Seeds for 2017

2017-seed-catalogs

Ordering vegetable seeds each year is a process of looking back at what worked and what didn’t and ahead to re-ordering old favorites and tempting new varieties. It’s a pleasant process, a good way to spend some January afternoons. This year though there was some sadness as well as I looked for acceptable replacements for some long-time favorites no longer available.

Avalanche Beet and Red Cored Chantenay carrot were delicious additions to the kitchen garden’s root vegetables this year. I’d ordered Avalanche, a sweet white beet and recent AAS winner, for its color. It looked great steamed or roasted with yellow and red beets and though its flavor was a bit milder than a red beet it was still deliciously beetlike. I’d ordered Red Cored Chantenay because my friend Mary gave me one to taste last winter and I was amazed by its juicy sweet carrot flavor. It’s an heirloom from the late 19th century and one I’m grateful is still available. I’ve also been especially impressed by how well it’s held this winter, heavily mulched with hay, through 20 degree night-time temperatures.

Two tomatoes that I’ll definitely plant again this year are Sunchocola , a large henna-colored cherry tomato, and Fiaschetto de Manduria, a paste tomato from Puglia via Uprising Organics. Both were flavorful whether fresh, roasted or dried. And both produced early and continued to provide lots of tomatoes throughout the summer.

A couple surprising disappointments were Escamillo and Lipstick peppers from Johnny’s. Johnny’s wonderful Carmen has been a favorite for years and the catalog described Escamillo as Carmen’s “perfect, golden-yellow partner.” It did look pretty but it was missing the sweet and spicy flavors I like in peppers. Lipstick tempted me with its blockier shape compared to Carmen’s bull’s-horn shape but it wasn’t so productive as Carmen or so flavorful.

It’s hard to resist new varieties of tomatoes and this year I gave in to two. The first is Orange Paruche, described by Territorial as “succulent, sweet and flavorful,” excelling “in productivity and taste with astonishing quantities of brilliant, glowing orange fruit.” But the deciding piece of praise for me was that Orange Paruche won Territorial’s in-house taste test. The second is from Territorial’s Heritage Marriage Series, Cherokee Carbon The catalog describes it as “the best of Cherokee Purple and Carbon… beautiful beefsteaks [that] have a dusky blush and rich, delicious flavor.” Cherokee Purple is one of my favorites and my friend Carol says Carbon is a great tomato so maybe this marriage will work.

Sugar Snap peas and Copra onions were two sources of sadness. For the past several years I’ve noticed the corruption of the original strain of Sugar Snap peas; more and more off types have been turning up, peas the shape of flimsy snow peas mixed in with the classic crunchy, sweet edible pea pod. Most catalogs no longer even offer the original Sugar Snap, suggesting as replacement Super Sugar Snap. I’ve tried Super Sugar Snap and been disappointed by the flavor so this year, intrigued by their catalog description, I’m trying Adaptive Seeds’ Sugaree . “A classic green sugar snap pea… Super tasty with a classic sweet crunch …Originally bred to be a public domain replacement for Sugar Snap…”

Copra has been the perfect yellow storage onion in my garden for years but this year’s Fedco catalog signaled its end with their description of Patterson Onion, the suggested replacement: “2016 is a time of great partings. Which is worse: losing Obama as president or losing Copra onion?” Well, there are replacements for Copra. Turning to Adaptive Seeds again, I’m going to try their Newburg  described as “simply the best open pollinated yellow storage-onion… a great replacement for the classic Hybrid Copra.” I can feel optimistic about a replacement onion; as for the just-inaugurated replacement for Obama, I feel only despair.

The garden can offer some relief from despair. It’s an act of hope to bury a small seed in the ground and trust that it will produce a plant and food. And the hopefulness of gardening can be a metaphor for other acts of hope. Small seeds of goodness can germinate, can grow and reach out into the world. I can’t order these seeds from a catalog but I’m going to look hard for them in the year ahead, plant them and join with others to move beyond despair.

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Parsnips and Pork

This winter’s kitchen garden has offered a steady supply of parsnips beginning when the deep cold of early December transformed these sturdy roots from starchy to sweet and continuing on through more freezes and thaws.  There’s one more row left to take us to spring so still opportunities to experiment with parsnips in the kitchen.  Lately I’ve discovered how tasty parsnips are with pork.  Roast pork with potatoes and parsnips is lovely but sausages and parsnips are really good too.

Parsnips and pork

One recent evening I had some leftover roasted parsnips, some spicy pork sausage meat and dinner to make.  A quick Google search turned up a recipe for Orecchiette with Sausage, Chard, and Parsnips that confirmed my sense that sweet, caramelized parsnips and crispy fried sausage would be a great combination on pasta.  There was more red mustard than chard in the kitchen garden so I sautéed that in some of the fat left from frying the sausage, returned the sausage to the skillet, added roasted parsnips, heating for a few minutes until both were warm, then added the cooked orecchiette and served this delicious combination with lots of grated Parmesan.  I think the red mustard was actually a better choice than the chard.  Chard’s sweetness would have matched the parsnips’ while mustard’s spiciness joined with the sausage for a stronger sweet/spicy contrast.  My only regret is that I didn’t get a photo before we started eating.

