Hot, Hot Summer

Garden view 8:15It’s been a very hot summer here in the Pacific Northwest with many days over 80 degrees, and our kitchen garden has offered lots of indicators of this unusual weather pattern. There have been a lot of “firsts.”

I just double-checked my harvest notes to confirm that I really did pick a Cherokee Purple tomato on June 27 and a Brandywine a few days later. It’s usually mid-July before we’re eating tomato sandwiches for lunch. Peppers usually turn red in mid-August but this year I started harvesting sweet, red Carmen the third week of July. Green beans and eggplant were early too, so early that the carrots and beets that usually fill the weeks before and after July 4th got passed over for these summer treats.

Corn thrives in heat and we were looking forward an amazingly early August harvest of a crop we usually harvest in September. So apparently were the raccoons. For the first time in the twenty-two years that I’ve grown corn here raccoons demolished my crop, first the sweet corn and then a week or so later the flint corn. Was it the heat that produced a crop that especially tempted the raccoons or had their usual food sources dried out? Whatever the reason, next year whether it’s hot again or cool I will follow my friends Debbie and Maxine’s plan and get a special raccoon fence.

Storage crops like shallots and onions, dried beans and winter squash can be a challenge to harvest before autumn rains in cooler years. Not a problem this year! For the first time ever the onion stalks toppled over without my help and the onions cured in the field. Usually mid-August onions still have green stems and I end up pulling onions and bringing them into the green house to cure. This morning I just took onions from the field to the storage room.
Onions cured in bedDry beans like Black urtle beans and white Drabo usually dry on the vine but not until mid-to-late September when I’m anxiously watching for rain that could cause the crop to mildew. This year they are dry on the vine now. I’ve just harvested Drabo and will harvest Black Turtle soon.  Who knows, I may even find time to shell them before winter.

Beans Drabo dryBeans, black dryBeautiful orange, green and dusty blue winter squash are emerging through the dying vines in the squash beds, early like all the other storage crops. As my friend Diane said the other day, maybe the squash will actually cure in the field this year. In years past, I’ve brought them inside to a warm place for a few weeks to cure before putting them in cool storage. Maybe this year, like the onions, they will go right from garden to storage.

Winter squash 8:15

All these harvest firsts are exciting but also alarming. Are my early harvest dates a kitchen garden indicator of the global warming I know is happening? Will this summer’s temperatures become the “new normal”? It will be next garden year before I know what these firsts mean but I’m hoping this year is just a novelty.

Busman’s Holiday

One of the pleasures of exploring our coastal northwest is the chance to see other kitchen gardens growing in this climate. Recently we traveled by ferry and bicycle from Lopez Island to Vancouver Island, BC, the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island and back to Lopez. As we pedaled along bike trails and quiet roads, we saw flourishing vegetable and fruit gardens on a much larger scale than ours and delighted in the farm stands, farmers markets and restaurants that they supply.

On the bike route from the Sidney, BC ferry terminal to Victoria, we stopped at Mitchell’s, “a sixth generation family owned and operated farm that has been growing on the Saanich Peninsula for over 150 years.” From our bikes we could see their fields stretching up one side of the valley and in their store we saw some of the “over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables” they grow. Their website offers a great series of vegetable photos.

The next day, biking from Port Angeles to Sequim, we stopped at Nash’s Farm Store, a highlight for me because I’ve admired Nash Huber ever since reading about him years ago in the Puget Sound Consumer’s Cooperative (PCC) newsletter. Unlike Mitchell Brothers, Nash Huber didn’t start with family land but with the PCC Farmland Trust. Working with the trust he has saved acres and acres of farmland from development and farms many of them now, supplying his farm stand, farmers markets and restaurants with his produce. He’s especially famous for his carrots. I spotted him at the back of the store and one of the staff said proudly, “Yes, that’s our Nash.”

In addition to farm stands open daily, there are farmers markets all along the Olympic Peninsula.  Most are open only on Saturday but we were lucky to find the wonderful Wednesday Port Townsend Farmers Market open  at Polk and Lawrence streets in the uptown section of Port Townsend. Dharma Ridge, Finnriver, Midori Farm and Red Dog Farm were just four of the many farms offering gorgeous fruits and vegetables.   After seeing the beautifully grown produce from all of these farms and talking with their proud farmers, we imagined future bike trips to visit each of them.

