Summer harvests give many pleasures. There are the tastes of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, string beans and zucchini, but just as wonderful are the colors of these and other summer vegetables. Red, orange, yellow, green, purple, intense jewel colors both in the harvest basket and the serving dish.
Last weekend, with the first generous harvest of tomatoes, I layered slices of purple/red Cherokee Purple, orange Jaune de Flamme and Orange Paruche cherry tomato in a large bowl, garnishing them with green and purple basil. A pleasure to create, but the bigger treat was taking this summer bounty to a dinner with friends.
Early this week, I made a favorite zucchini recipe I first wrote about in 2011, Roasted Zucchini with Ricotta and Mint. The occasional changes I’ve made to this wonderful recipe over the years are to omit the ricotta sometimes or substitute goat cheese and to add more fresh herbs with the mint. This time, I omitted cheese altogether and added flower heads from dill and cilantro and leaves of green and purple basil along with the mint. These fresh herb flavors complemented the flavors of cumin and fennel seeds and red pepper flakes roasted with the zucchini, and lemon juice added just before serving brightened all the flavors. Finally, I steamed some of the last Sugar Snap peas and used them to crown this lovely summer salad.
Dark red and orange beets and purple and orange carrots are kitchen garden standbys that lend themselves to salads year-round.
Yesterday morning, I steamed a harvest of beets and carrots, caramelized some fennel and composed a colorful cold salad that I dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. Made with warm vegetables, this salad would add to a winter meal, but cold it was perfect for summer.
Color in the kitchen garden isn’t only in the vegetables but also in the blooming flowers and herbs scattered throughout the garden beds. Pausing to take in this beauty is an ongoing pleasure of the summer kitchen garden.
“Be careful what you wish for” has been running through my mind the past few days as temperatures reached eighty, then ninety, then one hundred degrees. Who knew the first days of summer would blast in with a record heat wave? I didn’t when I wrote in my last post: “Now that the Solstice is upon us, perhaps rain and warmth will continue, or at least warmth, and vegetables will really start to grow.” Well, with this unusual heat the vegetables are really growing. Tassels are forming on corn plants, zucchinis are stretching out, cherry tomatoes ripening, pole beans climbing strings, cauliflower and broccoli swelling into heads. I’ve been out early the past few mornings harvesting anything that will suffer in the heat: radishes, turnips, rabe, cauliflower, broccoli. And with the fridge full and the days too hot to be outdoors, I’ve been in the kitchen, trying out some new recipes.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s recipe for Roasted Cauliflower with Pine Nut, Raisin, and Caper Vinaigrette on Serious Eats makes a perfect summer salad. I’ve made it twice, using walnuts instead of pine nuts both times because that’s what I had. I also used the beautiful orange Flame Star cauliflowerI harvested during the heat. The only downside of this recipe during our heat wave is the 500-degree oven recommended for roasting the cauliflower.
Roasted Cauliflower with Pine Nut, Raisin, and Caper Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and roughly chopped
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup raisins
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 500°F (260°C). Toss cauliflower with 3 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast until cauliflower is tender and deeply browned on both sides, about 20 minutes total, flipping cauliflower with a thin metal spatula halfway through roasting.
While cauliflower roasts, combine remaining 3 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil, vinegar, honey, capers, pine nuts, raisins, and parsley. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer cooked cauliflower to a serving plate and spoon dressing on top. Serve immediately.
A recipe for broccoli salad that doesn’t call for oven-roasting or any other cooking is Melissa Clark’s Broccoli Salad with Garlic and Sesame. Introducing the recipe, she writes: “This salad is made from uncooked broccoli tossed with an assertive garlic, sesame, chile and cumin-seed vinaigrette slicked with good extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. The acid “cooks” the florets a little as ceviche does fish. After an hour, the broccoli softens as if blanched, turning bright emerald, and soaking up all the intense flavors of the dressing. You’ll be making this one again.” She’s right. I made a quarter batch for lunch and then made a half batch for dinner. I’ll definitely be making it again, perhaps a full batch for guests. It’s very pretty with just the green broccoli but also lovely with the first cherry tomatoes of the season.
Broccoli Salad with Garlic and Sesame
1 ½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
2 heads broccoli, 1 pound each, cut into bite-size florets
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 fat garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons roasted (Asian) sesame oil
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
In a large bowl, stir together the vinegar and salt. Add broccoli and toss to combine.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil until hot, but not smoking. Add garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in sesame oil and pepper flakes. Pour mixture over broccoli and toss well. Let sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature, and up to 48 (chill it if you want to keep it for more than 2 hours). Adjust seasonings (it may need more salt) and serve.