With the memory of this delicious meal still in my mind and plans to experiment further with parsnips, pork and pasta, I was delighted to find Melissa Clark’s recipe for pasta and parsnips in the next morning’s New York Times.  She combined roasted parsnips, bacon and leeks with heavy cream, grated Parmesan and chopped parsley and served this rich sauce on bell-shaped campanelle pasta.  I substituted sausage for bacon, orecchiette for campanelle, red onion for leeks, and added fava beans for some green but totally followed her advice for reducing the cream until it thickened to a sauce around the sausage and vegetables.  This creamy version probably isn’t quite so healthy as the red mustard one but very comforting all the same.  I’ll make both again and will even follow Clark’s recipe exactly next time.  And I’ll try to remember photos.

Parnips, sausage, fava pasta

There’s one more parsnip and sausage recipe I want to try, this one from Nigel Slater’s Tender, A Cook and his Vegetable Patch (2009) p. 353.  He simply browns then bakes parsnips and sausages together with a little onion and stock.  It sounds wonderfully satisfying and a perfect meal for our lingering winter.

Parsnips on counter

Another Supper of Young Parsnips and Sausage

4 medium onions


3 tbsp oil


1 pound parsnips


6 thick sausages


A few sprigs of thyme


2 cups stock

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Peel the onions and slice them in half from root to tip, then cut each half into six or eight pieces. Soften them slowly in the oil in a flameproof baking dish or roasting tin over a moderate heat.

While they are softening, peel the parsnips and cut them into short, thick chunks, about the length of a wine cork. Add them to the onions and leave to color, turning up the heat a little if needs be. Remove the onions and parsnips from the pan.

Cut each sausage into three, put them in the pan, adding a little more oil if it appears dry, and let them color. Return the onions and parsnips to the pan. It is important everything is a good color before you proceed. Strip the leaves from the thyme and stir them in, together with the stock. Bring to the boil briefly, then put in the oven to bake for 35-40 minutes, until the sausages are cooked right through, the parsnips are tender and the stock has reduced a little.

Gilfeather Turnips

Vegetable seed catalogs tempt us with descriptions of taste, beauty, productivity, and occasionally an intriguing story or bit of seed history. It was a story that drew me to Gilfeather turnips a decade ago, and I’m glad it did.  I’ve continued grow this truly delicious root in each winter’s kitchen garden and as an added treat I’ve watched its story grow too.

Gilfeather turnips growing

In Fedco Seed Company’s 2005 version, the Gilfeather turnip was “either developed or discovered by John Gilfeather (1865-1944) of Wardsboro, VT in the late 1800s.”  Selling them in local markets, “Gilfeather, a lanky secretive man, is said to have cut the tops and bottoms off his turnips, so that no one else could propagate them. Nevertheless, some seeds escaped to a neighbor who gave them to market growers William and Mary Lou Schmidt, who salvaged, then commercialized the variety.”  In addition to this story, the description claimed that Gilfeather is “sweeter and later to mature than other turnips, not woody even at softball size, tastes better after frost” and that its “tender, mild, spineless greens” are also delicious.  And in a technical detail, it noted: “this heirloom has come down in folklore as a turnip but is really a rutabaga.”

Over the years, the catalog descriptions kept up with the Gilfeather story adding the information that it is now listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste and leading off for the last several years with the reminder that: “At the end of October each year, Wardsboro hosts a festival at which all the dishes served feature its famous vegetable.”  I haven’t been to this event but several years ago when I was in Vermont in early October I spotted a poster for the Gilfeather Turnip Festival.  Then recently I found a 23-minute documentary: The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro.  It’s definitely worth watching, even if you don’t like turnips.  There’s also a great recent newspaper article: “Turnip festival sprouts again at end of month.”  If the film and article tempt you to plant Gilfeather turnips, Fedco carries the seed and this year I noticed that Wild Garden Seeds in Oregon offers them too: .

Vermonters plant their Gilfeather turnips in the spring for harvest and cold storage in late October, but in my temperate Pacific Northwest marine climate I plant them in mid-to-late July, spacing them about eight inches apart in rows two feet apart, and begin harvesting them after a few good frosts and then on through the winter.  They grow to at least softball size and often much larger, but they remain sweet and tender even at the larger sizes.  If really cold weather is forecast, I mulch them heavily with straw up to the leafy tops.  It’s the roots that I love, but New Englanders harvest the greens too. As one gardener wrote to Fedco: “We have been harvesting the greens all fall and into the winter. It is now the end of January and we have been digging the leaves out from under the snow. They have no frost/freeze damage whatsoever, and are even hardier than Red Russian and Beedy’s Camden kales. Plus they get sweeter after frost.”

