Sugarloaf Chicory

In addition to my favorite varieties of radicchio and escarole I grew another chicory this year, a sugarloaf type from Fedco called Pan di Zucchero. It’s wonderful and definitely my new favorite chicory. Growth habit, hardiness and flavor are all reasons I wish I’d grown a larger crop of this delicious bitter green. Next year I will and I’ll also try two other sugarloaf varieties, Virtus, offered by Johnny’s and Borca offered by Adaptive Seeds.

Sugarloaf on counter

As the Fedco description suggests, sugarloaf chicory looks like “romaine lettuce crossed with napa cabbage.” Unlike escaroles and curly endives, which grow outward in great sprawling rosettes, sugarloaf chicories grow upright to about a foot tall, their leaves wrapping tightly around each other to form dense loaves. Like the leaves of escaroles and chicories, the leaves of sugarloaf chicories are green at the edges and creamy yellow near the center.

One of the reasons I wanted to try this vertical chicory is that I’ve really liked the elongated, upright Treviso radicchios like Fiero. In a winter garden, this upright, tightly wrapped habit makes the individual plants easier to mulch and less likely to rot. Delicious as they are, the loose, open leaves of escarole and curly endive sit right on top of mulch and over time begin to rot even when I tie them up.

Sugarloaf growing

The upright habit and dense inner leaves of Treviso and Sugarloaf also help them withstand temperatures in the teens and low twenties. After our two recent blasts of deep cold, I was very happy to find that even though the outermost leaves were a bit battered both the Treviso and the Sugarloaf inner leaves were as delicious as they were before the freeze. I’ve read about a gardener in Vermont who covers her Sugarloaf chicory up the sides and almost over the top with a mulch of dry leaves. I think I will try that the next time really cold weather is in our forecast. Though I cover these greens in a low plastic tunnel to protect them from rain, I want to do anything else I can to keep this tasty chicory available for the kitchen.

Pan di Zucchero means sugar loaf in Italian and sugarloaf is the name that English and American gardeners use for this chicory. In France gardeners call it pain de sucre. What these names are telling us is that of all the bitter greens, sugarloaf has a little more sweetness to go with its bitterness. It’s a slightly milder bitterness than its cousins offer, and like its cousins it’s delicious raw, braised or grilled.

Sugarloaf salad in bowl

Sugarloaf pear salad

I’ve been using it raw in salads, alone or with pears, nuts and Gorgonzola cheese, with sherry or red wine vinaigrette. For a Christmas-themed salad, its light green leaves are lovely with the wine red leaves of radicchio.

Sugarloaf sauteTo cook it, I’ve braised the outer leaves in olive oil and garlic and served them as a side dish or as part of a pasta sauce.

Sugarloaf prepped for grillSugarloaf grilled on plateWe’ve also sliced the heads in half, brushed them generously with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and ground black pepper and grilled them. Braising and grilling bring out the sweetness even more and grilling adds a smoked flavor that reminds me once again that I need to grow a lot more sugarloaf chicory next year.

Cold in the Kitchen Garden

Cold weather in the kitchen garden always makes me anxious. Cold temperatures in early spring mean just planted seeds may rot or just germinated crops could die; summers that stay cold mean heat-loving plants will produce late if at all; and while fall and winter cold is welcome when it sweetens roots and hardy greens, really deep cold is not and the distance between welcome and not welcome is small. Low thirties to mid twenties are welcome; low twenties aren’t so welcome; teens are most unwelcome and single digits are the worst.

Cold garden 2014

I was traveling during the second week of November when the first cold spell of the season settled on the winter kitchen garden. From San Diego I watched the Lopez Island weather forecasts, trying to stay optimistic as each night’s temperatures dropped to the mid-twenties and lower. Before we left, I’d used more old hay to mulch the beds of winter roots, celeriac, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, carrots and beets, closed the low plastic tunnels protecting the mulched rows of mustard, arugula, radicchio, added a bit more mulch to the hardier kale, chard and mache and decided the mulch already on those really hardy leeks and Brussels sprouts would do. Thirteen hundred miles to the south, I could do nothing but tell myself that that these preparations would protect the plants from damage and that they’d emerge sweeter from the cold.