Temperatures are easing back to early summer normal now, a relief for us and for the kitchen garden vegetables. There are still a few more vegetables in the refrigerator though, so I’ll keep looking for new ways to use them.
It’s been a cool, dry spring. Watering helps with the dryness, and various fabric covers, cold frames and a greenhouse help with the cold, but what would be even better would be a steady rain and some warmer days. We’ve gotten a little of each in the past week and the garden vegetables are responding with fresher green and more growth. Now that the Solstice is upon us, perhaps rain and warmth will continue, or at least warmth, and vegetables will really start to grow.
In the meantime, I’m grateful for radishes and spring turnips, round red and round white.
Crisp, spicy radishes are tasty sliced and slipped into a nut butter sandwich or with butter and salt on bread. They are also wonderful lightly pickled in white wine vinegar, salt and sugar. Simply pickled or with the addition of some yogurt and garlic, they make a great condiment or an addition to salads.
Yogurt Radish Salad
Makes 2 cups
1–2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
2 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste
Cracked black pepper to taste
2 cups thinly sliced radishes
1 clove crushed garlic
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt, drained if watery
In a medium bowl, mix together the vinegar, sugar, salt and a little pepper. Toss in the radishes and allow to marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Toss in the garlic and yogurt and serve.
One more way I’ve been preparing radishes is roasting them. Cut into wedges, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and roasted for 10-12 minutes at 425, they lose their spice and crispness, but in exchange they mellow into a soft, subtly radish-flavored side dish.
Spring turnips are round like radishes but more dense than crisp and more sweet than spicy. Planted at the same time as radishes, they are ready for harvest about a week later. When they are still small, about an inch in diameter, I treat them like radishes, serving them raw in slices or lightly pickling them. When they get bigger, I roast them. Prepared and roasted the same way I do radishes, turnips become sweeter and more tender than roasted radishes. Roasted spring turnips are one of our favorite late spring dishes. Turnip greens are very tasty too, sauteed in garlic and olive oil, they make a pretty bed for a batch of roasted turnips.
As we reach the end of the current crop of radishes and turnips, spring broccoli and cauliflower are forming heads that will provide delicious meals while the next planting of radishes and turnips matures. Soon after that, beets, another round root, carrots and sugar snap peas will be ready, and we’ll be done with radishes and turnips for this season. But they’ll be there for us next year, the first gifts of spring.
It’s rhubarb season and I’ve been making the family favorite, rhubarb custard pie, for the past month.
Some would argue that this pie is really the only appropriate use for rhubarb, but lately I’ve been introduced to a couple of other rhubarb recipes that significantly expand the list of rhubarb recipes: rhubarb shrub and rhubarb cobbler.
My friend Dena made a rhubarb shrub this spring. It’s delicious! She shared her recipe, one that she found at Bon Appetit.
“In terms of drinks, a shrub is a non-alcoholic syrup made of a combination of concentrated fruits, aromatics, sugar, and vinegar. This sweet, yet acidic mixer is traditionally enjoyed as a component of a mixed drink with soda water.” Dena adds it to tonic water for a special, non-alcoholic spring drink. We’re doing the same.
Slice 4 medium stalks of rhubarb crosswise until you’ve got 2 cups of it. Mix together 1¼ cups sugar (preferably organic) and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt in a small bowl. Pick the leaves off a couple sprigs of mint and clap them firmly between your hands once (this is to release the essential oils). In a large jar or container with an airtight lid (I like glass best, plastic is a good alternative, but avoid metal), layer the rhubarb and mint evenly with the sugar mixture. Seal the jar and turn it upside down a couple of times. Now, let it sit on the counter for a few hours. (If it’s hot out, just an hour or so will do! The juices are drawn out of the rhubarb more quickly at higher temps.) You want to see a fair amount of liquid in the jar at this point. Put your jar into the fridge overnight.
Twenty-four hours after you first combined the sugar mixture with the fruit, add 1 cup red wine vinegar. (I love this kind of vinegar, which amplifies the beautiful color imparted by the rhubarb here, but if you don’t have it, try apple cider or white wine vinegar). After adding the vinegar, leave it at room temp for a few hours, then taste it to see if it needs more vinegar (up to ¼ cup more). Turn the jar upside down a couple times and put it back in the fridge for a minimum of 24 hours. If you can, try to wait longer, up to two days more, so the flavors can develop further.
