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!


Days to Maturity

“Days to Maturity” is the number that appears in seed catalogs and on seed packets, often in parenthesis right after the variety name, and refers to the number of days it takes for the seed to grow into edible form: Cherry Belle Radishes (25 days), Oasis Turnip (50 days), Sugarsnap Snap Pea (68 days), Spring Treat Yellow Sweet Corn (71 days), Flavorburst Pepper (75 days), Cherokee Purple Tomato (77 days), Diamond Eggplant (78 days).

But as even one season of growing vegetables will teach you, this handy-looking number is really just a rough estimate. Weather and temperature, soil condition and rainfall, day length and sun exposure all influence it. Recording seeding, transplanting and harvest dates as well as weather conditions for your garden each year helps customize the days to maturity and plan future seed orders and planting calendars.

If your record keeping is well intentioned but haphazard like mine, or even non-existent, catalog predictions of days to maturity can still be useful estimates because they help sort varieties that ripen earlier from those that ripen later. Here in our cooler marine northwest climate, selecting varieties that ripen earlier can be a good idea. Most years, Spring Treat Corn at 71 days is more likely to reach maturity than Silver Queen at 96 days. Some catalogs supplement or even replace this number with the categories early, mid-season and late making selection for our climate even easier.It’s also a useful number if you want to plant more than one crop of quick-growing spring vegetables like radishes, spring turnips or lettuce. Sowing at intervals of one to three weeks helps ensure a steady supply during cooler spring months.

Most sources also distinguish between direct seeding and transplants when predicting days to maturity. For vegetables that you sow directly into the ground, the days to maturity estimate begins when you sow the seed though some prefer to start counting when seeds germinate. For vegetables that you start indoors and transplant, the days to maturity estimate begins when you set out the transplants in the garden or the greenhouse. Even with this generous handicap, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers transplanted to my greenhouse still exceed the catalog prediction of days to maturity most years.

While customizing days to maturity with record keeping and using this information to create planting calendars are parts of my garden planning, once I actually have the seed packets in hand and the potting soil or the garden dirt under my fingernails, all this information and planning falls away and my mind fills with the meals ahead: the first salad of tender new lettuce and spicy radishes, a bowl of roasted spring turnips on a bed of their sautéed greens, the first sugar snap pea raw from the vine sometime in early June and the big bowl of them I’ll take a month later to my neighbors’ 4th of July party.

_Turnips cookedPeas closeupThinking past spring into summer, I imagine the first tomato sandwich of the season, the first eggplant pizza, and the first crisp pepper salad. Eggplant pizza with bowl of green beans Pepper salad As I plant seeds for each of these meals, I’m confident that they will germinate in a week or two, the plants will grow over more weeks and months, the harvest will happen as weather and temperature allow, all this as the days get longer and warmer. A planting calendar based on days to maturity and record keeping nudges me along but the real motivators are the meals ahead and the pleasure of imagining them.  Happy Spring!

Signs of Spring

In the warmth and light of late February’s lengthening days, the kitchen garden’s perennial vegetables are sending out new growth. Pink tips of asparagus poke through the dirt next to dried stalks of last year’s crop. Asparagus tips '15Crinkled green rhubarb leaves open over red stems. Rhubarb new growthGray-green artichoke leaves unfurl above mounds of hay that protected their roots through the cold spells of winter. Artichokes in mulchAnd bright green spears of garlic rise above rich dark soil. Garlic growing '15In another month they’ll all have doubled or tripled in size and seem less remarkable than they do now as they signal the start of the new season. The excitement then will be in eating them. Over-wintered kale plants that survived the deep cold that began in November and returned several more times in December are now sending out tender, sweet new leaves from their sturdy stalks. Kale new growth '15We’ve been enjoying them in salads dressed with a little olive oil, salt and lemon. The growth of these new leaves will accelerate in the weeks ahead and eventually seed heads will form as kale’s final gift. Kale buds, asparagus, artichokes, green garlic and rhubarb pie, all spring food to look forward to. As a backdrop to the vegetables, the garden paths and hedge are emerging from their winter shagginess. Last weekend we mowed the garden paths for the first time of the season and we have just finished the annual hedge-trimming task. Both lawn and hedge are now smooth, even, velvet green surfaces, two more welcome signs of spring.Garden grass allee Garden view looking west 2:15

Butternut Squash

There are a lot of enticing winter squash recipes that call for butternut squash, a smooth-skinned, tan squash, long-necked with a bulb-shaped base. Until this past year, I’d never grown it, substituting instead with winter squash I’d grown to love over the years—dark green Buttercup and Nutty Delica, bright orange Potimarron and Eastern Rise and striped Honeyboat Delicata—whenever a recipe called for butternut. Butternut seemed so dull looking compared to these more colorful relatives. I think I assumed the flavor would be dull too.