PFM berries

PFM tomatoes

As travelers, we didn’t have a kitchen for this amazing produce but there are wonderful restaurants that serve this abundance. In Victoria, we ate at Olo a word that means “hungry” in Chinook Jargon. We were hungry when we arrived but not when we left. Their menu featuring locally grown vegetables and fruit, island-raised beef and fish from local waters reveals why. One side dish I repeated as soon as we got home was farro served with fava beans. It sounds simple but the subtle visual treat of light brown farro and bright green fava beans and the combination of chewy, nutty grains and soft, earthy beans, were perfect. Olo served this side with lingcod but it makes a fine meal on its own.

In Sequim we ate at Nourish, “Garden to Plate, Sequim’s Gathering Place” . It is located at the very top of a long hill but definitely worth the effort to get to on a bike. We sat outside and enjoyed the views of their gardens, Sequim, the Strait and in the distance Lopez Island. My delicious NW Nicoise Salad substituted grilled NW wild salmon for the usual tuna and added lots of vegetables and greens to the classic potato and egg. Inspired by their salad, I made a version of it for a picnic the other night adding green and yellow beans and sliced red and gold cherry tomatoes to roasted potatoes and grilled salmon.

And in Port Townsend we ate lunch and then breakfast the next day Sweet Laurette Café and Bistro, another inspiring farm-to-table focused restaurant. The breakfast Farmers Market Scramble, “dictated by what is fresh and organic from our farmers this week” added a sauté of many of the beautiful vegetables we’d seen the day before at the Wednesday market to softly scrambled eggs, just the thing to set us up for the final day of biking.

Heading home on the ferry later that day, we admitted that a bike ride around our Lopez Island and the other San Juan Islands would have given us similar experiences of farms, farm stands and markets and farm-to-table meals but branching out to see what’s around us reminds us of the amazing variety and abundance of farming in our region. We’re ready to explore more.

Bees in the Worm Bin

We have a worm bin, a large plywood box our friend Kirm made for us years ago. The idea is to let worms turn vegetable and fruit trimmings into soil in the darkness of the box, safe under the heavy lid that keeps out pests like rats and raccoons. When I open the lid every few days to add more trimmings, all I see are slowly decomposing organic matter and the occasional sow bug.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I opened the worm bin on a recent afternoon and saw a mass of honeybees clustered around layers of honeycomb fixed to the upper corner of the lid.Bees closeup iPhone smaller

What the heck? That buzzing sound I’d heard when I neared the bin suddenly got louder. I quickly closed the lid.

There had been no buzzing or bees five days earlier when I left for a short trip, but in my time away a swarm of bees had found its way through a tiny opening where the lid met the box, perhaps mistaking the worm bin for a hive box. They had been busy.

We don’t have beehives but luckily our neighbors Kevin and Mary do. I called them and they agreed to come over that evening with their bee suits and a hive box and take a look. On the phone, Mary explained that swarming often happens this time of year. A queen and a large group of worker bees will leave their original hive and go looking, or swarming, for a new home. In this case, they found one in our worm bin.

We watched from a distance as Kevin and Mary, dressed in their protective bee gear, studied the layers of comb attached to the worm bin lid and planned how to transfer them to a hive box.

Bees K&M studying hive

Bees K&M closeup

Using a narrow scraper, Kevin gently eased each comb from the plywood lid and lowered it into the hive box. He explained that the comb was very warm and soft so the transfer was a bit tricky. In one of the combs he spotted the queen, a good sign he said for a successful transfer of the swarm to their hive box. A bit of comb broke off and Mary brought us the piece to taste. The honey was warm and runny, delicately sweet and almost fermented tasting like dessert wine.

Once they’d transferred the combs to their hive box, Kevin and Mary said they’d leave the hive box sitting in the worm bin until after dark, giving all the bees a chance to return to their new home, and then would come back and take it to join their other hives.

I called Mary a few weeks later to see how the new hive was doing. She said they were doing great and a few days later Kevin sent some photos.

Bees K & M #1

He wrote: “The first shows the swarm’s stack.  The bottom box (green) is a swarm from our hives.  The second box (white) is the “Hatch” swarm and the top box (green) contains the comb that they had built while in the worm bin.  We have since taken the green box away as they had cleaned out the comb, and we will melt it down with other wax we save.”