When it’s ready, strain out the solids and bottle it…It’ll keep nicely in the fridge for six to eight weeks, but much longer if you keep it tightly sealed and save it for later use (i.e. you’re not exposing it to air by opening the container often)
Dena added that she “free-styled: no mint, tried white wine vinegar, then a batch with apple cider vinegar. Forgot the first batch on the counter for 24 hours and abandoned the second batch in the fridge for a few days before straining. Came out fine both times, despite my indiscretions!”
I left out the mint as well, and I found that leaving the rhubarb/sugar/vinegar mixture in the fridge for several days allowed the organic sugar to dissolve completely and the rhubarb flavor to develop further. Two ounces of rhubarb shrub topped with tonic is a lovely spring drink.
A rhubarb shrub cocktail is a great way to begin a meal and Melissa Clark’s Roasted Rhubarb Cobbler is a great way to end one. As Clark writes in the introduction to her recipe: “In this buttery cobbler, slices of rhubarb are roasted with sugar before rounds of biscuit dough are added to the pan. This extra step allows the rhubarb juices to condense into a sweet-tart syrup and eliminates the need for a thickener like cornstarch or tapioca, which can muddy the flavors. The result is a bright-tasting, flaky cobbler that’s gently scented with vanilla and a little orange zest. Topped with a drizzle of heavy cream or a scoop of ice cream, it makes a rose-tinged dessert that’s both lighter and bolder than others of its kind.”
Roasted Rhubarb Cobbler
For the rhubarb filling:
vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or use 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract)
pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 7 cups)
¾ cup/150 grams granulated sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Pinch of kosher salt
For the biscuits:
¾ cups/96 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
3 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
⅓ cup/79 milliliters plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream, plus more for serving, if you like
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Ice cream, for serving (optional)
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Using the tip of a paring knife, scrape the pulp out of the vanilla bean halves and add the pulp to a 1 1/2 quart gratin or baking dish or 9-by-9-inch pan along with the scraped-out pods. (Alternatively, add the paste or extract to the pan.) Add the rhubarb, sugar, zest and salt, and toss well. Let sit at room temperature to macerate while preparing the biscuit dough.
Make the biscuit dough: Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add cubed butter, then pulse until the mixture has formed lime bean-size pieces. Drizzle in 1/3 cup heavy cream and pulse until everything just clumps together, taking care not to overprocess. (To make the dough by hand, put the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add cubed butter, then mix it in with your hands, pinching and squeezing with your fingers — or use a pastry blender — until the largest pieces are the size of peas. Drizzle in 1/3 cup heavy cream a little at a time, mixing until the dough comes together.)
Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and gently pat it together until it’s a cohesive lump. Using a small ice cream scoop or a large spoon, form dough into 6 evenly sized balls. Slightly flatten dough balls into thick rounds. Cover rounds with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes (and up to 6 hours).
Put the rhubarb in the oven and roast, stirring halfway through, until the rhubarb has softened and the liquid has formed a syrup, about 30 minutes.
Remove pan from oven and use tongs to remove the vanilla bean pods.
Lower oven temperature to 375 degrees. Arrange biscuit rounds on top of the rhubarb, leaving space in between them. Brush biscuits with remaining tablespoon of heavy cream and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
Bake cobbler until biscuits are golden brown, about 25 to 35 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, with cream or ice cream, if you like.
I especially like the low sugar content of this recipe and the concentrated rhubarb flavor. The cobbler biscuits are very light and tender.
With all the rhubarb growing in the garden right now, I’m glad to have these recipes to use more of it. They won’t replace rhubarb custard pie as the premier use of rhubarb, but they come close.
I’ve been harvesting overwintered purple sprouting broccoli for several weeks, and last week I harvested the first of the overwintered cauliflower. These harvests offer the special pleasure of seeing a vegetable that I set out in July reach maturity in April despite months of winter’s cold and rain. Overwintered brassicas have amazed me ever since I started growing them several years ago.
An additional pleasure last week was that this over-wintered brassica harvest coincided with setting out starts of spring and summer broccoli and cauliflower. Unlike their longer-maturing cousins, these brassica varieties will mature and provide tasty meals by early summer. And soon after that harvest, I’ll start seeds of over-wintered brassicas again. This sense of continuity, that there will always be a new plant to replace the old one, is one of the things that makes vegetable gardening so satisfying.
