April Greens 

Earth Day is usually the day I start planting seeds outside in the kitchen garden, but this year I’m waiting another week or so for temperatures to rise and soil to dry a bit more.  In the meantime, a benefit of this cold, wet spring has been succulent overwintered greens.  Kale has started to send out tasty seed heads, perfect for any recipe that calls for rabe, but the kale leaves themselves remain thick and sweet.  Red mustard leaves are good too, a hot, spicy contrast to the kale.  And chard, still a long way from going to seed, is rebounding from its winter slowdown with beautiful, sweet new leaves.  

I collected a basket of these leaves on Easter Day, planning to sauté them for a side dish to share at dinner with friends. Their colors and textures made me pause and admire them, not exactly an Easter basket, but close.  Glossy Rainbow Chard, green leaves on colorful stems; blue green, deeply lobed Red Russian kale leaves; Giant Red Mustard, more burgundy than red, veined dramatically with green.  

Through the winter months, I’ve been sautéing these greens, singly or in combination, always in lots of olive oil and garlic, sometimes with red pepper flakes, and, for special occasions, adding yellow raisins and chopped toasted hazelnuts.  The technique that works best for me is one I learned from Melissa Clark’s recipe for Garlicky Swiss Chard.

She writes: 

There’s really no secret to making excellent sautéed greens: just good olive oil, salt, loads of garlic and a jolt of red pepper flakes. This method works with pretty much any green too — broccoli, broccoli rabe, kale, spinach, collards…

2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes

Salt

  1. Stack chard leaves on top of one another (you can make several piles) and slice them into 1/4-inch strips.
  2. Heat oil in a very large skillet (or use a soup pot). Add garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté for 30 seconds, until garlic is fragrant. Stir in the chard, coating it in oil. Cover pan and let cook for about 2 minutes, until chard is wilted. Uncover, stir and cook for 2 minutes longer. Season with salt.

When I cook several types of greens, I begin with the one that takes the most time to soften, in this case chard, adding it to the oil and garlic, then following with the kale and finally the mustard.  If the stems aren’t too weathered, I slice them thinly too, and put them in the pan and let them cook for about two minutes before starting to add the leaves.  

For the Easter dinner, I sliced and added the chard stems, red, orange and yellow, like a handful of jellybeans.  After I’d added all the greens, I added about a half cup of yellow raisins.  They swell in the heat and moisture of the sautéing greens and added a sweet, almost apricot, note to the greens.  Just before serving, I scattered the chopped, toasted hazelnuts for a rich, crunchy contrast to the soft, earthy greens.  It’s a beautiful and delicious dish, part looking back to winter but also pointing to spring.  By the time these over wintered leaves have gone by, there will be new stands of kale, chard and mustard growing in the spring kitchen garden.  

Winter Vegetable Pastas with Walnuts

Two recipe titles that caught my eye recently were Caramelized Cabbage and Walnut Pasta and Creamy Butternut Squash Pasta with Sage and Walnuts.  Two favorite winter vegetable plus walnuts?  Yes!  Some January King cabbages were still thriving in the winter kitchen garden and a few of the many butternut squash I grew last summer were still left in the storage vegetable closet, so I tried both recipes. Each is even better than it sounds.

Caramelized Cabbage and Walnut Pasta

Serves 4

The introduction to this recipe says that the cabbage “becomes jammy and sweet when cooked with aromatic leeks and garlic for 15 minutes…Cumin seeds add just the right amount of earthiness along with a subtle citrus tone…The walnuts balance out the sweetness of the cabbage and leeks and introduce a slight bitterness and crunch.” All true.  I made a half batch for the two of us.  There could have been some great leftovers even from this half batch if we hadn’t simply eaten it all because it tasted so good.

