Early Spring Harvest

We were in Portland, Oregon earlier this month, timing our visit so that we could go to the Saturday Farmers Market. Even in early spring, this wonderful market inspires with a bounty of fresh vegetables.  A highlight for me was seeing bunches of kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower bud tops at many of the stands, confirming that others enjoy these tasty spring offerings from the Brassica family as much as I do.  I was interested to see that several vendors called these flower buds raab, linking them to broccoli raab, the pungent green popular in Italian and Asian cooking.  Kale “raab” tends to be sweet while Brussels sprout “raab” is a bit more earthy and mustard “raab” deliciously spicy.

Raab PFM

Mustard Raab PFM

Raab PFM closeup

When we got home from our travels, I was happy to find all of these “raabs” in my kitchen garden. There was also asparagus ready to harvest and lots of perennial herbs, chives, new growth thyme, burgeoning mint and parsley, all welcome flavors of spring, all beautiful and all offering inspiration for this season’s meals.

A quick stir fry of mustard flower buds and asparagus created a lovely side dish.

Asparagus mustard top bouquet

Asparagus mustard raab saute

Another night, kale flower buds and asparagus became pizza toppings.

Asparagus kale top still life

Pizza kale top & asparagus

And on another night asparagus and herbs combined with last year’s frozen fava beans to make my favorite spring pilaf.

Asparagus, kale top, herbs in basket

Pilaf in pan

This time of year the landscape offers new shades of green each day and so do the contents of each day’s garden basket and each evening’s dinner. I’ve written about kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower buds before, about asparagus and about fava beans but there’s pleasure in writing about them again just as there’s pleasure in finding them in the garden each spring and transforming them for the table.

Peppers Fresh or Frozen

The pepper seeds I planted nearly two weeks ago are starting to germinate, tiny, pointed green leaves against brown potting soil.  Of the trio of summer heat lovers, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, peppers always take the longest to germinate, two weeks or more compared to a week or less for the others.  Even though I’ve learned over the years that pepper seeds with their harder coating germinate more slowly, I still watch anxiously each year for the first shoots to emerge.

Pepper sprouts

This year I’ve planted three sweet reds: Revolution, King of the North and Carmen; two oranges: Gourmet and Gilboa; four yellows: Flavorburst, Golden Star, Superette and Golden Treasure and one poblano, Ancho Magnifico.  In another week or two, I’ll move the seedlings to four-inch pots and by early May, after hardening them off, I’ll plant them in the greenhouse and in a cloche.  I grow a lot of peppers, usually around 45 plants, enough for crisp fresh peppers at the height of summer but also plenty to roast and freeze for winter and early spring meals.

Frozen then thawed roasted peppers are as tasty and versatile as roasted peppers just off the broiler or grill.  And all the time-consuming work of peeling and seeding happened back at the end of the summer.

Peppers pealingAll I need to do now is thaw them.  We’re still enjoying last year’s peppers on sandwiches and pizzas, in pastas and risottos and sauces as the little shoots of the coming summer’s plants put out more leaves.  Last year’s supply will probably be gone before this year’s is ripe, perhaps a reason to start a few more seeds. There’s still time.

Kale, Mustard, and Arugula for Spring Pasta Sauces

In the mid-March kitchen garden the winter’s hardy kale, red mustard and arugula are all sending out new growth. Fresh leaves of kale fan out from scars along thick stalks, clusters of young red mustard leaves rise around each old root base, and new arugula emerges from the tangle of still-tasty old leaves.

Kale Russian new growth

Kale winterbor new growthMustard Red new growthArugula new growthAll of these greens make delicious salads, but last week I discovered that they also add their spring flavors and textures to pasta sauces.  The key is to toss them in at the last minute so that they wilt just slightly in the heat of the cooked pasta and other ingredients, taking on a slick of olive oil but staying in the zone between raw and cooked.

