Beets: Red and Yellow

“I’ve been trying succession planting this year and it really works!” my friend Julianne said the other day.  “I’ve had a steady supply of beets all summer and I’ll have some going into the winter.”

Beets are a perfect crop for succession planting.  This year, I planted my first block of three three-foot rows April 26th, another block May 30th, another June 12th and a last, longer block July 23rd, a bit late but they are doing fine and will mature by late fall and hold into the winter.  If I’d planted three fifteen-foot rows all at once in April or May, I can’t imagine what I would have done with all the beets.

I plant both red and yellow beets.  This year, the reds were Kestral and Early Wonder Tall Top and the yellow was Touchstone Gold.  In the final planting I added Flat of Egypt, a red variety I planted last year and found was not only cold hardy but tasty.

I look forward to both the beets and their green tops.  The easiest way I’ve found to cook beets is to put unpeeled beets with two inches of stems still attached into a shallow baking dish, add an inch or so of water, cover with a lid or foil and bake in a 400 degree oven until the beets pierce easily with a knife, thirty minutes to an hour depending on the size of the beets.  To cook the beet leaves, I cut them from the stems, wash them and braise them as I would spinach in a covered skillet.  They cook quickly.

Once the beets and greens are cooked, the quickest presentation is to slice or dice the beets and arrange them on the greens.  Served plain or with olive oil and lemon or vinegar they taste sweet and earthy.  But this presentation is only the beginning.  Beets’ natural sweetness and firm texture make them a great complement to other vegetables in composed salads.  As just one example, they are a perfect addition to the roasted zucchini salad I wrote about in the last post.

There is one more delicious and unusual way to enjoy beets. Several years ago, my friend Kathy sent me a recipe for Beet Hummus she had adapted from Bon Appetit.


From “Bon Appetit” June 2006, modified by Kathy

Makes about 2 cups

1 small bunch of beets (often three)

1 – 15-1/2 oz can of garbanzo beans

Olive oil

½ c slivered almonds, toasted

3 garlic cloves

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Wash beets, and slice in half and put on a baking sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil and salt, and roast beets in a 425 F degree oven until tender.  Peel, and place in processor.  Add garbanzo beans, toasted almonds, and garlic.  Pulse ingredients a few times to start, and then turn on processor as you slowly add olive oil until it is the consistency of hummus – thick, smooth, and creamy.  Add a goodly splash of red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and blend a bit.  Taste.  Add more vinegar until it is slightly piquant and pleasing to you.  Transfer dip to bowl.  Can be made 1 day ahead.  Cover and chill.  Bring to room temperature before serving with pita chips.

I’ve modified the recipe over the years, using different beans—any white bean like white runner or cannellini works well—and different nuts—toasted hazelnuts add a lovely flavor.  Kathy and I also sometimes use yellow beets instead of red and white instead of red wine vinegar.

I use it as a sandwich spread and it’s also great as a dip for chips or for vegetables.  People taste this colorful dip, like it, try to figure out the flavors and then laugh when they learn it’s beet hummus.  One more reason to grow beets!

Zucchini: Costata Romanesca

One of the many indicators of our cooler than normal summer is that zucchini production is slower than usual. Instead of reaching club size overnight, this year’s zucchini stay on the vine for several days before becoming too big to eat.

I wouldn’t mind this zucchini slow-down except that for the past few years I’ve grown Costata Romanesca, a variety I’ve really come to like.  Before finding Costata, I’d grow a couple of zucchini plants each year, usually Raven or a similar smooth dark green zucchini, to fill the gap between the end of sugar snap peas and the start of green beans.  After the green beans began producing, I’d pretty much ignore ripening zucchini or try to give them away.

But then I read the Costata Romanesca description in the Fedco Catalog: “‘the only summer squash worth bothering with, unless you’re just thirsty.’ Deeply striped and ribbed, Costata resembles Cocozelle, with a distinctive sweet mildly nutty flavor.”  It’s true.  The flavor is great and the texture is firm enough to stand up to sautéing, grilling or roasting without dissolving.  Now instead of ignoring them I look for new recipes that feature them.

One I found last year is unusual, delicious and very easy, and I’ve returned to it more than any other this year too.  Here’s the link to the full recipe from Food and Wine, August 2010:   And here’s a summary: After cutting the zucchini into half-inch cubes, spread them on cookie sheets, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast them in a 450 oven for 18 minutes.  Then take them out of the oven, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, cumin and fennel seeds and return them to the oven to roast for two or three more minutes. The fragrance of the toasted seeds is lovely.  Serve as is as a side dish, use a pasta sauce or frittata filling, or turn into a salad with lemon juice, mint and feta cheese.

A more complicated zucchini dish that our friend Nancy has been making every summer since 2005 when she saw the recipe in the Seattle P-I is Kabak Mucveri, Turkish-inspired patties made of grated zucchini and herbs held together with flour, egg and feta cheese and lightly fried.  Here’s the link to the recipe:  They are wonderful on their own or in pita bread.  And my favorite Costata Romanesca is particularly suited to grating.

