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.
4 medium celeriac bulbs about 3 1/2 pounds, peeled and diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons kosher salt, more to taste
8 tablespoons butter
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.
Finally, with the cabbage and collards, I made one of our favorite winter sautés several times as a side dish, Sautéed Collards and Cabbage with Gremolata
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.