INGREDIENTS

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 leeks, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced into rings (yellow onion would work too)
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 pounds finely sliced green cabbage
  •  Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
  • 1 pound spaghetti or other long pasta
  • 4 ounces pecorino cheese, grated, plus more for serving
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
  • 1 to 1½ cups toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
  •  Handful of chopped chives (optional)

PREPARATION

  1. Heat a large Dutch oven or pot over medium. Add the olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add cumin seeds and bloom for 15 seconds, then add the leeks, garlic, cabbage and 2 teaspoons salt, and stir for 3 to 4 minutes until wilted. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes without stirring. Check every few minutes to make sure the bottom is not burning. If needed, give it a stir.
  1. After 10 minutes, remove the lid from the cabbage and stir. Cover and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, until it is super sweet and tender. Taste and season with kosher salt.
  1. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is ready, do not drain, but use tongs to drag the pasta out of its cooking water and straight into the pot with the cabbage. Add about 1 cup of pasta cooking water, along with the pecorino and the black pepper. Toss well to combine.
  2. Add lemon juice. Taste, adjust seasonings with more salt, pepper or lemon if needed. To serve, scatter with walnuts and finish with more pecorino and chopped chives if using.

Creamy Butternut Squash Pasta with Sage and Walnuts

Serves 4

The introductory summary of this recipe says: “butternut squash gets roasted, puréed, then tossed with Parmesan to make this nutty, creamy pasta sauce. Each serving is topped with crispy fried sage leaves, a hint of lemon zest, and toasted walnuts, adding a crunchy contrast to the squash.”

The sauce really is creamy and the crispy sage, lemon zest and toasty walnuts are perfect contrasts.  I made a full batch and saved half to serve as a side dish the next day.  The leftover half would also have been delicious thinned out with broth and served as a soup.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  •  Kosher salt and black pepper
  • ¾ packed cup fresh sage leaves
  • ¾ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 lemon, zested (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock, plus more as needed
  • 1 pound short pasta, such as gemelli, casarecce or penne
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

PREPARATION

  1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the squash and garlic on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Toss well and roast until the squash is very tender, 30 to 35 minutes, tossing twice throughout. While the squash roasts, bring a large pot of water to boil.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large (12-inch) skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium. When the oil is hot, add the sage and cook, tossing often, until the leaves begin to crisp, about 1 minute. Add the walnuts and a generous sprinkle of salt and cook, tossing often, until the sage leaves are lightly browned and crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sage and nuts to a paper towel-lined plate and wipe out the skillet. Let the mixture drain for 1 minute, then add it to a small bowl with the lemon zest; toss lightly and set aside.
  3. Working in batches if necessary, transfer the roasted squash and garlic to a blender or food processor, along with 1 cup stock, and blend until smooth and thick. The consistency should be somewhere between a purée and a thick soup. Add more stock as needed, if it seems too thick.
  4. Transfer the puréed squash to the reserved skillet and keep warm over very low heat. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water, along with 1 tablespoon salt, and cook until al dente. Just before draining, ladle 1/2 cup pasta water into a measuring cup and set aside.
  5. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Toss to coat the pasta evenly, then, off the heat, add the 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss until the cheese is incorporated. Add a few tablespoons of the reserved pasta water if the sauce seems too thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. Divide the pasta among shallow bowls and sprinkle the sage, walnut and lemon zest mixture on top, and serve with extra Parmesan on the side.

I have many other favorite ways to prepare cabbage and winter squash.  There’s cabbage and collards, cabbage slaw with farro, cabbage and mushroom galette and cabbage roasted with tarragon and pecorino.  For squash, there’s roasted butternut squash with cilantro pesto and squash and poblano tart. I plan to keep the new pasta recipes at the top of this list as we work our way through the last of the winter cabbage and squash.