I’m sure other gardeners have their favorite zucchini.  My sister Sarah’s is Clarimore. What is yours?

Garden Photos

One of the many pleasures of a vegetable garden is wandering around and looking at what’s growing.  Early morning is a nice time to be out but really any time of day is lovely.  Here are some photos Scott took one day last week to share these garden walk experiences.

Rhubarb chard leaves and fennel fronds:

Alcosa Savoy cabbage:

Copra storage onions:

Rudbeckia blooms and bean leaves:

Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert winter squash:

Sibley winter squash, also known as Pike’s Peak:

Winter Luxury pumpkin:

And finally, nasturtiums taking over the garden shed cold frame for the summer:

Greens for Fall and Winter

If you have garden space and interest, you still have time to plant cold-hardy greens for late fall and winter.

Last week, I started seeds of escarole, curly endive, radicchio and mache, also know as corn salad.  They’ve germinated and will be ready to set out in the garden in another week or two. A good spot for them will be the storage onion bed that is empty now that I’ve just harvested the onions.  I also planted four short, three-foot rows of arugula directly in the garden in part of the bed available after I pulled the fava bean plants.

Every other week between now and late September, I’ll plant more mache in flats and as space opens up in the garden more arugula and several different varieties of mustards.  All of these cold-hardy greens will thrive in the cooler temperatures and shortening daylight of late summer and fall and, with a little protection during cold spells or heavy rains or even snow, will provide tasty salads and sautés throughout the winter.

If you want to try just two, arugula and mache are good choices.  You can plant them any time between now and the end of September.  Arugula germinates quickly and grows vigorously.  It tolerates light frosts, but if weather colder than mid-twenties threatens, covering it with a layer or two of Reemay protects it and a portable cold frame or low hoop house shields it from the weight of snow.  Grown in cooler weather, it is less pungent and more nutty and succulent than summer-grown arugula.  It’s perfect in a salad with toasted walnuts and Pecorino Romano cheese; see Deborah Madison’s version in her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (p. 145).  Another combination of these same ingredients makes a rich pesto, perfect for whole-wheat or emmer farro flour pasta.  Use the same proportions, including oil, you’d use for basil pesto.  For seed, I use Fedco’s basic Arugula.

Mache germinates more slowly, often taking a couple of weeks, and initially it grows slowly as well.  But, once it takes off it forms a dark green rosette that is remarkably cold hardy.  I’ve actually picked it in the snow.  I mulch it mainly to keep the leaves free of dirt that can splash up during winter rains.  When the rosette has several tiers of leaves, I pick the whole plant, separate the leaves, wash them and enjoy mache in winter salads by itself or mixed with roasted root vegetables or julienned raw celery root.  It has an earthy, mineral flavor with undertones of mint and, like most hardy greens, a thicker, more succulent texture than summer greens.  People who have never eaten it before are astonished by how good it is.  The variety I grow most often is Vit but I also like Verte de Cambrai and Large-Leaf Round.

Here’s a column I wrote a few years ago about planting and protecting greens for winter use:

As the cold-hardy greens grow in my garden, I’ll post photos and suggest more ways prepare them for the table.

Fava Beans

Some vegetables are mysteriously expensive and others are just mysterious.  Fava beans fall into the mysterious category.  More than any other plant in my garden they draw the “what’s that?” reaction from visitors as they point to the rangy, floppy-leafed plants with the shiny, spear-like pods protruding from the stems.

My answer usually involves pulling off a pod and opening it to reveal large, light green beans nestled in a row against the spongy white interior of the pod.  If people want to taste one, I’ll pop out a bean and peel off the light green outer skin, revealing the bright, darker green bean inside. A raw fava bean has a sharp taste with an earthy, nutty undertone, completely new for many people.  They are tasty raw with olive oil and salty cheese. “Cooked,” I add, “the sharp taste mellows but the earthy, nutty flavor remains.” At this point, I either make a convert to fava beans or we move on to something a little more familiar tasting.

While their mysterious appearance is a fun reason to grow fava beans, it’s their taste and the fact that they are my husband Scott’s favorite bean that keep me growing them each year.  But getting to that taste once you’ve harvested the pods does involve those two steps of shelling the bean from the pod and then removing the skin from the bean.  For some, even the great taste isn’t worth the fuss, but for the rest of us fava lovers it’s more then worth the time spent.

As they begin to ripen, I’ll pick a two or three pounds of pods to prepare for dinner, selecting the pods that are fullest because they contain the most mature, most flavorful beans.  Before starting to shell them, I’ll put a pot of water on to boil.  By the time I’ve finished shelling the bean from the pods, the water is boiling and I blanch the beans for one minute, just long enough to loosen the outer skin.  I drain the beans, chill them briefly in ice water, drain them again and finally slip the beans from the skins.  The photo shows the progression from pod to shiny green bean.