When I got home I found that the cold had been the unwelcome kind. Most plants would survive but it wasn’t pretty. The lush, green outer leaves of chard and kale I’d left a week before were black and rotting. So were the leaves of arugula and red mustard. Even the tops of the winter roots, the stalks of Brussels sprouts and the leaves of the leeks looked limp and battered. The only thing for it was to take knives and clippers to the greens, remove the rotting leaves and take heart from the healthy inner leaves that would continue to grow as the temperature warmed. And then I picked some Brussels sprouts, dug some roots, cut away bits of damage, roasted them and enjoyed their sweetness.

Cold Brussels sproutsCold Leeks closeupAnd as November turns to December the cold is back. This time I’m home and I’ve spread more mulch on roots and covered it with tarps. I even covered the clumps of kale and chard with Reemay and tarps, hoping to protect the new growth. Each evening and morning I check the temperature. It’s always colder than the forecast predicts, my kitchen garden lying in a different microclimate than the weather station’s spot. Experience tells me that the plants will come through the cold and that when temperatures rise I can remove the tarps and find healthy plants. But I still worry. The only consolation is the sunshine that accompanies this kind of cold. It lifts my spirits made anxious by the cold and makes it easier to be optimistic about the winter kitchen garden gamble.

cold garden in sun

Roasted Pears

This year was a great pear year. Our Orcas, Highland, Conference and Comice pear trees all produced many pounds of pears, 526 pounds to be exact. We’ve already dried boxes of fast-ripening Orcas pears, filling the food dehydrator every day for over two weeks and packing gallon jars with these chewy pear treats. The Highland, Conference and Comice, all of which require a chilling period before ripening, are stored in a generous friend’s large fridge, giving us the luxury of a slower pace and longer pear season as we bring out and ripen one box at a time.

While I was waiting for the Highlands to reach perfect ripeness, I came across a recipe for roasted pear and rainbow chard salad. I wasn’t so interested in eating raw chard from my winter kitchen garden, but I was really intrigued by the idea of roasting pears. The recipe author emphasized that pears that aren’t quite perfectly ripe become “sweetly delicious” when roasted. She’s right. It’s a magical transformation and the resulting pears are perfect for all sorts of uses. And even though this method is recommended for not-quite-ripe pears, ripe pears gain wonderful flavors from roasting too.

Pears roasted prep

To roast pears, cut them in half lengthwise and cut out the core. Next, remove a bit of skin and pear from the outsides of the pear halves to create a flat surface. Finally, cut each half in half again so that you have four half-to-three-quarter-inch slices of pear. Arrange on a sheet pan and brush with either olive oil or melted butter. I’ve found that the olive oil adds a nice flavor for salads while the butter is tastier for desserts or breakfast. Roast at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning them after ten minutes so both sides caramelize and brown. You can also roast the pear halves instead but I find the thinner slices cook more evenly and have more tasty caramelized surfaces.

Pears roasted in pan

Instead of chard as a salad green for roasted pears, I turned to burgundy colored Fiero radicchio and light green Pan di Zucchero, both upright growing bitter greens, but any pungent green such as arugula or red mustard is a great match for sweetly caramelized pears. My friend Diane had the same idea, writing: “Today’s salad…was radicchio and goat cheese.  The recipe called for raisins soaked in balsamic, but I thought hey, I have those pears which are great roasted…so I added some balsamic to the roasting process and oh my. Wonderful.”

Pears roasted salad

Pears and pork are also a perfect pairing. The other night I served pork sausage, roasted pears and cornbread to accompany poblano chile soup. Another night, roasted pears were a perfect side for a pasta sauce of sautéed chard, onion and bacon. And then there was roasted pear and bacon pizza for an informal dinner and for a more formal meal pork chops with darkly roasted pears on the side next to sautéed red onions, wild mushrooms and chicory.

Pears roasted bacon pizza

Pears roasted w: pork chop

Breakfast and dessert turn out to be more great venues for roasted pears. Fresh pears are great with yogurt and granola but roasted pears add their pleasant caramel softness to breakfast. And for dessert, roasted pear slices on their own are lovely; added to cream, ice cream or custard they would be lovely too.

Pears roasted granola

There are half a dozen more boxes of pears in my friend’s fridge so many opportunities to find more uses for roasted pears. I’m already imagining something new for the Thanksgiving table. I just saw a recipe for roasted pears with roasted Brussels sprouts. I’ll try it between now and T-day.

A Kitchen Garden in Canyon Country

We took a road trip to the canyon country of southeast Utah for several weeks in October, making our way from one park to the next, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase/Escalante, Bryce and Zion, hiking up close to the hoodoos and fins, slot canyons and whimsical spires of this fascinating red rock country. Amid all the wonders of this dry high desert, yet another wonder emerged in a gentle valley next to walls of gray Navajo slick rock, a thriving kitchen garden producing vegetables enough to supply a restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill.

