Posts Tagged ‘broccoli’

Under the Frost Blankets

I have always tried to protect a couple of winter crops with frost blankets, but this year is the first time I got really serious about it at the right time of year. The right time of year is October, when you figure out which beds are going to be open during the winter and prepare them for planting.   Clean them of the debris of their previous crop, and fertilize a little more heavily than you usually would. Since I planned to grow mostly green things, I used blood meal and organic kelp meal.  If I had had more finished compost on hand, I would’ve used some of that too. Whatever you decide to use, fertilize, turn it in, water, and let the bed sit untouched for about a week.

Next, hunt your frost blankets. I cannot say enough good things about the heaviest weight of Agribon agricultural fabric, the one called Agribon 70. I got mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  After a couple of years of fooling around with lighter fabric or two layers of lighter fabric, I have concluded that nothing but the 70 is worth spending my money on. The others all tear in our desert windstorms allowing the plants I have tended so carefully to be dessicated and killed.  It comes in rolls of 12 foot wide fabric, and 100 feet of it is one of the best gardening investments I ever made.

This is a heavy weight fabric and will actually smother the crops if it is allowed to just lay on top of them, so you need some kind of support.  If you are even slightly handy, no doubt you could rig something up with thin PVC pipe hoops, which I think would be the best possible solution.  I am not remotely handy, and so I bought a package of bamboo garden hoops.  These seem flimsy when you handle them but actually will do the trick.

Put the fabric over them and weight it down all around. Don’t use fabric staples, because you will need to move it a lot for watering and harvesting. I use a small load of bricks that I bought from a neighbor. They need to be placed at least one brick per foot, because otherwise you will lose it all in a real windstorm.

Next, decide what to plant.  Broccoli was an easy choice for me because I love it and also consider it one of the healthiest vegetables around, and the leaves and stalks are as edible as the buds.  I had planned to start my own from seed to get a known cold hardy variety, however in late October I saw some plants in my local garden center and decided to buy them because it would save time and trouble. Most of the broccoli sold in my area is chosen for heat tolerance, not cold tolerance, so no doubt I could have had heavier yields with a different variety, but this one is working out well enough.  I put the plants in 18 inches apart each way, which is pretty close, but they are not going to get quite as big as those growing in the open in other seasons.

One of the joys of having a growing oasis in the winter is sticking your head under the frost blanket and just inhaling the scent of green growth. I also frequently break pieces off the broccoli leaves to eat while I’m watering. I try to restrict myself to the lobes at the base of each leaf, so that the overall appearance is a little less ratty, but as I see it nobody but me is really looking under there anyway.  Here, at the base of the leaf, you see the tiny little bud cluster that is going to become a side head after I cut the main head of broccoli.

A few of my heads got brown bud, as you see above. There seems to be no real consensus about what this is, except that it probably is not a disease caused by a pathogen but related to growing conditions. I did notice that the plants that got the least water developed this condition. It also happens sometimes with my outdoor broccoli in very dry conditions. When I see this, I cut that head off and I am sure to keep that plant watered, so that it can concentrate on growing large side heads.  Overall, I still get a fairly good yield out of those plants.

A delightful part of having a winter garden is that some of the things you let go to seed in the past come back around. Here you see a particularly healthy arugula plant that will go into a salad in the next day or two.  One of the reasons that I was careful to enrich the soil thoroughly is so that a lot of things could grow without hampering the broccoli very much

Here are a few interesting things going on. This is an area where a goji berry came up in the middle of the bed last year, and I cut it back hard before I covered the bed and I’m hoping to get some edible shoots out of it. You cannot get rid of gojis once you have them, so whack and eat them enough to keep them within limits.  This is a section of a few feet in the middle of the bed, where I planted Snow Crown cauliflower, and those plants died by November. I have done very well with the same variety in the open, so I don’t know what happened, but I do know that they did not like the conditions under the blanket. No problem. In the open space that they created by dying, you see leeks, garlic, arugula, chickweed, and celery coming up.  You might be able to spot tiny little leaks in the foreground from one that I let go to seed last summer, and then you can see larger leeks growing where I harvested last year‘s leeks  by cutting them off a few inches below the surface and leaving the base and the roots in the soil.  In each place that I did that, there are are two or three healthy leeks coming up from those roots. I am very pleased with this way of growing them, and I plan to keep experimenting with it.  The garlic is there because, after I planted my regular garlic beds, I had a lot of seed garlic left over and just stuck it in all over this bed before I covered it. My hope was to have green garlic earlier than usual, and it seems to be working out well.

