Seed Ordering 2015

There’s a lot to distract the kitchen gardener trying to put together seed orders for the year ahead. For starters there’s the “New For This Year” page at the beginning of every catalog, hard to resist pausing over before turning to the catalog proper. Once into the listings, there are the names of each variety, sometimes descriptive, occasionally amusing or even puzzling, and then, in engagingly written paragraphs, the story behind each seed and its particular traits of cold-hardiness or early ripening, taste or nutritional value. All these details invite a pause to compare possibilities and wonder whether to stay with an old favorite or take a chance on an intriguing new variety.

A new distraction in recent years is the unusual colors of vegetables that traditionally came in one color, orange carrots now in red, yellow or purple, snowy white cauliflower now in green, orange or lavender. Are these simply novelties or improvements? Would they taste as good as the original? Are their flavors and colors better raw or cooked?

A final pleasant distraction for the kitchen gardener is imagining meals from vegetables that haven’t had a place in the kitchen garden for a while or have never had one. Is this the year to grow a few Savoy cabbages again, to grow broccoli raab instead of relying on spring kale buds or maybe to plant some rows of flint corn to dry and grind for polenta?

Seed catalogs 2015I’ve been spending the past week indulging in all these distractions as I page through favorite Maine catalogs, Fedco, Johnny’s and Pinetree, Oregon’s Territorial Seed Company, British Columbia’s West Coast Seeds, and some wonderful, smaller Pacific Northwest seed company catalogs in print and online, Adaptive Seeds and Wild Garden Seed from Oregon and Uprising Seeds from Bellingham, Washington. I’m getting close to finalizing orders, to finding a balance between old and new, familiar and startling, between comforting tastes and exciting new flavors.

While non-orange carrots seem a bit trendy I’m tempted to order some purple, red and yellow carrots. Many companies offer Purple Haze, a 2006 AAS winner, and Yellowstone, a truly yellow carrot. Uprising Seeds offers Dragon, a dark red to purple carrot, claiming that it’s spicy and sweet. New this year at Territorial is Red Samurai, “a great tasting true red carrot.” I’ve been roasting my favorite orange Mokum carrots sprinkled with cumin and coriander seeds following a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s inspiring new cookbook Plenty More (2014). Adding purple, red and yellow shades to this mix would be pretty on a summer or winter table.

Brussels sprouts have satisfied our taste for cabbage flavor from the winter garden and their great cold hardiness and manageable size are other points in their favor. For two people, a dozen small Brussels sprouts are gone in one meal while a whole cabbage lasts for several days at least. Still Savoy cabbage with its crinkly leaves and sweet cabbage flavor tempts me this year. When I used to grow it, I made a delicious pasta dish with buckwheat noodles, Fontina cheese and Savoy cabbage wilted in olive oil and lots of garlic. I’m going to order seeds of January King, an heirloom offered by Uprising, Adaptive and West Coast Seeds. A point in its favor is its cold hardiness.  Uprising’s catalog description calls it “practically indestructible.”

Flower buds from kale, Brussels sprouts and mustards are an early spring treat, sweet with only a slight cabbage flavor. Broccoli Raab looks similar but has a much more pungent flavor. Whenever friends serve it, I wonder why I don’t grow it. It’s so delicious. This year I plan to. Territorial carries Sorrento and Fedco carries Quarantina, meaning “40 days,” the time to maturity for this fast-growing Italian green. I’ll plant it for a fall and early winter crop.

Fedco and Adaptive Seeds offer Abenaki flint corn, described by Adaptive as “best for polenta, grits and wet batter cornbread” and “tolerant of difficult growing conditions.” I have success ripening sweet corn listed at 70 days to maturity so I’m optimistic that Abenaki, listed at 80-90 days to maturity will ripen so I can experiment with grinding our own polenta. Soft, warm polenta topped with sautéed greens or roasted vegetables is a favorite winter meal as is polenta cooled, sliced and grilled and served hot with sausages or pork chops. Of all this year’s seed order candidates, this one will be the biggest experiment.

All of these distractions are part of the pleasure of planning a kitchen garden, a perfect way to spend early January days. I’ll send in the orders in the next few days and soon boxes of seeds will arrive at the mailbox carrying the promise of many delicious meals in the garden year ahead.

Honey Boat Delicata

I harvested winter squash on the fall equinox again this year.  Light green Sibley, dark green Burgess Buttercup, Nutty Delica, and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert and bright orange Eastern Rise and Potimarron are all cured and stored in a cool, outdoor closet while their sweetness develops, but tan and green striped Honey Boat Delicata has been ready to eat for the past several weeks and I’ve been adding the rich, sweet flavor of this perfect little squash to all sorts of dishes.

Delicata squash in basket

Honey Boat is a delicata variety bred by Dr. James Baggett at Oregon State University. Adaptive Seeds, my source for seeds this year, describes it as “long like a true delicata but with a copper skin instead of the typical yellow. Certainly the sweetest winter squash we have ever grown.”  I planted only Honey Boat this year because I’d been a little disappointed with the productivity and flavor of the yellow delicatas from both Fedco and Johnny’s last year.  I’m really happy with it and will keep growing it though I’ll also keep looking for another good yellow delicata.

Like all the delicata varieties, Honey Boat has the advantages of small size and thin skin. A typical 12-16 ounce squash serves two nicely. The quickest way to prepare it is to cut a squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, lightly oil the flesh, place the halves cut-side down on a sheet pan and bake them at 400 degrees for about twenty minutes.  Friends of mine tell me that they often stand at the counter and eat these sweet treats right away, skin and all, but when baked delicata halves do make it to the table, they are a wonderful side dish.

Delicata squash sliced

The thin skin of most delicata varieties is tender enough to eat though I’ve found that the skin of Honey Boat is not quite so tender as skin of other delicatas so I’ve been peeling it.  After cutting the raw squash in half lengthwise and removing the seeds, I use a vegetable peeler to skim off the skin.  The skinless halves are then ready to cut crosswise into half moons, lengthwise into strips or with one more crosswise cut into dice.  Tossed in a little olive oil, spread in a pan, and roasted at about 375, all of these shapes soften and brown in fifteen minutes or so.

These little nuggets of rich squash flavor are a perfect served hot as a side dish.  I piled some next to mushroom risotto and grilled radicchio the other night.  Diced pieces are also wonderful added to a pasta sauce or risotto.  Roasted slices are just as tasty as those very popular sweet potato fries and half-moons are pretty on pizza, topping a base of Gorgonzola cheese.  For another cheese combination, emmer farro and roasted delicata squash pieces topped with melted Gorgonzola cheese create a satisfying blend of contrasting textures and flavors.

Radicchio & Risotto on plateDelicata squash pizza

Delicata squash, farro, gorg

Another delicious way to serve these delicata bits is to cool them to room temperature and toss them into salads.  I’ve been doing that a lot this fall, adding them to bitter greens, mache or arugula, mustard or kale or a mixture of these hardy fall and winter greens.

Delicata Squash and mache salad

In a few more weeks, the big squash will be sweet enough to eat and I’ll start cooking them.  Sibley and Burgess will be first and then the rest as we move from Thanksgiving to Christmas and on into the New Year.  For now, though, these little Honey Boats satisfy my love of winter squash.  And those that are left when I turn to the big squash will stay sweet for several months longer so we can keep enjoying them as fall gives way to winter.