Bees K & M # 2

“The second picture shows some of our other hives, the swarm stack is on the right.  The “Hatch” swarm is very busy and the queen has started laying eggs.  It takes a couple of weeks from egg to bee, but soon we will see some young bees emerging from the white box. Thanks again.”

Here at my house the worm bin is back to its dark, quiet state. There are traces of wax on the lid where the worker bees attached the combs but that’s the only reminder of the temporary tenants. I haven’t tried to close that little gap between the lid and the box, though, hoping that maybe another swarm will decide to visit.

Broccoli Rediscovered

Over the years, I haven’t grown a lot of broccoli in my kitchen garden, usually just four to six plants of Umpqua or DeCicco that I start indoors in late February, set out in late March and harvest beginning with the full heads in late May and then side shoots until mid to late June.

Broccoli head

Broccoli side shoot

Spring broccoli fills the gap between the end of the kale flower buds and the start of sugar snap peas and zucchini. Sometimes I start more in June or July for late summer and early fall harvest but often I don’t because there are so many other tasty summer and fall vegetables I prefer to broccoli.

I’m just as limited with my broccoli recipes. I have a default broccoli recipe I found years ago in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cook Book (1980): peel the skin from stalks and stems,Broccoli peeling

split any thick stalks into thinner stalks keeping florets attached, steam or boil until barely tender and drain. Sauté chopped garlic in a little olive oil until golden, then add the drained broccoli, a little salt and maybe some red pepper flakes, sauté lightly for a few minutes and serve hot or at room temperature as a side dish or as a topping for pasta or grains. It’s quick and easy and the sweet flavor of just-picked broccoli always comes through.

Perhaps there’s a correlation between not much broccoli and not many recipes. If I grew more broccoli maybe I’d experiment with new recipes or if I found a great new recipe maybe I’d want to grow more broccoli. I think I’ve just found that recipe.

Leafing through Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Italian Country Table (1999) I spotted a recipe for “Seared Broccoli with Lemon.” It’s as simple my old standby but creates a wonderfully different flavor, deeper and richer than the light, sweet garlicky Hazan version. Kasper writes, “browning broccoli gives it an unexpected lustiness…the trick is browning the broccoli fast enough to keep it from overcooking, yet at a moderate rate to build up rich, caramelized flavors.”

Broccoli seared

Her instructions for preparing the broccoli are similar to my standard peeling and steaming preparation. Then once the broccoli is partially cooked, she instructs:

Heat the oil (2 Tablespoons for about 1 and ¼ pounds broccoli) in a 12-inch skillet (she specifies not nonstick) over medium-high heat. Sauté the broccoli until speckled with brown on one side. Adjust the heat to prevent it from burning and watch the pan bottom for scorching. Sprinkle the broccoli with shredded zest from one large lemon, salt and pepper, turn the stalks over and sauté to brown on the second side. Serve hot or warm.

It took me a couple of tries and the rest of my broccoli crop to perfect this technique but even my first attempts resulted in richly flavored, crispy broccoli. And the lemon zest perfectly balances this richness. I’m looking forward to making it again and maybe even experimenting with roasting rather than pan-searing the broccoli. I have six young plants that should give me broccoli by late August. I can already imagine how tasty seared broccoli will be with fresh tomatoes.

Kale Salads

My friend Lexi called me the other day to ask for my kale salad recipe and I was happy to share it: remove kale leaves from the stems and tear or slice them into bite-sized pieces, moisten with a little olive oil, sprinkle on salt to taste and use your hands to massage the leaves in the oil and salt until slightly slippery and shiny, adding more olive oil if necessary. Then squeeze lemon juice over the leaves and toss. Finally add grated Parmesan cheese and toss again. Proportions are flexible and depend on how much kale you start with, how sour or sweet the lemon is and how much cheese you like. Serve it right away or let it sit for up to an hour or so.

Kale salad stilllife

Kale salad tossing

Kale salad 5:15

It’s a recipe for the most basic of kale salads and my favorite, but as with any salad, additions and substitutions are practically endless. One friend adds roasted tomatoes, another lots of red pepper flakes, another toasted croutons; another substitutes Pecorino for Parmesan, another balsamic vinegar for lemon juice. Roasted vegetables, toasted pecans or hazelnuts, apples or citrus are also popular additions.