I started on this pasta-sauce path while looking for something to do with the last stored bag of the Rose Finn Apple fingerlings.  In Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables (1996) I saw a recipe for Pasta with Potatoes, Rocket, and Rosemary.  There was plenty of rosemary and wintered-over arugula, the more familiar name for rocket, in the garden and still potatoes, onions and garlic among the storage vegetables.  The combination of these flavors sounded promising and because the arugula was so fresh, I decided to add it at the very end.  Since I was serving two instead of four, I more or less halved the original recipe below and kept to these proportions as I experimented the other greens.

Arugula, Potato pasta

1 pound firm boiling potatoes 

About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil


Salt and pepper


2 bunches arugula (about a half pound)


1 small red onion


4 to 6 cloves of garlic

1 sprig rosemary

3/4 pound penne or other tubular pasta


1/2 lemon


Preheat the oven to 400°. Slice the potatoes about 1/3 inch thick and toss them with a small amount of the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread them in a single layer in an ovenproof dish or on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until they are golden brown and cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, wash the arugula (older, larger leaves are preferable to the tender sprouts), drain, and set aside. Slice the red onion thin. Peel and chop fine the garlic cloves and the rosemary leaves. Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

When the potatoes are done, remove them from the oven and put the pasta on to boil. Heat a sauté pan, add some of olive oil, and sauté the sliced onion until it is soft and translucent and starting to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté until soft.  (Waters suggests adding the arugula at this point and sautéing it lightly with the garlic but I held back the arugula until the end.) Add the potato slices and rosemary and toss together for a minute or two. When the pasta is done, drain and add it to the potatoes and onion. Finally, add the arugula, drizzle with a little olive oil and toss until the arugula wilts, just a few seconds.  Add a little more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.  I also grated some Parmesan to add at the table.  Serves 4

Inspired by the delicious results with arugula and roasted fingerlings, I used this technique the next night with red mustard and delicata squash. After peeling, dicing and roasting two of my remaining Honeyboat Delicata squash, I tossed them with the softened red onion, rosemary and garlic and a few leftover flagelot beans and added cooked Orecchiette pasta.  Then just before serving I added sliced ribbons of red mustard leaves and tossed them briefly as they wilted.  The hot, spicy mustard and the soft, sweet squash were a perfect combination with the pasta and beans.  A side of pickled carrots completed the plate.

Mustard squash pasta on plate

Following the mustard/squash success, I turned to new growth kale and white runner beans for the next night.  After sautéing a red onion and some garlic, I added about a quarter cup each of slivered dried tomatoes and diced roasted red pepper, then a cup and a half of white runner beans and drained fusilli pasta.  Finally I piled roughly torn kale leaves onto the hot pasta and beans, drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled on a couple pinches of sea salt then tossed the ingredients together.  Once again the greens wilted slightly into the pasta and sauce.  The nutty beans and earthy kale combined with the sweet pepper and more acid dried tomato to make another tasty meal.

Kale pasta tossing

Kale Pasta tossed

The winter storage vegetables, the potatoes, squash, beans and onions by themselves would have made fine additions to pasta but the greens, fresh from the late winter garden, transformed these dishes into spring.  We’ll make them all again soon and maybe make our favorite, the red mustard and squash, even more often as winter gives way to spring.

An Old-Fashioned Cold Frame

Cold frame open 2014

We’ve had a cold frame against the south side of our garden shed for nearly twenty years.  Scott built it soon after he built the garden shed.  We hadn’t planned on making a cold frame but our observant and generous neighbor Bucky Lee noticed the empty space on the south side of the new shed and offered us two old, three-paneled wood and glass windows he didn’t need, saying that they would make a nice cold frame there.

