Happy Thanksgiving!

Last November I wrote a column about vegetables side dishes for the Thanksgiving table and the pleasures of remembering the friends who brought them and the many ways they prepared them.  Here’s the column below.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S.  The Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkins are as wonderful as everyone says!

Thanksgiving Reverie

It’s November and people are planning Thanksgiving dinner menus and inviting friends and family. In these weeks and days before the big meal, before trying to remember how to cook a turkey, there’s pleasure in thinking back on past Thanksgiving dinners and remembering who brought what side dishes to this ultimate potluck. The vegetables are familiar: Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, potatoes, onions, kale, winter squash.  Their presentation changes with the guests who bring them.

Take Brussels sprouts, for example.  For years, they were a vegetable I prepared, boiling them whole after cutting an X in each base so they’d cook evenly, watching them carefully and removing them while they were still green and flavorful, hoping they’d convert the skeptics.

Then sometime in the early ‘90s our friend Liz offered to fix them, cutting them in half, steaming them, mixing them with chestnuts, bacon and shallots and tossing all in a mustard cream sauce.  This dish appealed to many, especially bacon lovers, and was the standard for as long as Liz could join us.

Back on my own to fix them, I disguised the mini-cabbage shaped sprouts by slicing them thinly and then sautéing the pile of slivered sprouts in browned butter.  This preparation is now a favorite, though there is the variation of thicker slices tossed in olive oil and roasted on a cookie sheet in a hot oven.  Either appeals to Brussels sprouts skeptics.

Other vegetables have also made the shift from boiling to roasting.  Mashed rutabaga, a favorite at our neighbor’s Thanksgiving and one they shared when they joined us, has been replaced with rutabaga sliced into strips, tossed in olive oil and roasted like French fries.  We all like it better this way, but I still remember the first time I prepared mashed rutabaga with my neighbor’s mom.  She told me to grip the rutabaga with a dishtowel when I cut into it so it wouldn’t slide around.  I still do that, for safety, but also for the pleasure of remembering Sallie.

Roasted vegetables may be healthier but butter and cream aren’t absent from the table.   Making perfect mashed potatoes is really an art, one that my neighbor Laura has mastered.  She claims it’s the butter, lots of it.  Whatever, this is one dish no one wants changed.

And kale, such a health food when simply steamed or braised takes on new dimensions with the addition of heavy cream.  I didn’t know this until my friend Karen described it as one of her family’s favorite Thanksgiving dishes and I tried it.

Onions, on the other hand, have become healthier.  After years of traditional creamed onions, we now bring to the table thick onion slices that have been brushed with a little olive oil, roasted on cookie sheets until soft, then tossed with sherry vinegar and a pinch of cayenne.

Winter squash was always on the Thanksgiving table: sweet, nutty, bright orange fleshed Buttercup, baked like a potato and then, after removal of seeds, scooped into a bowl and served.  Then one year our friend Chris brought “Sweet and Sour Squash with Mint,” quarter inch slices of winter squash fried until tender and slightly blistered in garlic flavored olive oil, sprinkled with chopped mint and marinated in a vinegar and sugar sauce.  It hasn’t replaced Buttercup, but it has freed up some of the Buttercup for more squash pie.

Every Thanksgiving potluck has pies.  In addition to many variations on apple, there are squash and pumpkin pies with squash the slight favorite with us because it is richer and sweeter.  This year though my friend Molly gave me one of her Winter Luxury Pie pumpkins, a gorgeous orange pumpkin distinguished by delicate netting over the entire surface.  Fans claim that it makes the “smoothest and most velvety pumpkin pie” ever.  Who knows, it may replace squash pie as the favorite way to end the feast.

So before the stress of the holiday season kicks in, enjoy this time to savor memories of friends and food.  Visit farm stands, buy local produce, be thankful for the farmers who grow these vegetables and the friends and family who prepare and share them.  Then you can start worrying about the turkey.

First published in the Islands’ Weekly, November 9, 2010.

Kale

If I could grow only one winter vegetable it would be kale.  It’s easy to grow, very cold hardy and from the first frost of late fall all the way into spring its leaves provide earthy, mineral-tinged sweetness to all sorts of dishes.  And at the end of its season, as spring brings longer days and warmer temperatures, miniature broccoli-like heads sprout above the leaves, a final treat from this wonderful vegetable.

I plant kale in mid-July in rows about two feet apart, one seed every few inches. If temperatures aren’t terribly hot, it germinates well and grows quickly.  When the plants are three or four inches high, I thin them, leaving one plant every twelve inches.  For the two of us, two fifteen-foot rows provide plenty of kale for the winter kitchen.

Red Russian (top right) and Winterbor (top left) are my two favorite varieties.  I like the ragged edged, red and purple tinged Red Russian for its tenderness and sweet flavor and the tightly curled, yellow-green Winterbor for its slightly chewier texture and stronger flavor. Most years I plant a little blue-green Lacinato (lower right), also called Dinosaur Kale, Black Palm or Cavolo Nero, a favorite of many and very good but not at the top of my list.