Kitchen Garden Year 2022

Looking back on the 2021 kitchen garden year, what stands out are unusual extremes in the weather.  A cool, dry spring was followed by a record hot dry summer, followed by a very wet fall and capped off by record cold and snow at the end of the year. I remember bemoaning the lack of warmth in late spring as summer crops weren’t thriving and then worrying about summer crops suffering from extreme heat as I acknowledged that I need to be careful what I wish for. Then there was the worry that fall rains, while good for hydrating summer beds for cover crop planting, were drowning fall and winter vegetables.  And finally, there was the winter kitchen gardener’s anxiety over extreme cold killing rather than sweetening winter roots and greens.  Kitchen gardeners always notice the weather, but this past year provided more than the usual opportunities to worry about it.

As 2021 ended in the ten-degree days and fierce winds of late December, I turned for comfort to 2022 and the garden year ahead.  As I do every year, I began with an inventory of my vegetable seeds and then opened seed catalogs to find refills of favorites and read about enticing new varieties.  As I considered what to plant for each season, the pleasure of remembering familiar vegetables and imagining new varieties carried me away from cold winter outside and into plans for spring, summer and fall.  

One of my plans for the spring kitchen garden this year is to plant early and to plant more so we’ll have good crops of spring roots and greens for a much-anticipated family visit in June.  I usually plant seeds outdoors around Earth Day, the third week in April, but this year, I may start some carrots and spring turnips a few weeks earlier in April, just to be sure to have lots to harvest in mid-June.  I’ll also start some lettuce indoors to set out in early May. I’ll plant my usual lettuce mixes but also some romaine, Mayan Jaguar and Olga, for big, crispy salads.  Finally, I’ve ordered seeds of Asian greens like Tatsoi, Chinese cabbage and Pac Choi for these adventurous eaters. 

One plan for the summer garden is to plant enough bee-attracting flowers to pollinate summer and winter squash, cucumbers and other vegetables.  In addition to ordering borage seeds to go with the calendulas that volunteer each year, I studied the sunflower offerings in various catalogs to be sure I ordered open-pollinated varieties.  As I learned from this site “be sure to plant open-pollinated varieties that produce pollen. Bees need pollen for protein and to feed their larvae. There are a lot of varieties of sunflowers that lack pollen, popular among people who don’t want to clean up the pollen mess from cut flowers and for the allergy-prone.” I’ve ordered a Sunflower Mix from Pinetree  “A phenomenal mix of open pollinated sunflowers. Tall and short as well as single and double varieties. Everything to delight you and all of your garden pollinators.” 

Another plan for the summer garden is to plant vegetables that are most fun to share with others at picnics and outdoor dinners.  Corn and tomatoes top the list.  Last summer’s heat did result in amazing corn, for us and for friends. Corn on the cob, fresh corn salad with shishito peppers are always hits.  Café is the corn variety I’ve planted the past few years and Takara Shishito produces loads of flavorful small peppers.  Bowls of cherry tomatoes, red Sweet Million, Orange Paruche, purple Sunchocola and green of the delicious Green Doctors as well as plates of sliced tomatoes, red Dester and Momotaro, dark red Cherokee Purple, yellow Golden Jubliee all signal summer at the table.  So do bowls of green and yellow pole beans and plates of roasted purple eggplant.  Green Fortex and Nor’easter, yellow Golden Gate and Monte Gusto produce all summer as does beautiful purple Galine eggplant.  Peppers complete the summer palate with red Carmen and Stocky Red Roaster, orange Etudia and yellow Flavorburst, delicious fresh or roasted.   Summer vegetables are for sharing, and I’m hoping that we’ll have less isolation and more large gatherings in summer 2022.

For the fall and winter garden, I once again plan to have a good supply of seeds of hardy roots, brassicas and greens.  These vegetables thrive in our marine winters, but they do need protection in cold spells like the one we just had.   Before the deep cold of late December and early January hit, I covered the beds containing winter vegetables with extra hay, then tarps.  Fortunately, the five inches of snow that fell provided another layer of insulation against the ten-degree nights.  And knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get to these crops for a while, I harvested two weeks-worth of celery root, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, leeks, Brussels sprouts, carrots, radicchio and chicory before layering on protective coverings.  As I studied seed catalogs for the year ahead, I was glad to have a fridge full of winter food even though I was anxious about what would survive the cold.  The fridge is nearly empty now, and with the January thaw that has set in, I’m relieved to see that all the remaining winter vegetables survived the cold and will see us through the rest of the winter.