They were just the right size, each 60 inches wide by 50 inches tall, wide enough to fit between the downspout on the west and the doorframe of the shed entry on the east and just the right height to fit up under the eaves when open.  Of course, these heavy old windows were just the start of a cold frame. Using their dimensions, Scott attached a ledger to the building 28 inches off the ground, built the sloping sidewalls, the long, low ten-inch-high front wall, added a support in the middle where the windows would meet when down, and finally attached the windows to the ledger with hinges that allow us to raise and lower them and added sturdy eyes to the window frames and hooks to the shed so we can latch them open.  Bricks work to prop the windows open when we want to provide just a little ventilation.

While Scott did the carpentry, I prepared the soil, removing sod, breaking up dirt, adding compost and raking the area level.  When the cold frame was done, it looked like it had always been there especially after we painted the frames green to match the shed windows.  The wood frames held up to the weather for the next five years before finally deteriorating to the point that we needed to replace them.  Using plexiglass and strips of wood, Scott made new, lighter covers that we’ve used ever since.

Perhaps because my father had a cold frame near the back door on the south side of our family home in Massachusetts, I’ve always thought of cold frames as old-fashioned structures, their glass tops and wood frames more permanent than today’s plastic covered tunnels and low hoop houses that can be moved from bed to bed as crops and seasons change. Attached to a building, cold frames cover the same plot of soil year after year.

My father used his cold frame only in the early spring to give a head start to plants like broccoli and tomatoes that he’d later transplant to the garden.  In the summer, my mother filled it with flowers.  Here in the temperate marine northwest however, I can use the cold frame in all seasons.  In fall, I plant it with greens, either seeds or starts, and they thrive there over the winter and into early spring.  Greens planted in mid-September are ready for December salads. This year’s arugula planted in mid-November has been giving us salads since mid-February.

Cold frame open:closed

Cold frame with Mustard:Arugula

In early spring, if we’ve eaten all the greens or if the greens are going to seed and are ready to pull out, I’ll plant an early crop of lettuces, salad radishes and spring turnips.  Or if the greens last into late spring, as this year’s arugula may, I’ll skip a spring planting.

In the summer, I’ve sometimes filled the cold frame with basil, leaving the plexiglass open and draping Reemay over the frame to protect the basil from sunburn.  Other summers, I’ve planted cucumbers or melons in the cold frame and their vines have sprawled up and over the sides. Even with the cover raised for the summer the south-facing space framed by the garden shed is warmed by the sun, so some years I’ve planted several varieties of indeterminate cherry tomatoes and Scott has tied them up in front of the windows. And some summers I’ve simply left the cold frame to a volunteer riot of nasturtiums.

Coldframe with tomatoes

Cold frame with nasturtiums

By fall, whatever crop has grown there in the summer is ready to pull and I once again plant greens for winter salads.

With several portable plastic cloches in the main garden, I’ll admit that I really don’t need a cold frame.  Winter salad greens, early spring vegetables and heat-loving summer plants all thrive in these other structures, but our cold frame is so beautiful in all seasons, so much a part of the permanent garden and so sweet a connection to the past that I’ll never give it up.

2014 Seed Orders

Seed Packets 2014

My 2014 seed orders have arrived and I’ve interfiled these crisp, unopened packets with the tattered and taped, partially full or nearly empty envelopes of seeds I’m carrying over from past years. It’s a perfect rainy day task, alphabetizing seed packets, moving from arugula to beans, beets, broccoli and Brussels sprouts and on through to tomatoes and zucchini, thinking about what varieties worked well last year, what I’m not likely to plant again and what I’m looking forward to trying this year for the first time.

Beans: I rarely grow bush green beans, preferring the flavor and growth habit of pole green beans, but last spring my friend Carol gave me a handful of Maxibel bush beans seeds and persuaded me to try them.  They were delicious and productive so I ordered some more from Fedco. Pole filet beans like Fortex are still my favorite but these Maxibels give us a welcome taste of beans earlier in the summer.