I’m noticing this same reassuring continuity as I get ready to set out thin spears of this year’s onion and shallot crop and as seed potatoes green up in preparation for this year’s planting. They make it less concerning that the storage bins of last year’s onions and potatoes are nearly empty. In the same way, the tomatoes and pepper plants growing slowly in the greenhouse make it easier to use up the last of the roasted and frozen tomatoes and peppers.
Wrapped in this reassuring sense of continuity, I roasted the cauliflower and the purple sprouting broccoli, piled them in a large bowl and added some spears of asparagus.
Then I took the dish to our neighbors for a shared dinner, the first in over a year. Even more joyful than the yearly cycle of garden vegetables is the return of meals with friends after this long year of isolation. Like the promise of continuity in the kitchen garden, the promise of a return to normal social interactions in the months ahead feels very good.
Spring is a week old and cover crops in kitchen garden beds need turning soon, but what I really need to do right now is make a planting plan for 2021. Beans and peas, beets, carrots and fennel, cucumbers and squashes, spring turnips and radishes, corn are still in seed packets, and tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, onions, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower are growing indoors in pots and flats. Where will I plant each vegetable this year?
I have a paper layout of all the kitchen garden beds, twenty-one of them arranged in three groups of seven, each bed divided vertically into three sections for recording three years of planting. I also have a table where I’ve recorded what’s grown in the beds each year since 2001. It should be an easy process of looking at what I’ve planted in each bed for the previous three or more years, selecting the appropriate vegetable for that bed this year and entering it on the piece of tracing paper I place over the garden bed layout. Quick to describe, but not so quick to carry out.
Crop rotation is what gardening books and websites call the process I’m puzzling over as I make a planting plan. It’s the practice of planting vegetables in different beds or rows each year. Three reasons for crop rotation are to discourage insects that may have overwintered in the soil and could feast on the same plant again, to minimize build-up of diseases plants may leave in the soil over time and to improve soil fertility by alternating plants that take a lot from the soil with plants that return nutrients.
I know why I should rotate vegetables from bed to bed or row to row, but how I should carry it out is a yearly puzzle with lots of pieces. Fortunately, there are many excellent websites on crop rotation providing charts grouping all the vegetables I grow into their respective families and reminding me which families help each other and which don’t so much.
The Washington State University Snohomish County Extension Fact Sheet on Crop Rotation in Home Gardens is a helpful two-page document that defines crop rotation, describes why it is important, and explains how to do it. It also has an easy-to-use chart separating vegetables into their families and a printer-friendly version.
Seattle Tilthoffers a short description of crop rotation that includes a useful sentence alerting gardeners to the disease susceptibility of several plant families:
Certain plant families are especially susceptible to specific diseases, including the cabbages (broccoli, cabbage, kale, and many more), the nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes), and the onions (leek and garlic).
These are the families that I pay particular attention to when I’m making each year’s planting plan. I do my best to avoid planting members of the same family in beds where other members of the family have grown in the past two or three years, but one vegetable requires me to modify the rules: tomatoes. I grow tomatoes every year in a greenhouse with permanent beds. My solution to the diseases that tomatoes can leave in the soil is to swap the dirt in the greenhouse beds with dirt from beds in the garden, avoiding beds where other members of the nightshade family have grown. A couple of afternoons with the wheelbarrow accomplishes this task and has worked very well for the twenty years we’ve planted tomatoes in the greenhouse.
A very useful site covering all aspects of crop rotation is Portland Nursery’s newsletter on crop rotation. In addition to describing the benefits of rotating vegetable crops and providing a list of vegetables and their families, it offers suggestions and sample plans for crop rotation in small year-round vegetable gardens. It also includes cover crops as vegetables to include in crop rotations, useful for those of us who plant cover crops each fall. And in a side bar, it lists helpful rules for crop rotation.
Portland Nursery’s Rules for Crop Rotation:
Two growing seasons should pass before a plant family returns to soil it has already grown in.
Heavy feeders such as brassicas, cucurbits, and solanums should follow light feeders (all others).
Surface feeders such as corn should follow deep rooters like brassicas.
When removing a finished crop, clean up thoroughly in that area, and leave no debris in which pests or diseases may overwinter.
Keep records of what happens and use this information to help plan future plantings.
I especially appreciate the reminders that “heavy feeders should follow light feeders” and that “surface feeders should follow deep rooters.” And it’s always good to be reminded to tidy up and keep good records, on-going aspirations of mine.
Finally, the site Harvest to Table written by a kitchen gardener in Sonoma Valley of California is useful even for those of us gardening farther north.
