a very good price. It does seem like this hidden gem.”

The Greenhouse isn’t the only place on-Island to find local greens in winter. Mermaid Farm in Chilmark continues its pea-shoot operation in winter. Ghost Island Farm in West Tisbury opens on Saturdays and Sundays off-season, and sells tender, fresh greens grown inside its seven hoop houses. And the Island Grown Farm hub has a year-round growing operation with a winter farm share program, and its produce is carried at Cronig’s Market.

Add to this burgeoning mix one of the pioneers growing local winter produce.

Garden Vegetable Turkey Loaf with Swiss Chard

Serves 4 to 6

This recipe is chock full of vegetables and great flavor. It is low in fat and delicious. Hint: Try to mince the raw onion and celery as fine as possible. The topping can be as simple as a smear of mustard or a homemade brown sugar and ketchup glaze. Serve with mashed potatoes and a salad.

1⅓ pounds natural ground turkey breast (white, dark, or a combination)
½ cup finely minced onion
¾ cup fresh whole wheat bread crumbs or panko
1 egg
⅓ cup finely minced celery
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 cup finely chopped Swiss chard leaves
½ tsp. minced fresh garlic
¼ cup milk or nondairy beverage
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. each dried thyme and oregano
Dijon mustard as needed for top (or see ketchup mix below)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Oil a 9-inch glass pie plate and set aside. In a medium-size bowl, mix all ingredients except mustard. Pat mixture into the prepared pie plate.

Spread top with a thin layer of Dijon mustard or ketchup mix, and bake for 45 minutes, or until meat begins to pull away from sides of pan. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve with additional sauce if desired.

Brown Sugar/Ketchup Glaze

¾ cup ketchup
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. molasses or BBQ sauce

Mix the ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, vinegar, and molasses or BBQ sauce together in a small bowl.