New Seeds for 2013

This year’s seed orders have all arrived, the results of catalog study and online ordering that satisfy my gardening desires every January.  Before I opened the many seed catalogs that piled up on my desk at the turn of the year, I inventoried my seeds from the previous year, decided what long-time favorites needed reordering and thought about the new additions to last year’s kitchen garden that did well and those that didn’t.  I could have simply reordered the favorites and successes and been done, but catalog descriptions of superior flavor, greater hardiness or a rare heirloom variety always tempt me and each year I order lots of new varieties, just to try.  Sometimes I discover gems, other times duds but even one gem makes the experiments worthwhile.

Seed packets tomatoes

I was tempted by a lot of new tomato varieties this year and the pile of packets makes me wonder how I’ll find space for them next to all my old favorites.  From Seed Savers Exchange, there’s Dester, a “luscious pink beefsteak,” winner of SSE’s 2011 Tomato Tasting; Ukrainian Purple (aka Purple Russian), a purple-tinged plum shaped tomato that I’m hoping will be as flavorful as Pruden’s Purple and Cherokee Purple, two of my favorites in the purple realm; and Velvet Red, a one-inch cherry tomato with “striking silvery gray dusty miller-type foliage and excellent flavor” that’s this year’s entry in my search for the perfect red cherry tomato.  Last year’s Gardener’s Delight was a disappointment.  From Adaptive Seeds there’s Sungella, “1 ½ -2” orange globes with deliciously sweet flesh, bigger and more split resistant than Sungold.” What could be better than a bigger Sungold?  From my friend Carol who ordered from Tomato Growers Supply, there’s Stump of the World.  How could I resist that name and its comparison to my old standard Brandywine?  It’s a dark pink beefsteak, “a bit smaller and more productive than Brandywine but, like Brandywine, offers outstandingly rich, complex flavor.” And finally my sister Sarah and I ordered another delightfully named tomato, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, “a port wine colored beefsteak with metallic green stripes,” from Wild Boar Farms.  The name and the claim that 10 out of 10 people preferred its “sweet, rich, dark tomato flavor” to Cherokee Purple, our favorite tomato, made it one we had to try.

Seed packets pepper, eggplant

I was more restrained with peppers and eggplant, ordering only two new varieties of each.  Looking for a yellow horn-shaped pepper to go with Johnny’s wonderful red bull’s horn Carmen, I ordered Golden Treasure, an Italian heirloom from Seed Saver’s Exchange, nine-inch peppers that “ripen from green to shiny yellow,” “excellent for frying, roasting and fresh eating,” and Superette Sweet Banana Pepper from Fedco, similar to Golden Treasure so I’ll have to do a taste-off.  Wanting to try some mini-eggplant, I ordered two from Johnny’s, Hansel, a 3-4 inch dark purple eggplant “non-bitter and perfect for grilling or slicing thin on pizza” and Fairy Tale, a purple and white mini-eggplant with “wonderful flavor, no bitterness and very few seeds.”

Seed packets, roots

For roots, I ordered new varieties of celeriac, rutabaga and turnip and returned to an old beet favorite.  From Adaptive Seeds, there’s Tellus, “a great old-fashioned celeriac from England, darker inside and out with reddish stalks.”  The packet claims it has “real celeriac flavor because it has not had the flavor bred out of it.”  From Territorial there’s Joan rutabaga. I’m hoping it will be sweeter and more complex-flavored than Laurentian, a variety I tried last year and probably won’t grow again.  From Johnny’s there’s a new red salad turnip, Scarlet Queen Red Stems.  A red turnip I tried last year, Red Round turnip from Fedco, was disappointingly tough and thick-skinned.  I hoping Scarlet Queen will live up to its description: “sweet, crisp, white flesh with spicy, red skin.”  Finally, I was happy to find Kestrel beet at West Coast Seeds, a sweet, dark red beet Territorial used to carry but dropped several years ago.