He’s more specific than the other sites about plant families and their effect on soil:
Some crops are heavy feeders; heavy feeders include tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, corn, eggplant, beets, lettuce, and other leafy crops.
Some crops are light feeders: light feeders include garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and turnips.
Some crops are soil builders: soil builders include peas, beans, and cover crops such as clover.
And while he suggests that: “Simple crop rotation would plant heavy feeders in a dedicated planting bed the first year, followed by light feeders in the same bed the second year, followed by soil builders the third year,”he acknowledges that not all gardeners have the space to rotate crops so tidily and offers suggestions for working in smaller garden spaces.
Last, as an alternative to thinking about crop rotation by vegetable family, this author suggests crop rotation by harvest group, an intriguing way to think about the rotation process.
Crop rotation by harvest groups is a simple rotation strategy: rotate leafy crops, root crops, and fruiting crops. Harvest group rotation is not a precise crop rotation method (for example, peppers are light feeders and tomatoes are heavy feeders, but both are fruiting crops—but it is an easy way to group plants and to remember the rotation from one year to the next. A simple three-year crop rotation divides crops into their harvest groups:
Leafy crops—lettuce, spinach and members of the cabbage family such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
February often feels like a transition month in our marine climate, one that can pull us back to winter and then propel us toward spring. This year during the middle weeks of February, temperatures in the twenties followed by snow blanketing the kitchen garden definitely pointed to winter. And now, with the snow gone, the final week of February has brought warmer temperatures, lengthening days and the promise of spring.
As a kitchen gardener, part of me is still in winter, cooking the roots and hardy greens I harvested before the deep cold, but part of me is also in spring and summer, imagining the food that will come from seeds I’ll be starting soon.
In the days before the forecast cold, I harvested half a dozen large celery root, the last of the radicchios and chicories, a cabbage and some collards, bags of Brussels sprouts and lots of carrots, all vegetables I might not be able to get to beneath a cover of snow, mulch and tarps. I’ve been cooking from this harvest ever since.
Raw celery root makes wonderful salads , but the cold compelled me to cook it into a smooth, comforting puree. Melissa Clark’s recipe couldn’t be easier, especially if you use an immersion blender. I served it with stew for dinner and the next day thinned leftovers with the cooking liquid I’d saved to make soup for lunch. The puree looks like mashed potatoes but tastes like sweet, earthy celery.
4medium celeriac bulbs about 3 1/2 pounds, peeled and diced
4garlic cloves, peeled
2tablespoons kosher salt, more to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
In a large saucepan, combine the celery root, peeled garlic cloves and bay leaves. Pour in 12 cups water and 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, discard the bay leaves and transfer the celeriac and garlic to a food processor. Add the butter and nutmeg; process until very smooth. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Keep warm.
With the carrots and radicchio, I turned to a recipe I tried for the first time this year from Marcella Hazan’s Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986). It’s yet another of her simple Italian recipes that is made wonderfully complex by the combination of contrasting flavors, in this case sweet carrots and slightly bitter radicchio. In her notes before the recipe, Hazan says that “endive substitutes for the long radicchio di Treviso I would use in Italy,” but for the pleasantly bitter flavor, any radicchio or chicory would do. I used one of the red radicchios I’d harvested.
I also used Purple Haze carrots to match the purple of the radicchio. I’ve made this recipe several times with Purple Haze, one of my favorite carrots for its sweet spicy flavor and also with Mokum, a perfect, deeply sweet orange carrot. Both dishes were pretty and delicious.
SLOW-BROWNED CARROTS AND ENDIVE
In this combination with carrots, endive substitutes for the long radicchio di Treviso I would use in Italy. Its appeal is based on the racy contrast of flavors and consistencies: the carrot sweet, the endive slightly bitter; the former firm, the latter creamily soft. The carrot must first be cooked slowly and at length, with butter and no liquid, to evaporate all the moisture that dilutes its flavor, and to keep the carrot rounds firm. Since the endive throws off much liquid, it is also, at first, cooked separately from the carrots; otherwise it would steam them. It takes only a few minutes’ additional cooking together, after the preliminary separate procedures, to link the two vegetables’ flavors.
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
4 tablespoons butter
¾ to 1 pound Belgian endive, shredded lengthwise into strips ¼ inchwide
Choose a sauté pan or skillet that can accommodate all the carrots without crowding them. Put in the carrots and butter, and turn on the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the carrots have greatly diminished in bulk, becoming withered and colored a light nut brown. It should take about 1 to 1½ hours. Sprinkle with salt, stir, and turn off the heat.
