Winter Salads

Red, green, and white are colors I associate with this early winter season.  They show up in Christmas lights, gift paper, ribbons and wreaths.  In hedgerows, there are rose hips, hawthorne, holly and snowberry.  And on the table, there are salads from the winter garden where radicchio, red mustard and kale, mache and arugula, escarole and curly endive offer more versions of the red, green and white of the season.

With winter salads in mind, I planted these greens in summer and fall, beginning with kale in mid-July, continuing with escarole, endive and radicchio in early August and the others, mache, mustard and arugula every few weeks from mid-August until late September.  In an August post I wrote about planting many of these greens:  https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/greens-for-fall-and-winter/

Now they are mature, growing slowly if at all in the cooler temperatures and shorter days of our coastal northwest winter.  I keep the escarole, curly endive and radicchio covered in a low plastic tunnel because the rain will cause them to rot.  The kale, mustard, arugula and mache are fine in the rain though I cover them as well when nighttime temperatures head for the low twenties.

Escarole: “Natacha”

Radicchio: “Fiero” and “Indigo”

Mache: “Verte de Cambrai”

Arugula and Red Giant Mustard

Harvesting these greens is pretty straightforward.  With kale, mustard and arugula, I snip off individual leaves and the plant continues growing. With mache, escarole, curly endive and radicchio I harvest the entire plant by cutting it off at the base.  The mache rosette is usually free of any tough or yellowed bottom leaves but the others often have some weathered and tough outer leaves that I pull off and compost.

Washing the individual leaves is easy in a salad spinner.  Washing the full plants is a bit more complicated.  After rinsing the mache rosettes, 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 the same approach with the much bigger escarole and curly endive plants.  The one variation is that after cutting off the root end I separate the outer leaves from the smaller, creamier-colored inner leaves.  I use the inner leaves for salad and save the larger outer leaves to sauté in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.  Finally, the radicchio heads are usually tightly wrapped, so after trimming off the root and outer leaves, I simply slice or tear the leaves of the head as I would cabbage.

Each of these greens has a distinctive flavor.  Kale is earthy, arugula is peppery, mustard is, well, mustardy.  Mache is nutty and escarole, curly endive and radicchio are all pleasantly bitter.  The flavors mix well together and are especially pretty with their shades of red, green and white.

Sometimes though I’ll enjoy just one all by itself heaped into a salad bowl.  For dressings, I like simple vinaigrettes made with sherry, cider or white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil so that the flavors of greens stand out.

I often stop here, with a delicious, leafy salad.  But, there are winter roots and fruits that mix wonderfully with these greens.  Turnip, celery root, beets, apples and pears all add further flavors and textures as well as red and white colors to the greens.  The other day, I sliced some Gilfeather turnip into matchstick-size pieces and added them and some diced winter pears to a mix of escarole and mache.  The soft, sweetness of the pear and the crisp, pungency of the turnip blended perfectly with the bitter escarole and nutty, mineral flavored mache.  I used cider vinegar vinaigrette.

Another favorite winter salad is celery root and apple with mache or arugula.  I slice the celery root into matchstick-size pieces and marinate them for an hour or so in a mix of white wine or cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and finely diced shallots.  For a pound and a half of celery root, I use a quarter cup of vinegar, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and one to two tablespoons of minced shallot.  Then I add diced red apples, mache or arugula and four to six tablespoons of olive oil.  It’s a beautiful red, white and green salad.  A few toasted pecans or hazelnuts add one more delicious flavor.

Finally, beets, boiled, peeled and diced or peeled, diced and roasted are a perfect addition to any of these greens, both for flavor and for color.

On these dark December days with seed catalogs arriving daily, it’s tempting to look ahead to the first tender salads of spring but right now and for the next few months are perfect times to enjoy tasty winter salads.

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas were introduced to the gardening world in 1979 and immediately won the year’s All-American Selections Gold Medal.  That same year I moved from New England to the Pacific Northwest, a coincidence that comes to mind because I can still visualize the trellis of these new high-climbing peas stretched out along the narrow garden bed on the north edge of the tiny lot that surrounded our first house in Seattle.  And I remember my delight at the taste: a crunchy, entirely edible pea pod that tasted like the very best shell pea.

I’ve grown them every year since then as we’ve moved to new houses and made new gardens, finally ending up on Lopez Island in 1992.  I’ve tried some of the variations on this original sugar snap—Super Sugar Snap, Cascadia—but the flavor simply doesn’t measure up to the original.  Yes, the original Sugar Snap is susceptible to powdery mildew but I’m willing to put up with that to get the taste.

For years I direct seeded them, hoping that rodents and birds wouldn’t eat all the seeds or new sprouts.  Row covers helped deter these pests but I often needed to replant. Then a few years ago I began starting the seeds indoors in 1-inch cell trays.  By carefully setting each seed a half inch deep with the hilum down and keeping the soil barely moist, I got nearly 100% germination.  Here in zone 7B I start seeds in mid-February and set them out a few weeks later; I plant a second crop in mid-March.  Even in those years when the seedlings grow a little taller and are more root-bound than I’d prefer before setting them out, they grow quickly once they are in the ground.  And they do grow tall—Jack’s beanstalk comes to mind—climbing to the top of our seven-foot A-frame pea trellis and then on up into the sky.

Each year I’m amazed by how short the time is between the first white blossoms and the first fully formed peas, just a few weeks.  The temptation is to pick some right away but I’ve learned that the sweet flavor isn’t there until the pod is full and fat.  Then I get my scissors.  Cutting the stem rather than pulling off the pea is easier on the vine and the harvester.

The miracle of Sugar Snap Peas is that you don’t have to shell them to get the sweet pea flavor, but you do have to string them.  Put a knife at the blossom end and zip the narrow green string down the inner curve then zip back down the outer curve.  This task can be as restful as shelling peas and there’s less to compost.

And then to the kitchen where the simplest preparation is the best: for a pound of peas melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a skillet, rinse the peas and toss them in with just the water clinging to the pods.  Stir-fry for five minutes or so, as the matte green turns to bright green and the sweet pea flavor intensifies.

While they are delicious alone, hot or at room temperature, they also mix wonderfully with other flavors.  I picked some radicchio the other night and discovered a recipe on the blog Liking Pineapples http://likingpineapples.com/sides/157-pea-radicchio-salad that combines Shell Peas, radicchio, Pecorino Romano, lemon and olive oil.  Sugar Snap Peas are a fine substitute for Shell Peas and the salad is fantastic, one more reason to plant Sugar Snap Peas each spring.