Eggplant: Last year I tried two “mini eggplant,” Fairy Tale and Hansel from Johnny’s. Fairy Tale was too mini and not very tasty but Hansel was bigger and good enough to try again.  I still prefer full-size eggplants like Galine, Diamond or Rosa Bianca sliced into thick rounds and grilled with other summer vegetables or cut into inch-size chunks for caponata but smaller Hansel is handy to have for quick sautés and careful grilling.

Kale: Last year’s new White Russian Kale, a relative of Red Russian, was just as tasty raw or braised as its cousin and stood up even better to the deep cold that hit the winter kitchen garden several times this season.  It’s also a pretty addition to the kale bed so I’ll be sure to grow more of this Territorial Seed offering this year.

Leeks: I tried Bandit and Lexton from Johnny’s this year in hopes of finding a leek that is resistant to leek rust.  A few spots of rust did appear on the green spears of these leeks but was no where near so aggressive as rust has been in recent years on varieties like King Sieg or Bleu de Solaize.  I’ll try Bandit as well as Lexton again and hope for continued rust resistance.  Their flavor is a bit more delicate than that of other leeks I’ve grown but they are just as cold hardy.

Mustard: last year, my sister Sarah gave me seeds of Scarlet Frills mustard, a dark red, deeply cut salad leaf with a spicy flavor similar to that of my favorite Large Red Mustard. I planted it in late August and we are still enjoying it in February salads.  It’s also great tucked into a sandwich.  The winter cold knocked it back a bit but it has rebounded with strong new growth.  I’ve ordered my own packet of seeds from Johnny’s.

Peppers: last year I tried two new yellow horn-shaped peppers, Superette Sweet Banana and Golden Treasure.  Both were OK but this year I was tempted by Gilboa, an orange bell pepper with an “engaging fruity flavor,” and Golden Star, a “sweet and crispy” yellow bell, both from Fedco. I’m looking forward to some taste-offs with my old favorites orange Gourmet and yellow Flavorburst.

Radicchios:  I like both the round “Chiogiia” type and the tall “Treviso” type radicchios and this year I’m adding a “sugarloaf” type, Pan di Zucchero from Fedco.  This member of the chicory family has light-green leaves and looks like a tightly wrapped head of romaine lettuce.  I’m anticipating using it both raw and grilled and hoping that it is as tasty as Belgian endive but easier to grow.

Radishes:  after discovering this year how tasty Red Meat winter radishes are, I’ve ordered seeds of Green Meat and Black Spanish from Fedco for more winter radish treats.  Red Meat is more sweet than spicy, Green Meat is likely the same but Black Spanish is billed as very spicy.

Squash: I love all sorts of winter squash but I’ve never grown butternut squash.  Delicata seemed to fill the slot for a small one or two person squash.  This year, though, I’m trying Burpee’s Butterbush, a variety the Fedco catalog says provides “a perfect one-person serving chock full of deep, reddish-orange flesh ‘as sweet as the best sweet potatoes.’”  I’ll plant just one hill and see how they turn out.

Tomatoes: I had both losers and winners in my tomato experiments last year.  The big disappointment was Velvet Red, a cherry tomato that did have pretty, silvery foliage but also fuzzy skin and not much flavor.  Ukrainian Purple, a small plum type, was also disappointing because it didn’t have the rich flavor of other dark tomatoes like my favorite Cherokee Purple.  Winners more than made up for the losers though.  Dester, a pink beefsteak, was productive and close to Brandywine in flavor and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye was almost as good as Cherokee Purple, close enough to grow again.  And for a new tomato this year, I’m going for stripes and trying Pineapple, a favorite of my friend Carol and said by Fedco to be best of the striped genre.

Tomatillos and Ground Cherries:  This past summer, friends shared so many bowls of wonderful tomatillo salsa that I’m inspired to grow some of these papery-husked green globes myself.  I’ve never grown them before and am looking forward to the salsa adventure.  From the same Physalis family, I ordered some seeds of Ground Cherries, the fruity berry relative of tomatillos.  Last spring during a trip to England, we enjoyed many desserts garnished with a cluster of these sweet fruits.  I’m hoping they’ll be a permanent addition to our fruit crops. Both seeds are from Territorial.