There will no doubt be more weather to worry about in 2022, but I have seeds and plans to see me through the next gardening year.  And lots of meals ahead with family and friends. 

Happy Halloween

Years ago, when friends of mine had young children, they’d describe Halloween-themed dinners they’d cook for their kids.  There would be desserts of decorated cakes and cookies of course, but the main meal was just as creative.  Most often it was pumpkin-based, soup garnished with candy-like corn kernels and black beans or pumpkins stuffed with colorful vegetables and grains and baked.  Though I don’t have little kids around to cook for, I’m inspired to embrace the season and make some Halloween dinners for grown-ups. 

While there were no pumpkins in my kitchen garden, there were butternut and blue kuri winter squash, both excellent substitutes.  

Experimenting with the butternut squash first, I halved it, removed the seeds and baked it, cut side down, on a sheet pan at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes.  

After it cooled, I removed most of the squash from the center of each half, leaving a half inch border of squash to add another flavor the filling.  I saved this extra squash for a future meal.  

While the squash was baking, I made a filling, boiling black beans I’d soaked earlier in the day, cooking some red quinoa, sauteing onion and garlic.  Then I added corn and poblano peppers from the freezer to the onion and finally added the black beans and quinoa and a little grated jack cheese. The result was a colorful and tasty filling for the squash.  After piling it into the squash shells, I baked it at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes to warm it through.  To garnish it, I made some cilantro pesto.  Next time I’d squeeze on some lime to match the sweetness of this pretty meal.

I stuffed the blue kuri squash as well, filling it with a mixture of cooked rice and sauteed sausage, onions and poblano peppers and jack cheese.  This filling mixture would have made a fine any-season casserole on its own but slicing the blue kuri squash in half around the middle, baking it as I did the butternut squash and removing enough of the flesh to make two bowls for stuffing, created a Halloween-worthy presentation.  

I like the way both of these stuffed squashes remind me of my friends’ Halloween meals, but these dishes would work for any of the other holidays coming up.  

Finally, I turned to the most playful of these Halloween meals: little pumpkin-shaped hand pies.  The recipe that inspired me calls them jack-o-lantern empanadas.  Either name works.  The key appeal for my grown-up trick-or-treater is the pastry. The delicious filling is also a great way to use leftover winter squash and black beans.  And they really are pretty cute. I may even make them again for Halloween day, or make them another time, minus the scary faces.  

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped sweet red pepper (I used roasted and frozen poblano peppers)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin (I used roasted and pureed butternut squash)
  • 1/2 cup black beans, rinsed and drained (I used dry black beans from the garden, soaked and boiled)
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder (the poblano peppers provided enough spice so I omitted chili powder) 
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 packages (14.1 ounces each) refrigerated pie crust (I made my usual pie dough)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon water

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add corn, onion and pepper; cook and stir 2-3 minutes or until tender. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Stir in pumpkin, black beans and seasonings; heat through. Cool slightly.
  1. On a lightly floured surface, unroll pie crust. Cut pumpkins with a 3-in. floured pumpkin-shaped or round cookie cutter, rerolling crust as necessary. Place half of the pumpkin cutouts 2 in. apart on parchment-lined baking sheets; top each with about 1 tablespoon pumpkin mixture. Using a knife, cut jack-o’-lantern faces or slits out of the remaining cutouts. Place over the top of the pumpkin mixture; press edges with a fork to seal.  (I made some 4-inch as well as some 3-inch cutouts.)
  1. In a small bowl, whisk egg and water; brush over empanadas. Bake until golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Remove from pan to wire racks.