And then there is the question of what variety of kale to use. Some friends insist on Lacinato kale with its dark green, crinkled spear-shaped leaves. I like the tender, smooth-leaved Red Russian better than Lacinato and this year I’ve liked White Russian even more not only for its sweet flavor but also because it is both more winter hardy than Red Russian and has produced tender, flavorful spring growth longer than Red Russian has. Even now, at the start of June, there’s one more kale salad left on the last few White Russian plants still standing.

Kale white RussianLexi was using kale she’d planted this spring while for the past few months I’ve been harvesting new growth leaves from overwintered kale I planted last July. And before spring’s new growth there were the frost-sweetened leaves I started harvesting in October and before that the tiny new leaves from thinning those July-planted seedlings. With spring and late summer plantings, you can have kale salads year round.

Kale salads have been popular with chefs and home cooks for nearly a decade. Searching the recipe site Epicurious, I found the earliest kale salad recipes dated 2007 and 2009. Introducing the January, 2007 Gourmet magazine recipe is this note: “Inspired by an antipasto that’s popular at New York City’s Lupa, this substantial salad takes a hearty, rich green that’s usually cooked and proves how delicious it can be when served raw.” And a February 2009 Bon Appetit recipe from Dan Barber begins: “In a surprising twist, Tuscan kale is served raw—and makes for a substantial and satisfying winter salad.” Who knew! I experimented with my first kale salad in October, 2007 inspired by Melissa Clark’s New York Times recipe and article.

Before discovering how delicious raw kale is, I’d regularly wilted it then sautéed it in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes and served it hot or at room temperature. I still do that, especially at the start of winter when warm food is appealing. But just as often now I keep the kale raw. It mixes well with other hardy winter salad greens like mache, radicchio and arugula but it’s also satisfying alone and especially welcomed after all the other winter greens are gone. In another month and a half, it will be time to plant next year’s crop. Kale salad, once new and trendy, is here to stay.

Transplant or Direct Seed?

Along with the decisions about when to plant, where to plant and how much to plant, one more decision for the kitchen gardener is whether to start seeds indoors for transplant out later or to direct seed in a garden bed where the plants will grow undisturbed. Heat-loving crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are obvious candidates for seeding indoors and setting out when temperatures warm up while vegetables with long taproots like carrots and parsnips are clear candidates for direct seeding.

tomato seedlingsCarrots growing 1But for all the other kitchen garden vegetables, weather and soil conditions, garden pests, seed size and germination times, past experience and advice from many directions—seed catalogs, gardening books and friends—all come into play when deciding whether to transplant or direct seed.

Though planting advice in seed catalogs like the excellent Territorial Seed Company’s says that peas “may be sown as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring,” I stopped direct seeding peas years ago after losing too many plantings to hungry rodents. Instead, I start peas indoors in one-inch cells. The seeds germinate quickly and are ready to harden off and transplant in two weeks.Seedroom peas growing

I’ve always started storage onions in half-inch cells in late February for planting out in mid-April, but following Steve Solomon’s advice I’ve directed seeded leeks in late May in a “nursery bed” outdoors, raised them to “pencil size” and transplanted them to their permanent bed in mid-July. Leeks in nursery bedLeeks transplantedLast year though, the leeks seeds germinated very poorly due perhaps to dry weather and erratic watering so I ended up starting some indoors in pots then planting the not-quite-pot-bound clumps of tiny leeks into the garden. These potted leeks grew really well, reaching final transplant size about the same time as the direct seeded leeks did, so this year I’m starting all the leeks in pots, a first for me.

We always direct seeded squash, corn and beans in my family’s Massachusetts garden, but in the years that I’ve gardened in the Pacific Northwest, cool, damp springs and cold soil have pushed me to experiment with indoor seeding and transplants. The transplant method worked so well for squash that now I always start squash indoors. In 4-inch pots, the seeds germinate in less than a week and the plants grow quickly, ready to harden off and transplant in less than two weeks. This year seeds planted April 28th went into the garden beds on May 9th.

Squash seedlings

Transplanting also works really well for corn and beans and I’m grateful for gardening friends’ encouragement to try indoor seeding of these crops when spring is cool. This year, though, warm days in the first week of May tempted me to plant corn and beans directly in the garden beds. Luckily, the good weather held and a week later both beans and corn had germinated and begun to unfurl their leaves and grow. Next year’s weather may be different!