A closer look at the celery seedlings. These are the offspring of a hybrid celery called Tango, and the offspring of a hybrid are not necessarily true to the parent. However, it is likely that some will be close enough, and I’ll weed out the rest.

A closer look of the green garlic, growing lustily. These are the same shoots that you will see in the picture below, prepared for cooking.

Above you see Shirley poppy, bladder campion, and chickweed joining the party wherever they can find room, next to a sturdy leek.

People who live in other parts of the country might be appalled to know that I planted chickweed on purpose, but it’s a tasty nutritious salad green and good edible ground cover that doesn’t grow here naturally. So whenever I see it seeding itself around a bit, I am quite pleased.

Mallow seeds itself around my garden, and I let some of it grow for greens and because the bees like the blossoms.  It will never be a favorite for greens, because it is just a touch on the slimy side, but as long as it makes up a quarter or less of a greens mixture you won’t notice that.  Behind the mallow you can see a small sow thistle, and I was hoping that these would get larger and more tender under the frost blanket than they do in the open ground, but so far this is not the case and I am not very impressed with them. Oh well.  The whole idea is to try things and see what works.

Lunch was a head of broccoli seasoned with the green garlic shoots above and fried eggs from the one valiant hen who is laying this time of year. Eating off your own property just feels good.

The January Garden

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Here in agricultural zone 7 we have a fairly short winter, and I have never gone in for winter gardening.  I don’t have a greenhouse, for the simple reason that I have never been able to make up my mind what kind to get or where to put one. By late fall I have a freezer full of summer food, and I spend the long nights by the woodstove, catching up  on my reading and deciding what to try next.

This year, though, I decided to try some very low-tech strategies to prolong my season.  This came about largely because in September I happened to visit a local nursery for supplies and saw a single lonely six pack of young broccoli plants going begging.  It seemed a shame to let them become trash, so I brought them home and planted them with the vague idea that they might winter over. After a little more thought, I ordered  a roll of Agribon-19 plant protection fabric, a lightweight nonwoven fabric that conveys about 2 degrees of frost protection.  It is 13 feet wide and comes folded double, so I put a double layer over the 10′ row of little plants and held it down with stones and bricks around the edges. I did not use hoops or any other kind of support, just left plenty of room for the little plants to grow. (Please note that you cannot do this with tomatoes, peppers, and other plants that have a “growing point” at the top of the plant. In those cases you have to support the fabric and keep it off the growing tip. But the majority of cold-weather garden plants do just fine this way. )  I watered periodically, but did not pay any other attention to the plants until I noticed small heads of broccoli forming. Then I  started checking more regularly. Naturally, because of the cold, the plants grew more slowly and the heads formed more slowly than they would in warm temperatures. This was an advantage.  I found that the heads would hold for up to a week before harvesting with no loss of quality.

The heads were unusually tender and sweet. I liked them best just steamed with a little butter or olive oil and salt. Not every plant produced well. Two of the six plants began to form heads, then the infant head “browned out” and died, although the rest of the plant looked healthy.  I am not sure if this was a disease or what it was, and hope that maybe one of my knowledgeable readers can clue me in.  But I harvested four beautiful heads, and they are continuing to form healthy side shoots, including the two plants that did not form heads.  Not a bad return for my minimal effort, with an investment of $2.99 for plants and about $10 worth of frost protection fabric which can be reused.

Two weeks ago, after the encouraging broccoli results, I planted three beds of salad greens, cooking greens, and more broccoli. Two beds are covered with a single layer of the lightweight Agribon-19 and the other with the much heavier Agribon-70, which gives about 8 degrees of frost protection but lets less light through. So far, all the beds have germinated well. I will be reporting on results. I still want a greenhouse, but this is looking good as a cheap way to keep fresh food on the table.

Good candidates for  growing this way are lettuces of all kinds, chicory, practically everything in the brassica family including broccoli, kale, and collards, arugula, green onions, green garlic,  and who knows what all else.  One of the beds that I covered is one where I have let edible weeds go to seed in the past, so I will watch with interest to see if I get an early crop of those too.  I have planted some snow peas undercover as well, to see if I get a substantially earlier crop this way.  In my climate we have a lot of wind storms in the spring, and just giving some protection from wind might speed them along.