HBG from our farmSince 2000 Blake Spaulding and Jennifer Castle, the owners and chefs of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah have been creating breakfasts, lunches and dinners from this garden and from local beef, lamb and pork, eggs, cheeses and fruit, all with the help and support of the Boulder community. Several friends had praised the restaurant, one writing: “I think Debby would be interested in their menu and philosophy.” When we arrived for dinner mid-way through our travels, a sweet, handwritten “From our Farm” sign at the restaurant entrance listed vegetables that would be on the menu. In the dining room pumpkins, braids of garlic and all sizes, shapes and colors of winter squash decorated the ceiling beams and room divider, celebrations of the fall harvest. After a week and a half of desert camping meals that had nearly exhausted our supply of vegetables from home, we realized we’d reached an oasis.

HBG interiorMy Dinner Jenchilada, an enchilada named for Jen Castle, was farm pumpkin “rolled in organic corn tortillas, baked in a spicy sweet corn habanero cream sauce” surrounded by roasted chunks of delicata squash and sweet red carrots, curls of zucchini & pueblo brown rice pilaf. Scott’s Spicy Green Chile Juniper Lamb Posole, “shredded Boulder-raised lamb shoulder” came with a brown sugar corn muffin to crumble into the flavorful broth. Revived by this wonderful food, we knew we needed to return the next morning for breakfast.

Scott ordered the Breakfast Jenchilada, a morning version of the amazing dinner entrée: “corn tortillas, torn and toasted, smothered in an authentic red chile sauce with jack cheese served with a sage potato pancake brown rice & beans, and a just-made flour tortilla.” Still craving vegetables, I ordered the Blaker Standard, “two poached farm eggs on brown rice with sautéed greens and our poblano crema” and thoroughly savored the sautéed chard that surrounded the eggs and rice.

By this point, the only thing that could increase my happiness would be seeing the garden that produced this food. “Of course,” our waiter said when we asked if it would be possible to visit the garden. “We love people to visit.” He gave us a map.

HBG gardenFramed by the gray Navajo slick rock formation known as the Sugar Loaf, rows of carrots, beets and lettuce stretched out lush and green. A farm intern watering fruit trees near an irrigation pond offered to show us around. The spicy fragrance of peppers filled the air and our guide pointed to another woman using a torch to burn back pepper plants, explaining that the charred leaves would enrich the sandy soil.  Behind her, corn stalks stood dry and brown, setting off a row of blue/green kale.

HBG pepper torchingIn a hoop house, tiny sprouts of mustards and other hardy greens were just emerging against the sandy brown soil.  Nearby, multicolored corncobs dried on a rack. Brown speckled white beans were also drying in the sun and our guide said that the plan was to grow even more beans for the restaurant in the year ahead.

HBG hoop house

HBG corn cobsHBG beans dryingHere was the farm half of the farm-to-table restaurant, but this farm was blooming in the desert, as odd and puzzling as the fantastic formations of rock and color that define this area and just as magical.

We left Boulder and Hell’s Backbone Grill with a copy of Spaulding and Castle’s With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant (2004). It’s a cookbook in the sense that it has recipes but even more it’s the story of the forces, natural and spiritual, that have shaped Hell’s Backbone Grill. We’d been relying on David B. Williams’ field guide A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country (2013) to help us understand the geology and ecology of this region, reading a few pages each night to learn names to describe the formations we were seeing and to understand the natural forces that created them. With a Measure of Grace gave us the same understanding of place, showing through photos and words that the garden and gardeners are one part of a wide community of people all working together to make Hell’s Backbone Grill the magical place it is, every bit as magical as the landscape that surrounds it.

HBG book cover

End-of-Summer Harvest

Garden end of summerWhile we have the pleasure of harvesting fresh vegetables year round from our four-season kitchen garden, there is also the pleasure of an extra big harvest of storage vegetables in the weeks leading up to the fall equinox. Toward the end of August, I pulled large globes of Copra and Redwing onions and smaller bulbs of Ambition shallots and dug hills of potatoes, round Yellow Finns, oblong Carolas, slender Banana and Rose Finn Apple fingerlings. All are stored away now in cool, dark places, potatoes in the garden shed closet and onions in the shop. I’ve blanched and frozen many pints of shell beans and corn, roasted, peeled and frozen pounds of peppers and filled jars with dried tomatoes. And in the days around the equinox I packed brown paper bags with dry bean pods to shell later and piled a wheelbarrow high with winter squash. Our exceptionally warm and long growing season this summer made all of this storage harvest especially gratifying.