Gilfeather turnips cut up

Vermonters eat the Gilfeather roots peeled, boiled and then mashed and while Gilfeathers are good that way I prefer cutting the peeled roots into chunks, brushing them with a little olive oil and roasting them at about 400 degrees so the sugars caramelize as the roots soften.  Boiled or roasted, the flavor is like a more delicate, sweeter rutabaga.  The pungent, earthy rutabaga taste lingers but there is also a hint of sweet spring turnips.  I serve them warm as a side dish, alone or mixed with other roasted roots, or add room-temperature pieces to winter salads of kale, mustard or mache.  I’ve also pureed them into soups, using vegetable or meat stock and perhaps a little cream.  I can’t imagine winter without them.Gilfeather turnips roasted

I’m grateful to John Gilfeather for this delicious winter root and to the people who’ve kept the seed and the story alive.  I might have been tempted to grow Gilfeathers by descriptions of taste and hardiness alone but the story has been a delightful bonus and something to remember as I plant, harvest and cook this Vermont heirloom turnip.

Mâche for Winter Salads

Mache close up rowMâche is the star salad green of this January’s kitchen garden.  Its dark green rosettes, rising only a few inches above the mulched rows, still look lush and vigorous after the freezing temperatures, snows, rains and winds that have left kale, arugula and mustard looking pretty ragged.  These other hardy greens will send out tasty new growth in the weeks ahead, but until they do I’m grateful for mâche and its nutty flavor, succulent texture and rich green color.  Alone as a simple salad or tossed with roasted vegetables, raw julienned celery root, apples, nuts or goat cheese, it’s my favorite winter salad green.

The botanical name for this lovely green is Valerianella locusta and it goes by many common names besides mâche; corn salad, field salad, lamb’s lettuce are a few.  Steve Solomon (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, 2007, page 206) explains that the name corn salad comes from mâche’s origin as a foraged wild green that “came up in the stubble of harvested grain fields” in Europe where “small grains like wheat, barley and oats are called corn.” I like this bit of plant history behind the name corn salad but I’m staying with the French name mâche partly because the French were the first to cultivate this green in the 18th century but more to head off any expectation that my salads will contain kernels.

Like the original wild variety, today’s named cultivars of mâche also reseed and many gardeners leave a few plants to flower and produce seeds and plants for the next season.  In Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest (3rd edition, 1989) Binda Colebrook writes, “I have clumps of it established in my herb beds and just let it go to seed on its own.  In the summer I weed once or twice, and later in the summer, as the soil cools down, the seedlings emerge where they will.  It’s very handy not having to worry about sowing it!”

Mache diagonal rowsBecause I like to make succession plantings, I sow mâche each year from mid-August through September, not quite so handy as letting plants self-seed but a good way to establish an extended supply of mâche.  My favorite variety is Vit but I also like Verte de Cambrai, another small-leaved variety.  I’ve also tried some of the larger leaved varieties like Medallion and Large-Leaf Round but I still prefer the color and flavor of Vit.  The seeds germinate best in cool soil so I often start the early sowings in flats in a cool spot and then set out inch-tall seedlings four inches apart in rows twelve inches apart.  I sometimes direct seed the last sowings when the weather is cool enough to encourage germination.  With either method, I always mulch around the new seedlings to keep rain from splashing dirt up into this low-growing plant. Mâche grows slowly at first but by mid-October there are plenty of greens for salads from the first plantings and the later plantings provide salads until April.  Even when the last plants start to bolt in the lengthening days of spring, the greens, stems and even the blossoms remain tasty.

Mache in basketWhen I harvest mâche I cut the entire head, slipping a knife under the rosette and cutting at the root.  I could cut the head above the root and encourage a second growth but I find that these new growth leaves are smaller and harder to harvest and clean.  Also, it’s easier to carry the whole head to the kitchen and wash it there than to try to get my hands around a pile of loose leaves in the garden.  After rinsing each head of mâche, I grasp the rosette root side up in one hand and with the other hand slice across the plant about an inch or so above the root stem.  The now separated leaves wash and dry easily in a salad spinner.  I use it right away in a salad or pack it loosely in a plastic bag and refrigerate it.  One more amazing thing about mâche is that it holds in the fridge for a week or more and still keeps its flavor.

Mache & roasted root saladFor several nights in a row while hosting holiday guests, we added handfuls of mâche to room temperature chunks of roasted rutabaga, turnip, carrots and parsnips and dressed the mix with sherry vinaigrette for easy and very satisfying salads.  Bits of roasted Delicata squash and pecans are great additions too.  For Christmas Eve, I tossed mâche with toasted pecans, crumbled goat cheese and sherry vinaigrette, an elegant and delicious salad. And just the other night I added mâche to another favorite winter salad: celery root, apples and toasted nuts in a white vinegar, mustard and shallot dressing.  Parsley would have worked just as well with this salad but mâche was even better.  And then there was the lovely persimmon and mâche salad we had a month ago.  The pairing possibilities for this tasty green are endless.  And luckily there is more mâche growing in the kitchen garden to get us through whatever weather the rest of winter brings us.

Delicata Squash and mache saladPersimmon Mache salad