Corn seedlingsBean seedlings

The small seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts and cabbage all germinate better for me if I start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings later. The one challenge has been hardening them off without stressing the plants. Cauliflower is especially sensitive to stresses from uneven watering, shifts in temperature and sudden sun so I have to be vigilant when introducing potted seedlings to the outdoors.

Kale, on the other hand, I’ve always directed seeded in mid-to-late July despite its tiny seeds. It usually comes up quickly and I can thin it to the final sixteen-inch spacing and put the thinned plants in salads. Last year, though, I had only a few seeds of one kale variety so I decided that starting indoors might hold fewer germination risks. The seeds all germinated and the plants grew well and transplanted beautifully. Direct seeding requires fewer steps so seems easier but I’m tempted take the extra time and try more kale transplants this year.

Finally, greens: lettuce, radicchios and escaroles, mache, arugula, mustards, spinach. They thrive both from direct seeding and from transplants but are sensitive to temperature. In my kitchen garden, I’ve learned that early and mid-spring direct seedings of lettuce germinate well in cooler temperatures and grow slowly so their leaves are more succulent. Lettuce mix small rowAs temperatures rise, I have better luck starting heat-tolerant summer lettuce varieties indoors for planting out. Or I simply wait until late summer when temperatures cool again and direct seed lettuce. Radicchios and escaroles also do better in my garden in cool weather so I grow them in spring and fall and because their tiny seeds are slow to germinate, I start them indoors and transplant them.Greens in flat

Mache is my favorite green for the winter garden and while I know that it will self-seed with abandon if I leave a few plants to flower in spring, the plants are never where I want them. For more orderly succession plantings, I start seeds indoors or in the garden in mid-August through September. If it’s still hot in August, I start seeds indoors and transplant. When cooler, damper weather arrives in September, I direct seed.Mache plants

Arugula and mustards are two more winter favorites that thrive in cooler weather. And because their tiny seeds are so quick to germinate, I’ve always direct seeded them. Spinach, on the other hand, has always been a germination challenge. Some years I’ll direct seed it in late September and it germinates vigorously and grows just enough to winter over and begin growing again in spring. Other years the seeds germinate poorly and/or garden pests nibble them away and I have to start seeds indoors and transplant. It’s a kitchen garden mystery I’ll keep trying to solve. And I’ll continue to experiment with transplanting and direct seeding for all these kitchen garden vegetables. As my lovely neighbor Frances often said, “There’s always next year.”

Raab Season

Broccoli raab or as Italians call it cima di rapa is grown in the spring and the fall specifically for its flower buds. It grows quickly. In fact one variety is named Quarantina, meaning forty days in Italian, for its speedy production of deliciously pungent, tender flower buds.

But other members of raab’s cruciferous family, turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mustard and kale, produce flower buds too, though not for eight or nine months after planting. They are the final gift of these hardy winter vegetables as the longer, warmer days of early spring encourage growth and bloom. The emerging flower buds look enough like raab that market growers sell them as “kale raab” or “mustard raab” or “Brussels sprout raab.” Raab PFM

Mustard Raab PFMUntil I saw them labeled this way in the Portland Farmer’s market last April, I’d simply called them flower buds or tops but raab works too. Whatever you call them, the important thing is to enjoy the short-lived treat these raab relatives provide this time of year. Harvest them from the your winter garden or look for them at farmers’ markets. For me they signal the welcome arrival of spring food.

One of the first raab relatives to produce flower buds in my kitchen garden this year were three red cabbage plants that sent out gorgeous purple veined blue-green leaves and buds from the base below the long-since-harvested cabbage head. Red cabbage raabMatching this purple and green palate were spears of asparagus, a perfect earthy compliment to these sweeter cabbage buds. I harvested some of each to create a lovely still life on the kitchen island.Raab asparagus stilllife

After admiring it, we roasted the asparagus and sautéed the red cabbage raab in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes and served it on pasta topped with toasted breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, a perfect meal to welcome spring. Raab asparagus dinnerFor yet more delicious meals Brussels sprouts stalks are sending out tender yellow green flower heads and kale flower buds will be ready soon. Spring is here! Welcome raab season!