This year my sister Sarah gave me seeds of Rainbow Lacinato so I planted that as well (above, lower left next to some young chard, and below).  It’s every bit as beautiful and cold hardy as the Fedco catalog description claims: “Who but Frank Morton would think to cross Lacinato with Redbor? The result: A stunning new kale that combines some of the best features of both. It looks like Dinosaur kale overlaid with reds, blues and purples. In addition to its color, Redbor lends its productivity, super cold hardiness and reluctance to bolt to this heavenly combination. Curly edges, red veins, purple leaves, blue-green leaves, what a banquet of diverse shapes and colors!”  Even more exciting to me, it’s delicious, more succulent than Red Russian with a sweet, almost smoky flavor.  I’ll definitely grow more of this variety next year.

By October the kale plants are robust, two-foot tall shrubs.  It’s tempting to harvest their gorgeous leaves and start cooking right away, but as I explained in my last post, kale tastes so much sweeter after a frost or two that it’s worth waiting.

This year, I started harvesting kale after our late October frosts.  Because the leaves of all these kale varieties are so pretty, I often fill a basket with some of each.

I pick the lowest, outermost leaves first and in subsequent harvests continue picking up and around the plant. I use a knife and cut the stem fairly close to the main stalk.  As one more sign of kale’s ongoing gifts, the bit of stem that remains soon withers and falls off and new growth begins around the scar.

The most wonderful thing about kale in the kitchen is that you can take it in so many directions.  The tender-leafed Red Russian is delicious raw in salads.  Washed, dried, torn or sliced into small strips, rubbed with olive oil and salt then sprinkled with vinegar and dusted with grated Pecorino Romano cheese, it’s a perfect winter salad.  Add pickled red onions, sliced oranges or oil cured olives for more flavors.  Google “raw kale salad” and get pages more of inspiration and variation.

While I love making raw kale salads, my most common preparation method, and possibly my favorite, is wilting.  I pull the leaves from the stems, tear them into smaller pieces, rinse them and pile them, still wet, into a skillet.

I set the skillet over medium heat and cover the greens with a lid.  The kale wilts quickly in the water left on the leaves.  I keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t scorch and add a bit more water if it dries out before it becomes tender.

Once wilted, the kale is much reduced in volume and ready to become any number of meals based on your imagination and what you have on hand.

Last night, I sautéed garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, added wilted kale and some Good Mother Stallard shell beans and tossed this mix with pasta Scott made from Bluebird Grain Farms emmer farro flour.  A little grated Parmesan cheese and it’s dinner.

For other pasta toppings, I’ve added sausage or caramelized onions or simply poured a little cream onto the wilted kale after it’s been sautéed in oil and garlic.  Any of these mixtures are also great added to eggs for frittatas or mixed with mashed potatoes and stock or milk for soup.

Years ago, our friend Heleen introduced us to her version Boerenkool, a Dutch recipe from her childhood. She mixes wilted kale with mashed potatoes and sautéed leeks, tops the mixture with grated Gruyere cheese and walnuts and bakes it.  She says it’s not traditionally Dutch but it’s still delicious.

A few years later, her daughter Josephine suggested we use some sautéed kale as a pizza topping, a wonderful idea we’ve repeated often, referring to this pizza as “The Josephine.” The kale gets a bit crispy, reminding me that I still haven’t made kale chips, the latest cool way to fix this versatile vegetable.  Google kale chips and see!

What are your favorite kale recipes?  Share them as we move into this welcome kale season!

Sweeter After A Frost

“Sweeter after a frost” say seed catalog descriptions of many winter vegetables, and it’s true. Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, parsnips, carrots, celery root, beets, turnips, rutabagas, even winter leeks all taste sweeter after a frost or two.  This characteristic of these hardy vegetables is one of the many treats of a winter kitchen garden.

The sweetness comes from the plants’ physiological responses to cold temperatures.  In Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (6th edition, 2007), Steve Solomon explains that cabbage family crops like kale and Brussels sprouts “increase the amount of sugars and other substances in their cells. This sugar solution acts like anti-freeze.  It also makes many species taste much sweeter after they’ve been well frosted a few times.” (p. 128)

In root vegetables like parsnips, celery root and carrots the increased sweetness happens because the plants respond to cold by converting their starches to sugars.  Winter leeks go dormant during cold spells, resuming growth and becoming sweeter when temperatures rise.

We woke to our first serious frost this year on October 28th.  Scott’s photos from that morning show plants that look like they’ve been dusted with sugar, a pretty clue to the sweet tastes inside.

Kale, Red Russian

Brussels sprouts, Gustus

Red Cabbage, Ruby Ball

Osaka Purple and Red Giant Mustards and Carrots (Mokum) in foreground, Parsnips (Lancer and Javelin) in backgroundLeeks, King Sieg

When temperatures in the low twenties or teens are forecast, I pile extra hay mulch over root crops and cover them and the cabbage family crops with used lumber wrap.  This additional protection keeps the plants from freezing solid and is easy to remove once the severe cold is past.

The winter kitchen garden needs to be planted in mid-summer, so there’s work there, but once fall and winter come, there’s no work except this extra cover-up when the weather turns really cold.  There’s just the pleasure of walking through this winter larder and harvesting the sweet treats.  In future posts, I’ll write more about each of the vegetables and how I use them in the kitchen.