Winter Squash Question

I usually harvest winter squash on or near the Fall Equinox, but this year I pulled squash and vines about a week early, partly because the crop was ready but more because there was real rain in the forecast. And as predicted, the day after the squash harvest, two inches of rain fell, glorious soaking rain that softened the soil of the squash bed and of all the other beds I’d cleared of summer vegetables and mulch in anticipation of rain.  After such a dry summer, the start of the rainy season was most welcome.

The joy of the rain made up for a smaller-than-usual squash harvest.  The yield in the main squash bed was half of what we usually get.  Among the drying vines, I found only two or three of old favorites Blue Kuri and Honeyboat and Zeppelin Delicatas, and barely more of new entries, Little Gem Red Kuri, Gill’s Golden Pippin, Sonca Butternut. 

 The one surprising exception was a large yield of Hunter Butternut squash from four plants that I’d set out at the last minute in another bed next to a Costata Romanesca Zucchini.

I’m not often successful growing butternut squash, but these plants produced sixteen lovely large squash.  Why did they do so well and the others so poorly? 

A number of factors affect squash production.  Days that are too cold and days that are too hot both affect squash plants’ fruit set.  We definitely had both extremes this summer. Lack of water is also a factor, but both beds received the same amount of irrigation. I never got around to mulching the main squash bed, but I did mulch the one zucchini and the four butternut plants, so perhaps mulch made a difference in moisture. More than moisture, though, there’s pollination.  In many of the trouble-shooting sources I turned to, pollination turned up as a factor affecting squash production.  An excellent entry on Squash Pollination by Mark MacDonald in West Coast Seeds Garden Wisdom Blog  helped me look more closely at the different conditions between my main squash bed and the smaller zucchini and butternut planting. 

Through text and photographs, MacDonald describes how squash pollination works and, in particular, the importance of bees to this process.  In his suggested solutions to poor squash pollination, he concludes: “This whole conversation illustrates the importance of bees in our landscape. It is their diligent work that spreads all of the pollen back and forth. Without bees, many crops would simply fail to produce. The first strategy for the squash grower is to encourage more bees.”

Looking at the two squash locations, I saw right away that the zucchini and butternut bed was next to a several sprawling calendula plants that had started blooming in early spring and bloomed heavily all summer. Next to the main squash bed were several cosmos plants, but they didn’t start blooming until later in the summer, and there were no other flowers nearby.  Maybe the explanation for my squash yield difference was simply poor pollination in the main squash bed.

I’ll hold on to that possibility for next year and plant flowers along with squash to attract bees. Flowers MacDonald suggests are alyssum, calendula, centaurea, crimson clover, nemophila, phacelia, sunflowers and white Dutch clover.  In a lovely description of bee behavior, he writes: “Sunflowers planted in the squash bed act like a beacon because they are visible from hundreds of meters away. Other plants bloom in such profusion that no pollinator would pass without a closer look.”  At next year’s Autumn Equinox squash harvest, I’ll find out if flowers made the difference.  In the meantime, we’ll enjoy meals from this year’s harvest.

Winter and Spring in February

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.

Celery Root Puree

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

Marcella Hazan

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

Salt

¾ to 1 pound Belgian endive, shredded lengthwise into strips ¼ inchwide

  1. 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.
  2. Transfer the carrots to a platter, using a slotted spoon or spatula in order to leave as much butter as possible in the pan.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  

Winter Kitchen Garden Soups

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
  •  Black pepper
  • 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)
  1. 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.
  2. Let vegetables sizzle and cook, stirring frequently until nearly caramelized, but without browning, until softened, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.  

There are many more winter soups to get us through the next months, some I’ve made before, like Melissa Clark’s Golden Leek and Potato soup and some I haven’t but that intrigue me, like David Tanis’s Bright Green Leek soup. Though there is the welcome lengthening of days, the temperatures still say soup, so there’s time to make more.