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This picture is a cautionary tale: you can see here that before using the lighter cloth, you do need to cut away any old stems etc. that are sticking up, since they can tear the fabric.

Also, because of the decreased light transmission, the plants growing under fabric are essentially hothouse plants and will have to be hardened off to full sun gradually in the spring.  I speculate that the more bitter greens such as dandelion would be tastier and less bitter when grown this way, but don’t know for sure yet.  I am greatly looking forward to finding out.

 

Breeding Your Own Landrace

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A plant variety is carefully selected to be as uniform as possible, so that each plant you grow of that variety will resemble the others fairly closely, with allowances for growing conditions.A landrace is a different and more chaotic and vibrant thing. A landrace is expected to have a high degree of variability, with the idea that you can plant it in a variety of different conditions and at least some of the plants will grow under those conditions. One way to look at a landrace is that it’s the widely varied genetic material from which varieties can be selected. So why would you want a non uniform seed stock? Well, does your weather change from one growing season to the next? Some members of your landrace will take the changes in stride. If you move, your landrace will go with you, and you will get some plants that adapt well to your new location. Hardcore survivalist types want landraces that can adapt to the challenges of a post-catastrophe area. Those of us who think in terms of smaller catastrophes still want to know that in a bad or atypical growing year our garden food supply will come shining through, or at least some of it will.

Currently I am trying to create my own overwintering brassica landrace. Overwintering doesn’t sound like a big deal among the brassicas, because many of them will overwinter in very cold climates, but our desert climate is a little different. Our winters are very dry and windy, and we have no snow cover, and so many plants like kale that overwinter well under snow will desiccate to death in our conditions.

I started my project last year, by planting four different brassicas and leaving them in place over winter to see which ones survived. I chose to start with collards, Portuguese kale, Tuscan kale,and sprouting broccoli. Selection this spring was easy, because only one of the four survived. The Portuguese kale (also known as Tronchuda) came through the winter and put out a very nice crop of leaves during the late February and March “hunger gap.” I cooked some of the leaves to make sure that they were tasty, and they were sweet, mild, and very good.I let the plants go to flower, and found that bees mobbed the light yellow flowers. The buds were also a good addition to vegetable stir-fries, although they have to be picked small because they toughen quickly, and of course you have to leave a lot of them on the plant to get your seeds. The plants get huge as they set seed, and I trained them into the paths so as not to lose too much bed space. I let a spring planted broccoli go to flower at the same time, to try to introduce more genetic variability, and let the bees do the cross pollination. The plants set thousands of seedpods each, and I found that when the seedpods are about 2 inches long and very slender, they make a very nice stir-fry, with much the same flavor as the leaves but a different texture. Currently the seeds are ripening on the plants, and when they are dry I will plant some for fall eating and send them through the winter to see how they fare.

I hope to end up with plants with at least some variability. We do have a number of wild brassicas that grow in the area, so a little bit of outbreeding could occur even if I had not let the broccoli into the mix, and variability is what I’m after. Selection comes later; right now my interest is in having brassicas that overwinter in our difficult climate but aren’t uniform, and might even provide specimens that I want to select and stabilize for different purposes, maybe one type for hunger gap leaves and one type for masses of buds, for example. I have already spent happy hours researching the possibilities, and happy time is among the benefits that my garden provides.

