In the Spring Kitchen Garden

The spring kitchen garden is full of promise right now.  The seeds I planted a month ago have germinated, the first sets of leaves have survived bugs and slugs, and young plants are growing and thriving.  Seeds I started indoors and set outside are growing too. Though everything is still weeks away from maturity, this brief stretch between planting and harvesting offers a restful moment to admire the garden and anticipate the meals ahead.

Red stems beneath light green beet leaves hint at the sweet, round roots to come. Turnips are in the same state of thriving tops but just the tiniest, earthy roots.  Kohlrabi bulbs are even farther off.  Only the fast-growing radishes have risen above the dirt, previewing what will come soon from the other roots.  Feathery carrot tops are just a few inches high, no orange in sight, while taller fennel fronds rise above slowly swelling white bulbs.

Onions look more like sturdy young scallions than the papery storage onions they’ll become and the potatoes are low, green rosettes at the bottom of their trenches, baby spuds a month or more away. The sugar snap peas are three feet tall and climbing but show no blossoms yet.  Broccoli and cauliflower plants are robust but haven’t formed their buds.  It’s all foliage and no food but such beautiful foliage.

Against this fresh, spring foliage we’re grateful for several stands of over-wintered greens that are providing delicious meals as well as their own large-leafed beauty.  Spinach planted late last September and chards and red mustard planted late last July all overwintered and have been putting out sweet, succulent leaves since March.

The Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach has been especially good this year.  The smaller, early leaves were wonderful raw in salads and the larger, later leaves have been perfect for wilting and embellishing with other flavors.  A favorite dish lately has been wilted spinach tossed with sautéed garlic and yellow raisins and topped with toasted hazelnuts and grated Parmesan cheese.  It’s an elegant side dish but it’s also delicious mixed with ricotta, layered between slices of polenta and baked.

Overwintered Rainbow chard, along with Fordhook Giant and Rhubarb chard have all come on strong in the past few weeks.  I cut the colorful stalks into half-inch pieces and steam them until they are crisp tender before adding the leaves and continuing cooking until both leaves and stalks are tender.  While many Indian spices as well as sautéed onion or garlic are good additions to chard, I most often serve it plain because I love the flavor of chard alone.

I’ve written about wonderful red mustard already (https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/red-mustard/) but I’ll add here that an additional treat is the sturdy mustard flower heads that have been forming this past week.  Brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with a little salt and roasted in a 400-degree oven for 8-10 minutes, the leaves become crispy, the stalks soft, the pungent mustard flavor delicious.

There is a lot to admire in the spring kitchen garden, both what has carried over from the winter garden and what is soon to come from early spring plantings.  To keep this beauty and bounty coming, I’ll soon plant another bed of beets, carrots, turnips, fennel and radishes that will be ready when the present bed is done. We’re entering the season of succession planting, a wonderful excuse to be outdoors in the garden.

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Update: Lopez Lamb, Wool, and Goat Festival!

The Lopez Lamb, Wool, and Goat Festival, Saturday, May 12th, is less than a week away and the weather forecast is for a beautiful day.  I’ve just heard from the festival organizers with these updates on events to enjoy throughout the day:

• The Art of Meat-cutting with Russell Flint from Rain Shadow Meats in Seattle will take place on the south patio at about 11 a.m. and again in the mid-afternoon

• Making Cheese in the Home Kitchen:  Mozzarella with Teri Linneman, Lopez master cheese-maker, will take place in the meeting room between noon and 1 pm

• Back-packing with Goats with Bruce Dunlop and Debbie Young will take place outside in the early afternoon

• Sheep-shearing, sheep dog demonstrations, displays of fiber and dairy goats and various breeds of sheep (along with their kids and lambs) will take place throughout the day

• Scavenger hunt for kids between the ages of 5 and 12 (more or less) will happen between 11 am and 1 pm; check in with Jennifer Armstrong at her felting and fiber arts booth (Quirk Farm Art) at 11 am

•  Hands-on demonstrations of carding, spinning, dyeing, weaving on different types of looms, and felting will be happening throughout the day inside the Community Center

• Lopez Farm-to-School Program students will sell of seed packets and tomato starts

• Food options available during the day:  Donna will be firing up her cob oven and providing pizza in new and delicious ways, including a dessert pizza; Grant Silvey will be there with his hand-ground corn quesadillas; Nella Burt, at the Soda Fountain across the road, will be grilling lamb burgers; the 4-H Goat Club will have a variety of natural juices and other beverages available.

• Food option for a lovely dinner: there are a few tickets left for Christina Orchid’s dinner featuring Lopez Lamb and organic produce.

• Stay tuned to this linked web page for a specific schedule of events, including the time of the sheep drive through the village on Friday, May 11th.  And read more about the Festival in this post: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/lopez-lamb-wool-and-goat-festival/

Asparagus: A Perennial Vegetable

Nearly all of the vegetables I grow in my kitchen garden are annuals, planted from seed every year and reaching maturity and harvest sometime during the twelve-month garden cycle.  But there are three vegetables that don’t need annual seeding and that seem all the more special for simply appearing each spring: asparagus, artichokes, and that vegetable-used-as-a-fruit rhubarb.