For other winter vegetables, I ordered White Russian Kale from Territorial. Bred by Frank Morton, it’s “a sister variety of Winter Red.”  Even if the flavor isn’t noticeably different from Winter Red it will still be a pretty color contrast in salads.  From Johnny’s I ordered two new leeks, Bandit and Lexton with the hope of finding a leek that will stand up to leek rust.

Seed packet corn Finally, from West Coast Seeds I ordered Seneca Horizon sweet corn, dropped several years ago by Territorial but still my favorite corn.  I’m happy to return to after disappointing seasons with Golden Bantam and Spring Treat.

I’ve already started seeds of fennel, radicchio, broccoli and cauliflower in cell packs; they are up and starting to grow.  In the next day or two, I’ll plant flats of onions, shallots and sugar snap peas.  I’ll also plant small pots of tomatoes and in a couple of weeks, small pots of the other heat lovers, peppers and eggplant.  In late March I’ll start seeds of celery root.  And when the weather settles, I’ll leave the seed trays and potting soil for the big garden and start planting there. Seed packets ready, my new planting year begins.

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The February Kitchen Garden

Roots bed croppedThe February kitchen garden looks a little ragged.  In the root vegetable beds, only a few green stems rise here and there above the soggy mulch, several celery roots, a couple of turnips and rutabagas.  Under the mulch, the last parsnips and carrots are just starting to re-sprout.  I’ll harvest all these roots soon, before they lose their flavor and texture to new growth. The few remaining leeks are droopy-leaved but still sweet and tender.  I’ll harvest them soon too before their cores harden into seed stalks.  And the Brussels sprouts are listing, top-heavy with the final, still-tasty sprouts.Carrots in mulch

Brussels sprouts 2013

Leeks, carrots, sprouts in basket

These favorite winter vegetables have served us well all winter and I’ll savor the last of them in meals that celebrate the end of this season. Roasting large batches these remaining roots, leeks and sprouts is a good way to prepare them. Sitting out on plates, they are tempting snacks.  Having several days worth of them available for lunch and dinner salads and maybe a root vegetable tart stretches out the pleasure of their intense flavors and colors, their chewy, caramelized textures.Roots roasted on plates

In the beds of hardy greens, the remaining leaves of kale, chard, mustard and arugula are sturdy but still sweet from frosts, still delicious sautéed or in salads.  As I harvest these last winter leaves, new growth is already sprouting from the stems of kale, the thick bases of chard, the centers of mustards and the tangle of arugula. Unlike the roots, whose season is ending, these re-growing greens will provide earthy, spicy salads for a month or two before they send out the flower buds that will end their season in my favorite spring stir-fries.  Here are two posts from last year that explore these new growth greens and flower buds: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/new-growth-greens/ and https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/kale-tops-and-other-flower-buds/

Greens bed 2013

Kale buds 2013

Mustard growth 2013

The other night, I made a salad that brought some of the last roots and newly growing greens together.  I cut a rutabaga into small cubes, tossed them in olive oil and roasted them until they softened and caramelized.  They were the perfect addition to a salad of new kale leaves, new and old arugula and mustard and the last of the mache.  A sprinkling of roasted leeks completed this February salad, celebrating both the last roots and the re-growing greens. Salad February

Digging Leeks

Leeks diggingLeek roots don’t extend so deeply into the soil as, say, a single parsnip root, but leeks do have lots of tenacious little roots so harvest requires a digging fork to loosen these hardy winter alliums. And it’s a muddy task, not quite so dirty as parsnip digging but still dirty.  By this stage of winter leeks aren’t things of beauty either, no longer the vigorous, tall spears of late summer but instead a bit bent with outer leaves flopped over, even slimy.  Still, beneath this exterior they are perfectly fine, ready to harvest, trim and take to the kitchen.  Their delicate, sweet fragrance wafts up as soon as they leave the ground and intensifies as trimming creates creamy white shafts topped with fans of green.