Butternut squash in basket

Still, trying to be more open-minded while ordering seeds last year, I read through the offerings in the “Butternut Group” section of Fedco’s catalog. There was Burpee’s Butterbush described as “chock full of deep reddish-orange flesh ‘as sweet as the best sweet potatoes.’” The texture was “moist but never watery.” “Fruits average no more than 1-1/2 lb.” It was an “excellent keeper.” And it was early, 87 days to maturity compared to 95 days for the Buttercup/Kabocha group and 100 days for Delicatas. In the spirit of experimentation, I ordered a packet.

In early May, I started the butternut squash seeds indoors along with the other winter squashes and set out all the plants two weeks later. In the first couple of months, the vines of the other squash grew up and over the butternut vines, nearly burying them. The butternut blossoms I could see were slower to set fruit than the other squash and the fruit that eventually set was small and green. I was glad I’d given only one hill to this experiment. By late September though, as the vines died back to reveal ripened squash, a dozen lovely tan butternut squash emerged among the greens and oranges of buttercups and kabochas. I stored them with the rest of the squash and forgot about them.

Butternut squash cut up

Finally, around Christmas time, curious to try one in a recipe that called for butternut squash, I brought a sample to the kitchen. Sliced in half, the entire neck was solid squash and the seed cavity was small. The flesh was a gorgeous deep orange and smelled wonderfully sweet. With a vegetable peeler, I easily removed the thin tan skin; the thick skin of other squashes requires a large knife. Cutting it into cubes was also easy compared to cutting up other squash. Then twenty minutes after brushing the cubes with oil, sprinkling them with salt and pepper and roasting them at 425 degrees, we tasted this squash I’d ignored for so many years. It was amazing, everything the catalog description said it would be: rich, sweet, creamy and beautifully orange, nothing dull about it. No wonder so many recipes call for it.

Since this revelation I’ve been going back to recipes that call for butternut squash and making them with this lovely winter squash. Two current favorites are from Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook, Plenty More (2014). I’ve made his Squash with Cardamom and Nigella Seeds many times using Honeyboat Delicata as well as Potimarron and both are very good, but made with sweet, soft-textured butternut squash it is even better. In addition to the cardamom pods and nigella seeds, ground cumin, coriander and turmeric, a cinnamon stick and a green chile give further complex fragrances and flavors to the rich butternut taste. The recipe calls for sautéing some red onion then adding squash chunks and browning them before adding all the spices, moistening the pan with a little vegetable stock and then baking. It’s delicious warm or at room temperature.  A garnish of yogurt and fresh cilantro leaves is lovely too.

Butternut squash cardamom frying pan

Butternut squash round dish

Ottolenghi’s Squash with Chile Yogurt and Cilantro Sauce is just as wonderful. Chunks of butternut squash tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and ground cinnamon roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes then are garnished with chile-flavored yogurt, cilantro pesto, cilantro leaves and toasted pumpkin seeds. Ottolenghi suggests “Sriracha or other savory chile sauce” to flavor the yogurt. I used Chicaoji sauce made on Lopez Island for an added touch of chipotle flavor. When I served this dish to guests the other night, my friend Crystal asked: “What is this squash? It’s so delicious.” “It’s butternut,” I said, “and told her my story.”

Butternut squash, cilantro & yogurt sauces

I’m going to plant more hills of Burpee’s Butterbush butternut squash this year and locate them so that other squash vines won’t overrun them. We’ve sadly just finished the last of our small butternut crop but we can look forward to next fall’s much bigger crop.

P.S. I noticed that while Fedco carries Burpee’s Butterbush again this year, it’s currently backordered. Burpee’s Seeds carries the original Burpee’s Butterbush, describing it as a Burpee exclusive. Territorial offers Butterbush claiming that its vines are only 3-4 feet long. Fedco cautions that its Burpee’s Butterbush “though named and classed as a bush butternut” has determinate vines which can crawl up to 10′ in good fertility.” Mine crawled at least 6 feet.  Territorial also offers Hunter “a classic butternut” that matures faster than any other butternut they’ve trialed. Finally, Johnny’s has a mini-butternut squash called Butterscotch, an AAS winner that they developed. And Adaptive Seeds offers Butternut Early Remix an open pollinated variety they have been developing, selecting for early ripening.


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.

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