As my bean-growing friend Carol said, “It was the perfect summer for letting all the dry beans dry in their pods on the vine.” I thought back on our lovely summer as I harvested dry pods of bush beans Cranberry, Drabo, and Midnight Black Turtle and pole beans Aunt Jean, White Runner, Pole Cannelini, Soissons Verte and Good Mother Stallard. The day was perfect, sunny and mild, and the steady work of pulling pods from stems and clearing dry leaves and empty plants from the rows left plenty of time to contemplate the differences between planting and harvesting.

Beans dry bush pole

Beans dry bush closeup

While spring planting brings release from winter and the promises of longer days and warmer temperatures, late summer harvest signals a restful slowing down as the days shorten and cool. I love the promise of spring but I love the fruition and completion of fall even more. The seeds I planted in the green of spring have germinated, grown and matured into plants whose foliage has changed from supple, early green to brittle brown and rust, yellow and gold. And here at the end of summer, the hope and anticipation in those small seeds of spring are more than matched by the great satisfaction of seeing bean pods hanging from stalks and great round squashes rising above their vines.

The final satisfaction of the end-of-summer harvest happens as I pull the spent foliage from the beds, wheel it to the compost bins and then rake away the remaining layer of mulch to reveal the soil I last saw in spring. This year the sunny harvest days were followed by the first days of fall rain so the soil was already taking on the friable richness I associate with spring. In the next few days, I’ll add a thin layer of compost, a sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer and a cover crop, organic rye this year, to protect and nourish the soil through the winter. Scattering the seeds and raking them are the last big kitchen garden tasks for these beds this year. I’ll return to the beds next spring, work in the cover crops and begin planting for the year ahead. But between now and then I look forward to winter and the slow, quiet harvest of winter roots and greens that along with the just harvested storage crops will nourish us through the next season’s meals.

Garden fall soil



Meals from the Summer Kitchen Garden

Our glorious summer weather has continued into September, but the rush of summer visitors has tapered off and there’s time to think back on meals the summer kitchen garden gave guests and us at our table and at friends’ potluck gatherings. As I recall this summer’s festive meals I see the contents of our serving bowls change with the summer garden harvest. Most vividly, I remember a succession of summer vegetables in the large shallow blue and white bowl my mother gave me years ago, my favorite bowl for sharing food with a crowd.

Early July brought an abundance of sugar snap peas and we piled the bowl high with pounds of quickly steamed peas for our neighbor’s annual July 4th party. A decoration of nasturtiums and white pea blossoms added red and white to the blue of the dish to celebrate the day. A few weeks later, Maxibel bush filet beans boiled whole until just tender took the peas’ place for many nights both at our table and at several island neighbors’ tables. And then pole beans, Nor’easter, Gold of Bacau and Fortex, joined the mix. Olive oil and sea salt added just before serving complemented the bean’s sweetness but the beans alone were just as delicious.

Beans in blue bowl

For more colorful offerings, red and golden beets, sautéed beet greens and pickled beet stems composed a gorgeous salad against the blue and white of the bowl. First a layer of beet greens, then cubes of bright beets, a scattering of ruby bits of chopped stems pickled with vinegar and lots of coriander seed and finally slivers of basil leaves created a feast for eye and palate.

The red, orange and yellow of summer vegetables continued with the tomato and pepper harvests.  Slices and wedges of heirloom tomatoes, pink/red Brandywine, true red Dester, red/purple Cherokee Purple and Pruden’s Purple and rich yellow Golden Sunray and Kellogg’s Breakfast filled the bowl and reached the table in no time. Summer food at its best! With a little more preparation time, I sliced red, orange and yellow peppers into one of my favorite summer salads, sweet with peppers and their juice, sharp from a little red wine vinaigrette and capers, colorful and crunchy.

Pepper salad

Finally ears of fresh yellow corn, picked and shucked as the water came to a boil, made it to the table in less than ten minutes. Rolled on a stick of butter, salted and devoured, corn on the cob sets the record for summer fast food. With a little more time, but not much, I cut the kernels off the cob, add them to the blue bowl along with red and orange peppers, red and orange cherry tomatoes, maybe some ground cherries, some basil or cilantro, and carry this high summer salad to the table.