Now that I’ve merged my new and old seeds alphabetically the next step is reorganize them by planting date.  Years ago a friend told me that she organized her seeds by her planting calendar.  I tried it and have organized them this way ever since.  I have one box for seeds I start indoors and another box for seeds to start outdoors and file the packets by planting week or month.  When I’ve planted a crop I either move the seeds to a storage box for next year or move them further along in the calendar boxes for a second or even third planting.  Organizing the seeds this way certainly makes it easier to find seed packets on the days I want to plant and reminds me of what else I can plant, but now, on a cold and rainy February day, it also lets me indulge in daydreams of the garden year ahead.

Parsnips and Pork

This winter’s kitchen garden has offered a steady supply of parsnips beginning when the deep cold of early December transformed these sturdy roots from starchy to sweet and continuing on through more freezes and thaws.  There’s one more row left to take us to spring so still opportunities to experiment with parsnips in the kitchen.  Lately I’ve discovered how tasty parsnips are with pork.  Roast pork with potatoes and parsnips is lovely but sausages and parsnips are really good too.

Parsnips and pork

One recent evening I had some leftover roasted parsnips, some spicy pork sausage meat and dinner to make.  A quick Google search turned up a recipe for Orecchiette with Sausage, Chard, and Parsnips that confirmed my sense that sweet, caramelized parsnips and crispy fried sausage would be a great combination on pasta.  There was more red mustard than chard in the kitchen garden so I sautéed that in some of the fat left from frying the sausage, returned the sausage to the skillet, added roasted parsnips, heating for a few minutes until both were warm, then added the cooked orecchiette and served this delicious combination with lots of grated Parmesan.  I think the red mustard was actually a better choice than the chard.  Chard’s sweetness would have matched the parsnips’ while mustard’s spiciness joined with the sausage for a stronger sweet/spicy contrast.  My only regret is that I didn’t get a photo before we started eating.

With the memory of this delicious meal still in my mind and plans to experiment further with parsnips, pork and pasta, I was delighted to find Melissa Clark’s recipe for pasta and parsnips in the next morning’s New York Times.  She combined roasted parsnips, bacon and leeks with heavy cream, grated Parmesan and chopped parsley and served this rich sauce on bell-shaped campanelle pasta.  I substituted sausage for bacon, orecchiette for campanelle, red onion for leeks, and added fava beans for some green but totally followed her advice for reducing the cream until it thickened to a sauce around the sausage and vegetables.  This creamy version probably isn’t quite so healthy as the red mustard one but very comforting all the same.  I’ll make both again and will even follow Clark’s recipe exactly next time.  And I’ll try to remember photos.

Parnips, sausage, fava pasta

There’s one more parsnip and sausage recipe I want to try, this one from Nigel Slater’s Tender, A Cook and his Vegetable Patch (2009) p. 353.  He simply browns then bakes parsnips and sausages together with a little onion and stock.  It sounds wonderfully satisfying and a perfect meal for our lingering winter.

Parsnips on counter

Another Supper of Young Parsnips and Sausage

4 medium onions


3 tbsp oil


1 pound parsnips


6 thick sausages


A few sprigs of thyme


2 cups stock

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Peel the onions and slice them in half from root to tip, then cut each half into six or eight pieces. Soften them slowly in the oil in a flameproof baking dish or roasting tin over a moderate heat.

While they are softening, peel the parsnips and cut them into short, thick chunks, about the length of a wine cork. Add them to the onions and leave to color, turning up the heat a little if needs be. Remove the onions and parsnips from the pan.

