It’s around 7 p.m. on the hottest Friday in recent memory. On a roof in the Brooklyn Navy Yard overlooking smokestacks, shipyard cranes, and city bridges, the East River glittering quicksilver just beyond the dry docks, Brooklyn Grange managing partner Anastasia Cole Plakias points to a row of ruffled green leaves, streaked vibrant purple, and instructs me to pick one and take a bite.
I do as she says. The leaf has a green, vegetal flavor, with a strong wasabi note, a warm sensation on the tongue. “Ooh, that’s good,” I say. “Wait for it,” Plakias says, grinning as I chew. Moments later, my mouth explodes in a fiery burst of black-pepper spice. “Whoa!” I say, laughing, and she smiles: “The chef at Lafayette has been loving these.”
Dusk is falling on Brooklyn Grange’s second rooftop farm, planted in 2012 after the flagship farm (established in 2010 on a roof in Long Island City) proved to be a huge success. The project put Plakias, along with partners Ben Flanner and Gwen Schantz, at the helm of a strange new industry: urban commercial organic farming. As successful farmers do, they’ve been expanding, first here, and rumor has it, soon to the Pfizer building, a mile or so down Flushing Avenue.
And they’re cranking out great vegetables. Plakias has just fed me a baby mustard leaf; I’m stunned by the force of its flavor. I haven’t had greens that strong since living on an heirloom vegetable farm, in a place called Paradise Valley, the summer after college.
“We’ve been selling lots of these beautiful little leaves,” Plakias says. “They’re everybody’s favorite.” She turns one in her fingers as she nibbles. Looking closer, her brow furrows: “Looks like they’ve been getting eaten by beetles,” she says, showing me the leaf. “See that shotgun effect?” It’s peppered with tiny holes.
These greens and others are the top crop right now. Earlier today, farmers arrived around 4 a.m. and picked 100 pounds of mixed greens, 50 pounds of arugula, and “dozens of pounds of other things,” Plakias tells me. By now, this morning’s leaves are in restaurants around the city, likely being plated as we speak: Lafayette, Blanca, Northeast Kingdom, and Prospect are all clients. At 7 p.m., the Friday dinner rush has begun.
The greens are great, but, as in most gardens, tomatoes are the uncontested star. Brooklyn Grange grows a full rainbow of heirloom varieties; however, none are quite ready, the vines heavy with unripe produce. “Tomato plants don’t do well in temperatures above 95 degrees,” Plakias says, cupping a plump fruit in her hand. “Basically, their growth stagnates. They’re doing what the rest of us are doing, gritting their teeth, trying to survive. We should be getting ripe fruit any day now, but this heat is really not helping.”
She shows me a bed of Feherozon peppers, which are thriving, their pillowy, pale yellow forms grassy and sweet. Later, they will blush a rich, striated orange, and their flavor will deepen. We say hello to hens in a roomy coop, to a bright bed of zinnias and sunflowers, and pause to watch a honeybee drag another, against her will, from the hive (she escapes and flies away).
As we are leaving, Plakias stops. “I just learned this, and I think it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.” She’s standing near a patch of basil winged by beds of sunchoke, eggplant, and ground cherry that will be harvested later in the season.
“Basil has different flavors along the leaf. Find a nice big one and try the stem. It’s floral, sweeter. . . . The other end is going to be spicy, it will have almost a bitter note.” I pick a leaf and try it. One end is tender and lush, the other leaner and tougher, its flavor stronger and more mature. “It’s really cool tasting that,” she says, “and being able to connect with plants through their life. That may sound a bit precious, but, quite frankly, it really is a wonderful thing.”
That concludes our tour, and throughout the weekend, I can’t stop thinking about those greens. On Sunday night, I find myself at Northeast Kingdom ordering a Brooklyn Grange salad and little else. The plate arrives, heaped with emerald bounty: Arugula, leaf lettuce, and those raucous little mustard leaves are lightly tossed in a simple, unobtrusive vinaigrette. I normally chop the hell out of salads, so I can assemble perfect bites with bits of each component, but these leaves are best enjoyed whole, folded beneath the fork with a crisp, wet radish, just as nature made them.
Days have passed and that salad continues to haunt me. I’m excited for the next wave of vegetables. There is so much to come. Soon, the tomato vines will burst into color—stripey Green Zebras, savory and acidic; deep purple Black Cherries, musky and rich; dandelion-yellow Sungolds, sweet as grapes and snackable by the pint—and nutty sunchokes and eggplants will follow, and on and on, into the fall. Which leaves me to wonder—am I to spend the rest of the summer chasing down the freshest produce, completely at the mercy of the harvest? Alas, there are worse fates.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2013