Chicories and Radicchios

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.

Update: Cover Crops

Now that summer’s warmth-loving plants have gone to the compost bin, the kitchen garden has bare dirt exposed in empty beds.  With a few exceptions, like arugula and mache (also known as corn salad), it’s too late to plant winter crops like kale and chard, leeks and hardy roots.  So, what can go into this bare soil?  Cover crops! They cover the soil, protecting it from hard winter rains and slowly building up foliage and roots that will add organic matter and nutrients to the soil when they are turned in the spring. 

Several years ago, I wrote about planting cover crops, explaining that this last step in the garden year was probably the most important thing I do for the kitchen garden.  Part of this process is selecting the right cover crop.  Over the years, I’ve used small-seeded fava beans, Austrian field pea, annual rye, and, as an experiment in a few beds, mache, also known as corn salad.  I’ve abandoned fava beans and field pea because they were attracting pea weevil, but I thought I was making a good choice with annual rye. According to garden authority Linda Gilkeson in a recent interview, I was not.

In a February 2020 blog post from the New Society Publishers, Gilkeson says: “don’t grow fall rye as a cover crop to turn under in the spring: that’s just a magnet for click beetles.”  Click beetles are the parents of wire worms, the pest that has increasingly plagued gardeners growing lettuce as well as larger-seeded plants like corn.  Yikes!  Was I attracting wire worms by using annual rye as a cover crop? No evidence yet that I have, and I hope it’s the same for anyone else who has used annual rye as a cover crop, but I’m not going to use it this year.

Instead, I’ve decided to sow all my open beds with mache. Years ago, a young Lopez gardener suggested I try it as a cover crop, and she gave me some seeds she’d harvested from her crop.  Since then, I’ve always sowed at least two beds in mache; this year I’ll sow nine.  

There are several things I like about mache as a cover crop.  It germinates reliably in the first weeks of October when I am ready to plant cover crops, and its foliage and mass of fine roots break down quickly in the spring. It’s very winter hardy, surviving temperatures in the single digits and even thriving in snow. And as a bonus, between winter and spring, the leaves make delicious salads.  I’ve always grown a bed of mache for winter Now with mache as a cover crop, I have enough for more salads than I could ever eat.

I’ve ordered seeds of mache from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt Vernon, WA. One 10 /M packet holds about 24 grams of seeds, enough to seed two 5-by-18 foot beds.  My friend Carol has ordered cover crop seeds from True Leaf Market. I may order from them next year.  

The seeds are tiny and light but are quite easy to broadcast thinly over a bed. 

I rake them in lightly, tamp the soil down with the back of the rake, and then cover the bed with a row cover like Reemay to protect germinating plants from birds. Once the plants are up, I remove the row cover.  If you’ve never sowed a cover crop, the video on this English site is a good guide.  I was interested to see that this site also recommends mache or corn salad as a cover crop.

If you’re looking for one last chance to be out in the garden before the garden year comes to the end, planting cover crops is a great way to spend a sunny fall afternoon.

Nearing the Autumn Equinox

In the mid-September kitchen garden, corn, beans, winter squash and potatoes are at the end of their growing cycles, their dry and yellowed stalks and vines destined for the compost pile. In the greenhouses, the last of the ripening tomatoes hang near the top of wilting vines and remaining eggplants and peppers still glow purple, red, orange and yellow though their leaves are tattered. These warmth-loving plants promise a few more meals before cold weather cuts off their production.  

In contrast to these drying, end-of-summer plants, the foliage of fall and winter crops is lush and green.  In early morning walks in the kitchen garden, my husband Scott has captured the beauty of leeks, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, chard and kale.  While it’s sad to come to the end of the summer kitchen garden, the freshness of these fall and winter plants and the anticipation of meals they’ll provide temper the change from one season to the next.