Cut each sausage into three, put them in the pan, adding a little more oil if it appears dry, and let them color. Return the onions and parsnips to the pan. It is important everything is a good color before you proceed. Strip the leaves from the thyme and stir them in, together with the stock. Bring to the boil briefly, then put in the oven to bake for 35-40 minutes, until the sausages are cooked right through, the parsnips are tender and the stock has reduced a little.

Gilfeather Turnips

Vegetable seed catalogs tempt us with descriptions of taste, beauty, productivity, and occasionally an intriguing story or bit of seed history. It was a story that drew me to Gilfeather turnips a decade ago, and I’m glad it did.  I’ve continued grow this truly delicious root in each winter’s kitchen garden and as an added treat I’ve watched its story grow too.

Gilfeather turnips growing

In Fedco Seed Company’s 2005 version, the Gilfeather turnip was “either developed or discovered by John Gilfeather (1865-1944) of Wardsboro, VT in the late 1800s.”  Selling them in local markets, “Gilfeather, a lanky secretive man, is said to have cut the tops and bottoms off his turnips, so that no one else could propagate them. Nevertheless, some seeds escaped to a neighbor who gave them to market growers William and Mary Lou Schmidt, who salvaged, then commercialized the variety.”  In addition to this story, the description claimed that Gilfeather is “sweeter and later to mature than other turnips, not woody even at softball size, tastes better after frost” and that its “tender, mild, spineless greens” are also delicious.  And in a technical detail, it noted: “this heirloom has come down in folklore as a turnip but is really a rutabaga.”

Over the years, the catalog descriptions kept up with the Gilfeather story adding the information that it is now listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste and leading off for the last several years with the reminder that: “At the end of October each year, Wardsboro hosts a festival at which all the dishes served feature its famous vegetable.”  I haven’t been to this event but several years ago when I was in Vermont in early October I spotted a poster for the Gilfeather Turnip Festival.  Then recently I found a 23-minute documentary: The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro.  It’s definitely worth watching, even if you don’t like turnips.  There’s also a great recent newspaper article: “Turnip festival sprouts again at end of month.”  If the film and article tempt you to plant Gilfeather turnips, Fedco carries the seed and this year I noticed that Wild Garden Seeds in Oregon offers them too: .

Vermonters plant their Gilfeather turnips in the spring for harvest and cold storage in late October, but in my temperate Pacific Northwest marine climate I plant them in mid-to-late July, spacing them about eight inches apart in rows two feet apart, and begin harvesting them after a few good frosts and then on through the winter.  They grow to at least softball size and often much larger, but they remain sweet and tender even at the larger sizes.  If really cold weather is forecast, I mulch them heavily with straw up to the leafy tops.  It’s the roots that I love, but New Englanders harvest the greens too. As one gardener wrote to Fedco: “We have been harvesting the greens all fall and into the winter. It is now the end of January and we have been digging the leaves out from under the snow. They have no frost/freeze damage whatsoever, and are even hardier than Red Russian and Beedy’s Camden kales. Plus they get sweeter after frost.”

Gilfeather turnips cut up

Vermonters eat the Gilfeather roots peeled, boiled and then mashed and while Gilfeathers are good that way I prefer cutting the peeled roots into chunks, brushing them with a little olive oil and roasting them at about 400 degrees so the sugars caramelize as the roots soften.  Boiled or roasted, the flavor is like a more delicate, sweeter rutabaga.  The pungent, earthy rutabaga taste lingers but there is also a hint of sweet spring turnips.  I serve them warm as a side dish, alone or mixed with other roasted roots, or add room-temperature pieces to winter salads of kale, mustard or mache.  I’ve also pureed them into soups, using vegetable or meat stock and perhaps a little cream.  I can’t imagine winter without them.Gilfeather turnips roasted

I’m grateful to John Gilfeather for this delicious winter root and to the people who’ve kept the seed and the story alive.  I might have been tempted to grow Gilfeathers by descriptions of taste and hardiness alone but the story has been a delightful bonus and something to remember as I plant, harvest and cook this Vermont heirloom turnip.