Transfer the carrots to a platter, using a slotted spoon or spatula in order to leave as much butter as possible in the pan.
Put the endive in the pan and turn on the heat to medium low. Cook, turning it over from time to time, until the endive becomes very soft, about 30 minutes. Add salt.
Return the carrots to the pan and cook for 5 minutes longer, together with the endive.
With Brussels sprouts, I alternate between roasting oiled halves or quarters at high heat, 425 or 450, for about seven minutes or sauteing thin slices in butter or olive oil at high heat for less than five minutes, both easy and quick preparations. In a tasty variation the other night, I roasted thin slices and used them as a pizza topping along with sautéed shallot and sausage to create an earthy, spicy very seasonal pizza.
Tasty and satisfying as these winter vegetables have been, I have fresh tomatoes on my mind. Over the past several days, I’ve tidied up my seed starting room, pulled out planting trays and a bag of potting soil and today I started seeds for this year’s tomato crop. I’m growing many of my usual favorite slicers, Brandywine, Cherokee Carbon, Cherokee Purple, Dester, Golden Sunray (aka Golden Jubilee), Momotaro and a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, Green Doctors, Orange Paruche, Sunchocola and Sweet Million.
A new slicer I’m trying this year, in a nod to New Jersey friends, is Rutgers Original from Fedco. Long considered an outstanding slicing, cooking and canning tomato, Rutgers’ medium-sized 4–6 oz mostly uniform and unblemished deep oblate fruits with a rich red interior and pleasing texture have that great old-time flavor, delicious and juicy. When Rutgers University “refined” the variety in 1943, they took out some of the vininess but also some of the flavor. Our taste tests confirmed that the original indeterminate strain is better, so that’s the strain we offer of this famous New Jersey tomato.
I’ll also grow Aosta Valley from Fedco, a small paste tomato I’ve grown for the past few years, perfect for roasting. In addition, I’m going to try another paste tomato my friends Alan and Kathy recommended: Midnight Roma from Row 7 Seed Company: A deep purple-red paste tomato packed with phytonutrients. In the rows, it will stop you in your tracks. In the kitchen, this purple wonder shines for its quick cook time and memorable flavor. Check out this small company and its taste-focused mission.
As I planted seeds, the sun warmed up the small seed starting room to almost-summer temperatures, making it easy to imagine plates and bowls of luscious tomatoes when summer arrives.
It’s the season of root vegetables and it’s the season for hearty soups. Rutabaga, turnip, celery root, parsnips, carrots as well as leeks are all on offer in the winter kitchen garden. And cold days, whether sunny or cloudy, call for thick, comforting soups for lunch or dinner.
A recent recipe by David Tanis for Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup inspired me to go to the kitchen garden on a damp, dreary morning and dig parsnip and leeks. As Tanis writes, “This soup has a kind of quiet charm. Whizzed until creamy in a blender, it is a happy marriage of silky leeks and earthy parsnips — think leek and potato soup, but with more depth of character.” Yes, only two ingredients, but so good together. And the addition of a teaspoon of ground turmeric gives it a welcome, sunny color. I followed the recipe exactly and used water to let the vegetable flavors shine. This is a delicious winter soup and one that I’ll make again soon.
Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 large leeks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
6 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups water, chicken broth or vegetable broth
Extra-virgin olive oil, crème fraîche or yogurt, for garnish (optional)
Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add leeks and parsnips, and stir to coat. Add the 2 teaspoons salt and pepper to taste.
Let vegetables sizzle and cook, stirring frequently until nearly caramelized, but without browning, until softened, 10 to 15 minutes.
Add bay leaf, turmeric and garlic, and stir to coat. Increase heat to high, add water or broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes more. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.
With a blender, purée soup to a creamy consistency. (Small batches work best.) Thin with water or broth, if necessary — it should be like a thin milkshake, not thick and porridge-like.
Reheat the soup before serving. Serve plain, or give each bowl a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt, if desired.
Melissa Clark’s root vegetable soup is another to make often this season, many roots assembled in one pot for a louder, multi-flavored soup. Her recipe calls for three-and-a-half pounds of mixed root vegetables. This time, I used all the roots: rutabaga, turnip, celery root, parsnip and carrots, a generous half pound of each along with three-quarters pound of leeks. Other times I’ve used higher proportions of turnip and rutabaga because I love their flavors. Each vegetable offers its own special sweetness, earthy sweetness of rutabaga and turnip, delicate sweetness of celery root and leeks, sugary sweetness of parsnips and carrots. The result is a soup that is sweet but not too sweet. A few drops of lemon juice and a dusting of Urfa or Aleppo pepper flakes when serving add the right touches of acid and heat. Finally, though Clark recommends 8 cups of water, I used only six cups because I like a thicker soup.