At this point, I usually cook them a little longer to fully soften the bean.  I put them in a skillet with a little water, less than ¼ inch, and let them simmer until the water evaporates and the beans are fully tender but still bright green.  A little olive oil, chopped garlic, chopped rosemary and some salt and they are ready to enjoy as a side dish, pureed into a dip, or mixed with other vegetables.  My friends Kevin and Mary add them to a salad of early potatoes, tarragon and feta.  Most delicious!  Favas also pair wonderfully with other vegetables that ripen about the same time: asparagus, artichokes, peas, spring onions are great complimentary flavors.

I grow a lot of fava beans—usually four ten-foot rows.  That means that at a certain point there are a lot of ripe fava beans.  I set aside a morning and pick all that are ripe, shell, blanch, chill, slip out beans and pack them in pint freezer bags.  This year, fifty pounds of favas in the pod ended up as sixteen ten-ounce packets for the freezer.  Not a huge return but still a special treat to enjoy throughout the winter as puree, in soups or mixed with roasted roots or hearty greens.

I’ll write more about growing fava beans when I plant next year’s crop in late September. The variety I plant most years is Broad Windsor if you want to get some seeds and be ready to plant this fall.

Finally, seed catalogs and cookbooks often mention that a very small percentage of people of Mediterranean, Asian or African descent may have an allergic reaction to fava beans, so pay attention to any allergic symptoms the first time you eat favas or serve them to friends.

Growing Leeks

As my friend Suzanne emailed a few years ago, “The obvious reason to grow a vegetable garden is to have fresh and delicious organic produce, especially the types that are either highly perishable or mysteriously expensive.”  She put leeks at the top of the list of mysteriously expensive vegetables.

Why are leeks expensive?  It might be their long growing season, four to five months from seeding to harvest.  That’s a long time to take up market garden real estate.  Or it might be the extra care it takes to germinate the seed and grow seedlings to the point when they
can be transplanted, six or seven weeks in my garden.  Then there’s transplanting them and keeping the soil hilled up around the growing shaft to encourage as much tender, white leek as possible.  Having someone else do this work for you helps explain the cost, but if you like lots of leeks and want to spend your time instead of your money, you can grow them yourself.

I wasn’t particularly successful at growing leeks until I adopted Steve Solomon’s method outlined in his Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.  If you don’t have his book, now in its 6th edition, and you want to grow leeks, buy it.  It will pay for itself in leeks the first year.

Following his instructions for winter leeks, in late May I work compost into a four-by-four foot area in the garden until the soil is light and mark out five rows.  Then I plant the seeds a half-inch apart in shallow furrows, cover them with half an inch of soil and spread Reemay over the bed. Varieties I’ve grown the past few years are King Sieg and Bleu de Solaize, both from Fedco Seeds and both very winter hardy. This year I’ve also planted Carantan from Pinetree Seeds, an heirloom reputed to be winter hardy as well.

I water the bed often to keep the soil moist and in a week or two the thin green threads of leeks are folding out of the ground.  I keep them covered with Reemay until the shoots have several strong leaves.  By mid-July, they are nearly the size of pencils and ready to transplant.

Transplanting is where Solomon’s instructions are most valuable, and the process is enough fun that I look forward to it each year.  I’ve modified his instructions to include a board that supports the leeks as I set them out and helps prevent dirt from falling into the leaf joints.  Also, rather than running a series of rows perpendicular to the long side of a bed as he describes, I plant three rows parallel to long side of the bed because this pattern matches my irrigation tape.

The first step is clipping off the top half of the seedlings. Solomon explains that altering the ratio of leaf area to root reduces the disturbed root system’s demand for water and allows the plants to resume growing more quickly.  After clipping the tops, I gently dig a couple dozen plants, placing them in a small bucket and keeping the roots covered with dirt or water.

As the photo shows, I dig an eight-inch deep trench, prop the board against some bamboo stakes at a slight angle in the trench, and lay the leek seedlings along the board, spacing them at two-inch intervals marked on the board and stretching the roots out along the surface of the soil.  I cover the roots with about an inch of soil and press down gently.  Then I pull the board toward me, brush another inch of soil behind it and firm the soil down.  Then—this is the magic part—I pull up the board and the leeks are upright and clean.  I firm the soil around any that look wobbly and water them thoroughly.  The four-foot board lets me transplant twenty-four leeks at a time so I try to dig only as many transplants as I need for each board section.

Every week, I fill in the trench around the growing leeks, being careful not to knock dirt into the joints between the leaves.  In six weeks or so, the trenches are full and I begin hilling up the soil around the shafts up to the first leaf joint to blanch them white. By early October, the leeks will be ready to harvest and, even better, they will hold throughout the winter.

As I transplant leeks and care for them over the summer months, I imagine favorite winter meals: Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986), one of those simple but exquisite flavor combinations Italian cooks like Marcella Hazan do so well. And Leek Tart from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables (1996): just leeks in pastry, no cream, no cheese, just a little thyme.  These and other leek-filled dishes are what keep me growing leeks each year.