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Leftovers Wraps for One

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After I ate last night’s broccoli side shoots for one, I had several shoots left over, and tonight I pulled them out of the refrigerator for another veggie dinner. I also had last night’s Semi-Korean dipping sauce chilled, a couple of leftover hard-boiled eggs, a handful of roasted peanuts in my snack bag, and a head of romaine lettuce in the garden begging to be used. With the addition of a green onion from the onion row, my meal came together.
First I rinsed the biggest outer leaves of the lettuce quickly and set them in the dish rack to drain. Next, I thinly sliced the white part of the green onion while a small heavy saucepan heated up. I sliced the green parts separately, and chopped the cooked broccoli and eggs roughly. By this time the pot was hot, and I put in 2 tablespoons or so of oil and threw in the onion whites. They sizzled furiously as I stirred for about one minute, then the peanuts went in. After another minute, I added the chopped broccoli and about a quarter cup of the sauce, plus a glug of good soy sauce from the bottle that hangs out by my stove. After about one more minute of stir-frying, I turned the heat to medium, cooked just until the broccoli was hot, and stirred in the green onions. The chopped eggs were tossed in after the pot was removed from the stove. It was plated, wrapped in the romaine leaves a spoonful at a time, drizzled with more of the sauce, and eaten. Prep time and cook time together totaled twenty minutes.
Cooking for yourself is a great time to go improvisational because if something goes wrong you can shrug and, in a worst-case scenario, eat something else. That’s not so bad. And odds are that you will make some delightful discoveries along the way. The more you think through your available ingredients, putting them together on your mental palate, the less likely you are to make awkward combinations. And I want to put in a plug for prepping vegetables and possibly cooking at least some of them as soon as they hit your kitchen, so that you have fodder for really fast, really good meals. I recommend that any aspiring improvisational cook, or for that matter any cook, read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. It’s a delightful read and a quick education in skilled use of leftovers.
Incidentally, when you find a sauce that suits you like my sort-of-Korean sauce suits me, make it in larger batches, keep it in the refrigerator, and see how many different ways you can use and enjoy it.

Veggies for One, or Two

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One of the joys of early summer is seeing gorgeous big heads of broccoli “crowning” above the leaves. After you’ve cut the central head, the fun is just beginning. Keep replenishing fertile mulch around the plants and keep them watered, and soon a ring of side shoots will appear above the foliage. Cut the shoots with their long stems, being careful not to harm the main stem of the plant. Rinse them off and peel the stems carefully with a vegetable peeler. Steam to taste. In my opinion, broccoli should be steamed for eight minutes, and raw broccoli is not a vegetable at all. Your mileage may vary.
My favorite way to eat these long elegant stalks is with a quasi-Korean dipping sauce. I was particularly hungry and added a fried egg (double-yolked, so I got a bonus) and drizzled it with the dipping sauce too. The sauce is flavored with gochujang, a lovely deep-flavored fermented sweet chile paste that is unlike any other form of chile. Currently the only brand of gochujang I use is from the quirky company Mother-in-Law’s Kimchee.it contains rice powder and sugar and has some carbs, but you don’t use that much and it doesn’t have any corn syrup. I make this sauce by the pint and keep it in the refrigerator. The recipe as given here makes just over one cup.
The sweeteners that I use are oligofructose, a chicory root derivative, and liquid stevia, because I’m a ketogenic eater. If you don’t worry about carbs, you can just add sugar to taste at the boiling stage. If you do use oligofructose, I recommend the Sweet Perfection brand. Other brands have a bitter taste to me.

Dipping sauce
3×1″ piece of ginger, peeled
8 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons coconut oil
2-3 tablespoons gochujang depending on your heat preference
1/4 cup rice vinegar
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Sweet Perfection oligofructose
Drops of liquid stevia to taste

Chop the ginger and garlic while a small saucepan heats up over medium heat. When hot, add the coconut oil, let it heat a minute or two, and add the chopped ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until they are cooked and fragrant but haven’t colored at all. Add the rice vinegar and soy sauce, bring to a boil, and slowly pour in the oligofructose with your nondominant hand while whisking rapidly with your dominant hand. It will form awful clumps if not handled this way. When it is all incorporated, remove the pan from the heat, let stand at least ten minutes to cool, and add liquid stevia just 2-3 drops at a time, tasting to make sure you don’t go too far. Serve in neat small bowls with nearly any meat or vegetable that could use some quick perking up. It seems tailor-made for broccoli, but a big glug poured over rapidly stir-fried greens is also pretty damn good, especially with chopped hard-boiled egg on top to complete the meal, and a salad of leftover thinly sliced steak or chicken, fresh sliced romaine, and this sauce as a dressing makes a beautiful lunch.
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The Offbeat “Broccolis:” brocolettas in the spring garden