Leeks and trimmings

Leeks have a subtle flavor, more delicate than onions or shallots. That’s why I like them. Onions offer strong sweetness, either sautéed until translucent or cooked down longer to a caramelized onion candy.  Raw, finely diced shallots give a hint of onion to vinaigrette; cooked shallots add a complex onion flavor to sauces.  And it’s certainly easier to grab a storage onion or shallot already harvested and tidily stored than it is to dig and clean a leek, but if it’s the perfume of leeks that you want then nothing else will do.

Leek and potato soup is classic as is the combination of leek, kale and potato for Dutch Boerenkool.  Leeks and winter squash in a tart, leeks and greens in a pasta sauce or leeks and flageolet beans in a casserole topped with breadcrumbs are all perfect combinations. And Gruyere in the tart, Parmesan on the pasta, goat cheese with the beans each adds richness to the flavor of leeks.  “Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks” from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986) makes a hearty winter meal and a leek and goat cheese frittata is simple and delicious.

One of my favorite ways to prepare leeks is sautéed in butter and a little thyme then baked in a simple pastry crust.  The first time I served this galette from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables was as a side dish to accompany rack of lamb.  It was a hit and ever since then, it’s been the main dish surrounded by other sides.

Leek galette

Another delicious way to prepare leeks is to slice them lengthwise, brush them lightly with olive oil and roast them at about 400 degrees until soft, usually 15-20 minutes.  Piping hot, at room temperature or marinated in lemon vinaigrette, it’s hard to decide which is best.  They are all so good.

A few weeks ago, Melissa Clark in her New York Times Good Appetite column offered one more variation on roasting leeks: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/23/dining/roasting-renders-leeks-tender-and-versatile.html?ref=melissaclark.  She halves leeks lengthwise, cuts them into quarter-inch slices, tosses them in olive oil, spreads them on a single layer on a sheet pan and roasts them at 425 for about twenty minutes, turning them frequently so they don’t burn.  When they’re done, golden brown and lightly crisp, they have all sorts of uses.  Clark uses them in a hearty salad of farro, chickpeas and currants but adds that she’s also used them “as a topping for fish, fowl and other vegetables, and as a garnish for soups and braised meats.”  A few nights ago, I surrounded a pile of them with fava beans and roasted Brussels sprouts for a late winter vegetable platter.  Leeks and fava beans are an amazing combination, delicate, sweet leeks and earthy, dense favas.  I could eat them every night.

Leeks, favas, Brussels

Despite all these delicious possibilities for leeks, and the pleasure I get from the process of growing them (https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/tag/leeks/), I confess that I was tempted to banish them from my kitchen garden this coming year.  For the past two years, leek rust has found its way to my leek patch, depositing its orange pustules on the green leaves and driving me nearly to despair.  The first year, I cut off all of diseased leaves as they appeared and sprayed a mixture of sulphur powder, a drop of dish soap and water on the remaining leaves.  Last year I replaced this spray with a mixture of neem oil and camomile tea (http://www.hydroponics-at-home.com/rust-fungus.html) and this potion worked better to slow down and even halt the progress of the rust.  As was the case the year before, the leeks kept growing, but they weren’t pretty.

Maybe if I didn’t plant leeks for a year or two I’d break the rust cycle and also protect my soil, but two things have kept me from taking this step for the year ahead.  One was a Google search that turned up a series of websites that treated leek rust as a manageable evil.  Two sites I especially like are the British Garden Organic – The National Charity for Organic Growing (http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/factsheets/dc8.php) and the blog by Osborne’s Seeds in Mt. Vernon, WA (http://vegtrials.blogspot.com/2011/11/rust-fungi-and-disease-resistant-leeks.html).  I’m planning to follow the “prevention and control” advice from the British site.

The other encouragement to plant again this year was the mention of a seed variety that showed leek rust resistance: Bandit. I ordered a packet from Johnny’s (http://www.johnnyseeds.com/c-33-leeks.aspx).  If neither the growing advice nor the seed variety works, I will let leeks go for a few years, but the lovely flavor of leeks is spurring me on to do battle with rust for one more year.  Stay tuned!