Root Vegetable Soup
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion or 2 leeks (white and light green part only), chopped
2 to 3 celery stalks, diced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 rosemary or thyme branches
2 bay leaves
3 ½ pounds mixed root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, celery root, turnip, rutabaga, sweet or regular potato), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, more as needed
½ teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
Juice of 1/2 lemon, more for serving
Extra-virgin olive oil
Flaky sea salt
Crushed Aleppo, Urfa or other chile flakes, optional
Grated Parmesan or pecorino, optional
Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in onion and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, rosemary and bay leaves; cook 1 minute more. Add root vegetables, 8 cups water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove and discard rosemary branches and bay leaves. Using an immersion blender, purée soup until smooth. (Alternatively, you can purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor.) If the soup is too thick, add a little water. Season with lemon juice and more salt to taste.
To serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with a drizzle of olive oil, a few drops of lemon juice, flaky salt and crushed chile or grated cheese, if desired.
With both of these soups, I used an immersion blender to turn the soft chunks of boiled vegetables into a thick, creamy soup. I’ve always been a Cuisinart fan for pureeing anything, but my husband gave me a Breville “control grip” immersion blender and I’ve become a convert to this new kitchen tool. It’s so much easier and faster to puree the soup in the pot than it is to transfer it to the Cuisinart.
During this pandemic gardening year, many people bought vegetable seeds for the first time, grew their first gardens and discovered the pleasures and challenges of growing food. Long-time vegetable gardeners shared extra seeds and gardening tips and often grew a little extra as insurance against these uncertain times. Confined to home, we all had time to garden.
As the year winds down toward Winter Solstice and the holidays, we now have time to look back on the gardening year and ahead to what the New Year offers. How will we think about growing food in the year ahead and what seeds will we order for 2021?
Ten years ago, I asked gardening friends to tell me why they grow vegetable gardens and published their responses in the monthly column I was writing at the time. I reread this column the other day and realized that the observations have perhaps even more resonance today as we reflect on why so many of us grew food this year.
Why We Grow Vegetable Gardens
For all of us who grow vegetable gardens, the New Year is a good time to pause and consider why we choose to spend our time planting and harvesting food. There’s the food, of course, but as a sampling of Lopez gardeners reveals, there’s also a sense of self-reliance and most of all there’s the garden itself.
But first to the food: “The obvious reason to grow a vegetable garden is to have fresh and delicious organic produce, especially the types that are either highly perishable (raspberries, lettuce) or mysteriously expensive (leeks, artichokes, kale). Be careful, though—our children now have expensive tastes and turn up their noses at pesto from the market.”
Others agree: “there’s the intense flavor.” “Homegrown food just tastes better. I’ll always remember the first time I ate a sweet pepper from my garden (it was a sweet banana). It was so crisp, juicy, so flavorful. The tastes can spoil you.”
And, others add, there are the health benefits of eating homegrown food. “As more information continues to surface on chemical contamination and GMOs (“Frankenstein Foods”), I feel so blessed to be relatively free of those threats to my body.”
Freedom, security, and independence: these are more reasons people grow their own food. “I love the security of not being dependent on other sources for my food. Truthfully, I have always possessed a ‘doomsday’ mentality. Not in a morbid, fearful way but simply in a non-dependence on the ‘system’ way.”
Another considers herself “more of a subsistence gardener, growing as much of my family’s food as I can, including grains, dry beans, edible seeds, etc., and seeds to plant in future years; my intention is also to provide as many material needs as possible from the garden (e.g. fuel, fiber, medicines, etc.). Mother Earth provides abundance for free, and I celebrate how that gives me some small measure of independence from a cash economy that enslaves people and brings about terrible harm.”
“When I first became interested in gardening (as a teen),” another writes, “it was mainly for the idea of growing my own food, to be self-reliant. Having my garden produce food is a given at this point.”
And for another family, there’s “the satisfaction of eating a meal made up largely of our own produce. We sit at the table sometimes and list off all the foods that came from our own patch of dirt!”
Food we grow ourselves is important, but all the effort isn’t only for the food.
“I garden because I love spending my days in nature, amazed by plants, insects, birds, sky and I feel blessed to participate in the wondrous and the miraculous.”
