Equinox Thoughts

Half of the foliage filling the kitchen garden is signaling the end of spring and summer vegetables, yellowing corn stalks, withered squash leaves and leafless pole bean vines. The other half signals the rise of autumn and winter crops, robust tops of parsnips, carrots, turnips and celeriac, full leaves of kales, chard, leeks, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, all in healthy shades of green.

fall-equinox-yellow

fall-equinox-green

fall-equinox-green-leeksPoised between seasons, the garden at the autumn equinox encourages a look ahead to the meals promised by the green side, but just as much it encourages a look back at the garden year so far, at spring plantings and summer harvests and at the surprises and discoveries that this garden year has offered.

Sunchocola cherry tomato is my vegetable surprise of the summer. It has a kind of silly name but the Territorial Seed Company description tempted me to try it: “The 1 1/4 inch round, henna colored fruit are juicy and divinely sweet, with an added depth of slightly smoky, low acid flavor that’s unusual in a cherry tomato. Rambling indeterminate plants yield generous trusses of fruit early in the season and continue for the long haul.” All true!

tomato-sunchocola

tomato-sunchocola-vine

It’s a perfect cherry tomato, imagine a mini Cherokee Purple, and the vines are spectacular, requiring a ladder now for harvest. Eaten out of hand, halved in salads or, when there are just too many to eat fresh, roasted into a syrupy sauce, it’s truly delicious and has earned a permanent place in my greenhouse.

Then there is summer-grown kale. As I wrote in May, spring-seeded kale was surprising in its succulence and flavor, slowly converting me from my bias toward frost-sweetened kale. The conversion became complete this summer. We ate kale salads every day for lunch from kale that volunteered throughout the spring and early summer and grew into robust plants producing tender leaves. I still planted a winter kale bed in mid-July, and still look forward to frost-sweetened kale, but summer kale has been an unexpected treat.

So many pears this year, how to make time to dry them all? Our extra-abundant crop left me looking for ways to speed up the time it takes to peel and slice them for the dehydrator trays. I remembered that my friend Debbie uses a mandoline to slice pears for drying and that she even leaves the skins on. In one of the biggest equipment discoveries of the summer, we tried the mandoline and it works, cutting our preparation time from over an hour to fifteen minutes. And it doesn’t take that much more time to peel off the skin before slicing the pears with the mandoline. Ours is a Swissmar Borner V-1001 V-Slicer Plus Mandoline.

Another equipment innovation this summer was an electric raccoon fence. After losing most of our corn crop last year to raccoons, we knew we needed to be more prepared for predators this year. Our friends Maxine and Debbie showed us the electric fence they use to foil raccoons and gave us the Premier 1 Supplies catalog so we could order some. It will be a few years before the corn harvest pays back the cost of the fence, but it’s completely worth it to have worry-free corn harvests. In fact, the corn fence was so successful that I may plant a little less corn next year.

Deciding how much to plant each spring is a puzzle I return to every year. This year, I radically reduced the number of storage crops I planted: half a bed of potatoes instead of a whole bed, the same for onions, only one bed of winter squash instead of two beds, the same for bush dry beans. Looking back on the harvest from this vantage point of the autumn equinox, I think I made the right choice. Harvest was certainly quicker, storage easier. It won’t take so long to shell the dry beans. I made the change because I’d noticed that, in our mild winters, leeks and winter roots growing in the garden were more tempting than onions, potatoes and squash stored in the shed. By spring there were still storage vegetables left, some of them spoiled. Maybe winter will surprise me this year with extra cold temperatures and some crop failures, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take, one I’ll assess next year at the spring equinox.

 

Summer Meals

In this busy summer of guests and dinner parties, I find myself reverting again and again to the simplest preparations of the summer vegetables bursting from the kitchen garden right now. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, peppers, fennel, first harvests of potatoes and onions can all go from garden to table with very little effort.

Vegetables in baskets

Sliced tomatoes drizzled with a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt and maybe garnished with fresh basil fill a platter quickly, colorful cherry tomato halves mixing with slices of red and yellow heirlooms.

Tomatoes in blue bowl '16

Green and yellow, skinny and wide pole beans cook in three minutes in boiling water and provide a lovely tangle of colors and textures in a shallow bowl.

Beans in vietri bowl '16

Eggplant quartered lengthwise, brushed with olive oil and roasted at 475 for about 20 minutes then pureed in the food processor with garlic, lemon zest and juice, ground cumin and tahini makes a lovely spread or dip, smooth flesh mixing with bits of charred skin. Chunks of potatoes and red onions, squares of red and yellow peppers and thick slices of fennel all tossed in a little olive oil, lightly salted and spread in a single layer on sheet pans roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes. Served warm or at room temperature they make a colorful, flavorful potato salad.

Vegetables summer on island '16

The pleasure in these meals starts with filling harvest baskets in the cool, early morning air and ends in the evening with friends around the sun-warmed table. Time in the kitchen is minimal, leaving the rest of the day open. Later on, when the calendar clears a bit, there will be time for more complex preparations but for now the flavors of summer nourish us with very little effort from me.

Kale Lessons

I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.

Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat.  Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature. Kale volunteers

Kale volunteerMy prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.

The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.

Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.

 

 

 

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.

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!

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.