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Broccoli is widely touted for its nutritional content and culinary versatility, and my garden beds are full of broccoli-in-waiting, but there is also “broccoli” to be had right now. All the common garden crucifers produce bud clusters when they shoot to seed, and all of them are good to eat when snapped off before the flowers open. Some go to seed the first year, and some have to go through a winter before they bolt. I try to use cover crops that will be edible as greens and also offer me a “second harvest” of bud clusters. Currently I am harvesting bud clusters from arugula, daikon, and the collards that I over-wintered for seed production (they make a huge amount of buds, and a few clusters will never be missed). Arugula is especially good for this purpose, because first you get those exquisite nutty-peppery salad greens, second the top-bud harvest with its wild, unimproved, bitter-edged flavor, then the remaining buds open and are wildly attractive to bees, and finally the remainder of the plant enriches your soil when chopped and dug in, all in the span of a few months. I buy the seed in bulk and cover-crop it whenever a piece of garden bed is going to be empty for a little while. You can also harvest buds from bolted radishes and wintered-over kale, and probably a lot of things that I haven’t tried yet. Be aware that they are tiny, and you need a lot of plants to have enough to cook. I have heard these offbeat buds referred to as “broccolini” or “brocoletta.” I call them brocolettas, because “broccolini” really refers to a form of domestic broccoli with long, small stems.

When I call the flavor “unimproved,” I am referring to the fact that our common domestic vegetables are bred for the mildest flavor possible. The things that I grow and forage for are not. They have very pronounced flavors from their protective phytochemicals, and can stand assertive seasoning. Think garlic, red pepper, thyme, and other strong flavors.

My favorite way of cooking the washed bud clusters is to throw them in a hot pan of very good olive oil with a little washing water still clinging to them, salt them, turn frequently and keep the heat fairly high, and serve them when the green parts are crisp-tender and there are crisp brown areas but no blackened spots, and eat them in their feral glory with some extra olive oil on top and a twist or two of the pepper-mill. They can be a “hot salad” on their own, or complement a flavorful entree. Take that, flavorless baby spinach!

Nose-to-tail vegetable eating stretches over each vegetable’s growing season, in my view, rather than meaning that every single part of the vegetable is edible and choice. Arugula’s leaves and buds are very desirable eating, the flowers are excellent bee forage, and then the remaining plant offers biomass for mulch and compost, or you can let them self-seed first and have your next crop planted. Now that’s multi-purpose.

Beautiful Broccoli


Any honest gardener will admit to a lot of disappointments, small disasters, and unfulfilled ambitions. Heat waves sizzle delicate plants to a crisp. Hail happens. Or, maddeningly, a particular plant that’s supposed to be easy sizes you up and drops dead rather than be bothered with you.
You get hooked, though, because something always does so well that you can hardly believe it. This year, supposedly heat-loving exotics like winged beans and chayote refused to grow, but broccoli, which likes cool weather, is producing better than ever before. I’ve gotten heads almost a foot across and side shoots as big as my fist or bigger. When picked twenty minutes before dinner, broccoli has a delicate flavor and none of the funk that can develop when it sits around. There are hundreds of good ways to cook it, but one of my favorites for a fast healthy meal is a pasta with broccoli cooked in the pasta pot.

For two large servings and good leftovers, you need:
1 large head of broccoli or two smaller ones
8 oz of dry pasta (whole wheat pasta tastes pretty good in this dish)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 large or 5 medium cloves garlic, sliced thinly.
one anchovy fillet, mashed (optional but gives depth)
half a teaspoon (or more) hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red wine
half a lemon
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
a scant cup of best Parmesan cheese, grated

Start a pot of salted water boiling. Cut the broccoli into slender “branches” by splitting the stems. Slice the garlic cloves. When the water comes to a boil, put in the pasta. Heat half the olive oil in a small skillet and saute’ the garlic cloves until cooked through over medium heat. Add the anchovy and red pepper, saute’ another minute, then add the red wine and boil until it’s reduced to half. Add salt to taste. Keep checking the pasta, and about 3 minutes before it’s done, put the broccoli in the pot. Make sure it’s submerged and the water returns to a boil, then check the pasta in 2-3 minutes, and as soon as it’s perfectly done, drain the pot and return the drained noodles and broc to the pot. Toss in the remaining olive oil, then the skillet contents, then toss in all but a little of the cheese and promptly plate the pasta, remembering to leave enough in the pot for lunch the next day. Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over each serving. Toss the pine nuts over the top along with the remaining cheese, and eat while hot. Elapsed time: about 15 minutes from the time the water comes to a boil to the table, if you’re reasonably quick and deft about splitting up the broccoli.

Don’t forget to scatter your vegetable garden with some flowers. It benefits the bees and it benefits your spirits.