Corn salad

Summer vegetables really lend themselves to feeding a crowd quickly. That’s one of the many things I love about them and certainly the reason I grow lots of them. We are enjoying the last of the corn, tomatoes and peppers in these early weeks of September, serving them in smaller bowls often just for us or a few friends and thinking back on our most wonderful summer.



Ground Cherry Adventures

Ground cherries 3During a visit to England in spring 2013, we enjoyed many puddings and cakes garnished with little round golden/orange colored fruits framed by lighter gold husk-like leaves. They were slightly crunchy with a sweet and tart flavor, tropical like pineapple. I’d never seen or eaten them before and even their name, Cape Gooseberry, was unfamiliar.

Months later as I was ordering seeds for the 2014 kitchen garden I saw them again, this time in the Territorial Seed catalog under the name Ground Cherry, Physalis peruviana. They were listed along with tomatillos, another husk-enclosed orb of the Physalis family. I definitely had to try growing some of these delicious little fruits. Of the two varieties offered, Aunt Molly’s and Pineapple, I chose Aunt Molly’s because the days to maturity were ten days shorter than for Pineapple.

The catalog description suggested growing them as you would tomatoes, starting seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, carefully hardening them off before setting them out in a warm place, and watering regularly. When I told my friend Carol, a specialist in unusual plants, that I was growing ground cherries this year she offered me seeds of goldenberry, a related variety, to try as well. The tiny seeds of each variety germinated well though slowly, and by late spring I had sturdy plants to set out. I put two of each variety in the cold frame where they’d get plenty of heat and good irrigation, spacing them about eighteen inches apart.

Ground cherries growingGoldenberries growingIn the weeks that followed their growth habits emerged. The ground cherry sent out branches in all directions, hugging the ground as its name suggested. The goldenberry grew upward, strong branches more like those of tomatillos. Both produced lovely exotic blossoms, yellow with purple centers. If they’d done nothing else, they’d still have been a great ornamental addition to the kitchen garden, but by mid-July the blossoms gave way to little lantern-like shapes hanging from the branches, lovely as well. The ground cherry lanterns were light green and rounded while the goldenberry lanterns were darker green veined with purple and elongated.  And finally, just as the catalog described, the  husks on the ground cherry turned from green to golden tan and dropped to the ground. I gathered a handful, peeled back the husks and there were the golden/orange orbs I’d tasted over a year ago on English desserts. We ate them like candy. The cold frame became the favorite kitchen garden snack stop.

We’ve continued to treat them like candy but the abundance of ground cherries has lead me to look for other ways to prepare them. They are definitely more than a dessert garnish. In her cookbook Chez Panisse Fruit (2002), Alice Waters suggests holding them by the husk and dipping them in chocolate for a stand-alone dessert treat. Moving beyond desserts, she suggests adding them to salsas and to salads. Their sweet/tart flavor combines well with spicy peppers, pickled onions and sweet tomatoes as well as with pungent greens like arugula. Recently I made a salad of fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled red onion, basil and lots of husked ground cherries. The ground cherries added a welcome layer of sweet tart flavor to this already tasty mix. Ground cherry salsa saladTo a grain salad made with Bluebird Grain Farms Potlach Pilaf (cracked emmer farro and wild rice), I added sliced fresh plums and basil leaves, toasted pecans, and lots of ground cherries to the cooked and cooled grains for a delicious complement to pork chops.

Ground cherry pilaf

And one morning, I added husked ground cherries to cornmeal scones, just to see what they’d be like. Cooked, they lose some of their intense flavor and reminded us most of blueberries. They were tasty but their flavor raw is so much more interesting I think I’ll stick with them fresh and experiment with more salsas and salads.

Ground cherry scones

Waters also points out that ground cherries “continue to color and ripen after harvesting and should not be eaten until they have turned yellow or orange.” (52) Other sources explain that when green and unripe, ground cherries can cause an upset stomach. Finally, in good news for storage, Waters and others say that ground cherries in their husks will keep for months in a cool, dry place.

Google searches have turned up many more dessert and salad recipes for ground cherries as well as more tips for growing and harvesting them and even lists of other names they go by: husk cherry, Peruvian ground cherry, bladder cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato, pohas or poha berries. I’ll continue to collect recipe ideas as the remaining ground cherries ripen. In another month the goldenberries should be ripe too and will provide more material for experiments. Thanks to those English desserts, ground cherries and their cousin goldenberry will be part of our kitchen garden from now on.