One day in late March or early April there is suddenly asparagus.  No leaves or vines announce its arrival, just the tips themselves, nosing up through the dirt, tightly wrapped in overlapping bracts, purple or green.

With enough days of warm weather, these tips quickly shoot up into the spears of “sparrowgrass” that promise the first real taste of spring.  And for the next month or so, tips keep nosing up, spears keep growing, and we eat asparagus nearly every night.

No other spring vegetable tastes quite like asparagus. It’s not a delicate flavor but rather a robust one, more like the scent of fresh earth than of flower blossoms.  No wonder that this time of year chefs and food writers fill newspaper and magazine columns with recipes celebrating asparagus.  As just one example, this past week’s New York Times Food Section has a link to twenty archived recipes for asparagus: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/06/03/dining/20110608-asparagus-recipe.html?ref=dining, in his City Kitchen column David Tanis shares three of his favorite recipes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/dining/cooking-with-fresh-asparagus.html?ref=dining, and last week Florence Fabricant  shared a recipe for Asparagus Carbonara: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/dining/penne-with-asparagus-carbonara-recipe.html?ref=florencefabricant.

I always read these recipes and often try a few before returning to old favorites.  Steamed or roasted asparagus topped with soft-boiled or fried eggs is a perfect quick meal. Asparagus bread pudding, a savory dish from Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager, is a dish I make at least once during asparagus season.  And the flavor of asparagus blends wonderfully with strong flavors of other green vegetables like kale or turnip tops and fava beans in scafata or vegetable stew.

But my favorite way to prepare asparagus is to roast it.  Spread on a sheet pan, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted at 400 degrees until soft, five to ten minutes depending on spear size, it melts on the tongue.  Of course, the raw stalks I munch on the way up from the garden are amazing too, but if I’m going to cook it, I want it soft enough that all the flavors emerge. While other cooks prefer a crisper grass, I’m definitely in the roast-until-soft camp.  One thing all cooks do agree on is that asparagus needs to be fresh, really fresh.  It looses its sweetness within hours of being harvested.  Experiencing this sweetness every spring is the best reason to grow your own.

We planted our first Lopez Island asparagus bed in early spring, 1994, following the advice in Steve Solomon’s 1989 edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and in the planting and growing guide Territorial Seeds sent along with the twenty-five crowns we’d ordered, UC 157, a variety developed by the University of California at Davis.  We dug two trenches, twelve inches wide and eight inches deep, three feet apart in a wide garden bed in the northwest corner of our new kitchen garden.  After amending the soil at the bottom of the trenches with compost and organic fertilizer, we spread out the crowns, spacing them a foot apart and covering them with an inch or two of soil.  As the roots sprouted and grew, we gradually filled in the trench.

In the spirit of experimentation, I also had started some asparagus from seed, Larac, a French variety Territorial offered at the time, one seed per four-inch pot, and set out a dozen these plants along with the crowns.  Then we resigned ourselves to waiting a couple of years for the first asparagus harvest from the roots and another year for the plants grown from seed.  The wait was worth it.  In spring, 1996, we enjoyed a small harvest and in the years that followed, we ate asparagus from this bed for a month or more each spring, usually mid-April to mid-May.  Harvest stops after a month or a bit longer to let the spears grow up into the fern-like foliage that replenishes the roots for the following year.

All the advice on growing asparagus emphasizes how important it is to keep the bed weed free.  I read that advice but I should have taken it more seriously.  By 2001, quack grass was invading and the Leyland Cypress hedge to the north of the bed had filled out and its roots were encroaching.  The only good thing about this scenario was that it gave me the chance to repeat the experiment of starting asparagus from seed.  It had worked really well with the Larac, and in the years since 1994 I’d read several articles encouraging gardeners to start asparagus from seed; even Steve Solomon in newer editions of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades was enthusiastic.

So, in 2001, I ordered seeds of Jersey Knight F1 (all-male variety that yields the best-quality spears of the Jersey hybrids) and UC 157 F2 (an open-pollinated variety for our coast and other mild climate areas) from West Coast Seeds, started seeds in four-inch pots in late February, and planted out the new bed in April.   This is the bed that’s providing asparagus now.  I’ve kept on top of the weeds more successfully this time, but despite my best efforts, some Canadian thistles have established themselves, a nasty weed that spreads from vegetative buds in its root system as well as from seed.  They are under control but I’m tempted to start yet another bed, far from creeping thistle roots.  Maybe this time I’ll be able to find seeds of Larac again or some other interesting new or heirloom variety.  And I’ll definitely follow Steve Solomon’s 2007 edition advice for direct seeding asparagus and creating a bed that will last a lifetime.  Spring after spring of this special treat.  What could be better!

P.S.  A friend just sent this tempting recommendation: “Have you ever tried “Purple Passion”?  It’s the sweetest, tenderest asparagus we’ve grown and truly beautiful to behold.  Like most purple veggies, it turns green in the roasting or steaming process, but is fantastic cut fresh into a salad.  I actually like to just sit next to it in the garden and watch it grow.  After a rain, it’s bejeweled, like looking into a kaleidoscope.”