“There is the eternal miracle of a tiny brown seed becoming a huge green plant. The transition from nearly bare brown spring soil to late summer, when there is barely room for a weed, astonishes every year.” “I’m still in awe that seeds will sprout, that cuttings will form roots.”
“There is also an adventurous piece to gardening—you never know what will flourish and what will succumb in a given year. Gardens are for optimists!” “Gardening teaches acceptance: there will always be some plants that just don’t thrive. OK, I lied about that—I still feel a little sad when a plant doesn’t make it.”
“I love the peace and solitude of my garden. It is the pure joy of being on the land raising my own vital foods that keeps me hunkered down with my hands in the soil.”
“The garden surrounds us with enlivening energy, provides a place to see into nature, gently humbles, and welcomes us no matter what. What a privilege!”
“I don’t think I would garden only to be growing food. There are so many excellent farms in the area that can provide. I garden because I love the process, the satisfaction of producing from seed to soup. When I eat from my garden, I have a personal history with that food—it goes beyond sustenance, politics or economy.”
I’m grateful for all of these observations. They remind me of the many reasons growing vegetables gives us pleasure.
Turning from reflections to practical tasks, an important step this time of year for all of us gardeners is getting seeds for next year’s gardens. Some seeds we’ve saved from plants in our gardens; others we order. With seed catalogs arriving daily, I’m reminded that this time of year I usually write a post about seed ordering, sharing the steps I follow and questions I ask myself. Looking back through years of December and January entries, I see that I’ve written about getting organized by alphabetizing seed packets, inventorying the contents and checking the longevity of seed varieties to help me decide what to keep and what to discard;
I’ve been harvesting beautiful chicory and radicchio this fall and enjoying lots of salads and sautés from these deliciously bitter greens. The distinction seed catalogs make between chicory and radicchio is a bit puzzling since both are in the family Cichorium Intybus, but both Adaptive Seeds and Fedco Seeds distinguish chicory from radicchio by color, with chicory mostly green and radicchio mostly burgundy. It’s a useful distinction, I guess, because the most important thing to me is to grow enough of each color to have variety in the salad bowl.
From Adaptive Seeds, I grew two chicories, Sugarloaf Borca, “tall, green romaine-like ‘loafs’” and Variegata de Castlefranco, “a big heading chicory with lots of bright colors, mostly green with red speckles.” Also from Adaptive Seeds, I grew two radicchios, Treviso Mesola, large, tall heads with “deep red leaf color and crunchy white midribs” and Variegata de Chioggia, large, round heads with “red-pink and white variegation.” And from Fedco, I grew my old favorite, Indigo, burgundy-colored “large tight heads of extraordinary rich interior color.” I start seeds in flats in mid-July and transplant out in mid-August, spacing them at least eighteen inches apart. They are ready to harvest by mid-October. When late fall and winter rains come, I put a plastic tunnel over the bed to keep the plants from rotting.
When I harvest chicory and radicchio, I take the whole head which is comprised of abundant, rather floppy outer leaves and a more compact inner head. The inner heads, in the foreground of the photo, are best for salads while the outer leaves, in the background, are wonderful sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
Though called bitter greens, these chicories and radicchios actually have a lot of sweetness. On the bitterness scale, the green chicories seem to be a bit sweeter than the burgundy radicchios, but neither is ever unpleasantly bitter, and all mix wonderfully with truly sweet fruits and vegetables like pears and winter squash, rich nuts like toasted hazelnuts and slightly salty Pecorino Romano cheese. Even sautéed wild mushrooms are a tasty addition, as I found in a lunch salad I made the other day. The crunchy, succulent texture of the inner leaves stands up well to these firmer salad additions, but the leaves alone are also delicious with only a light vinaigrette. I have been making a vinaigrette with sherry vinegar, garlic and olive oil.
When I sauté the outer greens, I usually cut each leaf in half, separating the central rib, and then slice the leaves into squares or strips. The leaves sautéquickly in hot oil and, because they are so succulent, they need no water. They make a delicious side dish or pasta sauce and are great additions to soup.
A chicory and radicchio salad would be a perfect complement to turkey, gravy and stuffing and all the other rich side dishes of Thanksgiving dinner. Sadly, our Thanksgiving will be a small gathering of just me and my husband this year instead of the dozen or more friends who usually gather with us to celebrate the day, but we will definitely make a chicory and radicchio salad to go with our small turkey and our much-reduced array of traditional side dishes. Happy small Thanksgiving 2020 everyone, and here’s to large gatherings of friends again in 2021.