Posts Tagged ‘crocus’

Spring in the food garden


I’m not a winter person, so wherever I move, I always plant a patch of the early little species crocus “Cream Beauty” in my garden. When I see the first glowing blooms, I’ve officially survived another winter.

“Cream Beauty” is also a kind of floral nag, reminding me that there’s no time to hang around luxuriating in the sunlight; I need to be prepping and planting furiously. It’s one of the ironies of garden writing that, just when you actually have something to say, you have no time in which to say it. So here are a few spring tidbits in no particular order:

Last fall I coated all my “greens” beds thickly with horse manure, and dug it in as soon as the ground thawed in early February. Fresh manure needs to go on in the fall, but you can apply well-aged manure or finished compost now. Now the beds are ready to plant, and I put in three kinds of lettuce, several types of mustard, two kinds of spinach, snap and shelling peas, and a wide assortment of chicories, both leaf and heading. It’s important to get them in early so that they don’t fry in overly hot summer sunlight. Chard, parsley, and potatoes will be planted within the next week or two. Leeks and scallions were started in seed trays last month, and the multiplier onions, garlic, and shallots planted last fall are sprouting. I planted grey shallots once and didn’t find the bulbs useful- too small and too much work to peel- but they provide generous cuttings of sharp shallot greens every spring to season salads and soups. They are like chives but with a distinctly stronger flavor.

Every year I try a few things that are completely new to me, and one of my newbies this year is bladder campion, which, according to the catalog, provides young greens that taste something like green peas. It’s a common weed in wetter parts of the country, but here it needs some shelter and encouragement. Bear in mind that many plants which need full sun elsewhere prefer some shade from our high-desert sun. If you fail the first time, as I did with bladder campion last year, try giving a little afternoon shade.

Don’t forget to plant more peas than you need so that you can cut the sweet young greens for spring stir-fries.

If you’re going to try chickens this year, build the coop and make a brooder set-up now, BEFORE you buy the adorable baby chicks. I’m going to try a few meat chickens this year, so I’m building a large open-bottom cage to keep them in. It’s my first effort at carpentry, and I don’t think that there is a perfect 90 degree angle anywhere in it, but the chickens are unlikely to care. Make your chicken construction sturdy and raccoon-proof, not beautiful.

Gardening is a natural process, with all the entropy of any other natural process. Success does not pile upon success in an automatic fashion. Our freakishly cold snap is likely to result in some garden disappointments. My artichokes all seem to be dead, a sad event because they are offshoots of the first plants I grew from seed, many years ago. But that’s a reminder that nature is under no obligation to respect our sentiments. If you are very fond of getting your own way, gardening might not be for you. Nature offers some consolations too, like the glut of big brown eggs with deep orange yolks flowing out of the henhouse. There are a million ways to enjoy them, but while I’m waiting for the spring bulbs to bloom I enjoy eating what I think of as Daffodil Salad. The name comes from the colors, which remind me of the exquisite Poet’s Narcissus. Please know your edible flowers if you use them, and remember that daffodils are NOT edible.

To make a main dish, put three eggs per person in cold water, bring to a boil, simmer 10 minutes, and cool quickly in cold water. If you have your own hens, the eggs need to be at least a week old to peel cleanly. With store eggs this is seldom a problem. The ten-minute simmer gives yolks as shown, just barely solid in the center and a rich orange. Peel the eggs and cut them in half. Put the amount of salad greens you prefer in a big bowl; I use about three good-sized single handfuls per person. Toss with the dressing below or your own favorite vinaigrette. Pile on plates, top with the egg halves, and drizzle a little more dressing over the eggs. Scatter on some thin shavings of your best Parmesan and enjoy.

Spring dressing
1 small shallot or the white part of one scallion or the white part of one stalk of green garlic
juice of one lemon
1/2 cup best olive oil
2 tablespoons roasted hazelnut oil
half a teaspoon of salt, or to taste.
fresh pepper, about 15 turns of the mill
a small handful of chopped chives or about 2 tablespoons very thinly sliced shallot greens

Chop the shallot bulb, scallion, or green garlic bulb very finely and marinate in the lemon juice for fifteen minutes, with the salt added. Don’t skip the marinating step. After fifteen minutes stir in the other ingredients, shake in a jar, taste for seasoning, and use. Any not used immediately will last a day or two in the refrigerator.

The Greens of Spring: Broccoli Raab, and a brief note on spring flowers

This is a good time of year to eat some broccoli raab from the store, because you may well be convinced to plant your own while there’s still time. You may find the seeds sold as broccoli rabe, broccoli raab, or rapini. This is a vigorous grows-like-a-weed kind of vegetable, but it won’t tolerate hot weather, so get it in the ground now. Direct seeding works well as long as the ground is well prepared and you keep it weeded until it’s big enough to compete. Harvest as soon as it shoots to seed; you’ll notice broccoli-like heads which can vary from the size of a nickel to 3 inches across, depending on variety and weather conditions. Harvest while the buds are still tight, before any blooms appear. Just whack off the top 6-8 inches, leaves and all, compost the rest, and you have time to grow another crop in that space. It’s a close relative of the turnip, but instead of the pronounced (some would say extreme) earthiness of turnip leaves, it has a lovely clean flavor with a slight bitterness that makes it the perfect companion for mellow pasta.

Usually I like greens in mixtures, but I prefer this one by itself. My favorite way to cook it is so simple that it isn’t really a recipe, and it’s on the plate within fifteen minutes of the water coming to a boil. The various steps fit in so well with one another that I prefer to write this as a brief kitchen story rather than a recipe. Read it through before beginning, so that the kitchen logic and logistics will be clear.

You will need: half a pound of good dried pasta, a large bunch of broccoli raab, good olive oil, red pepper flakes, a couple of ounces of good ham, Italian sausage, or pancetta (a small handful when chopped into cubes), an anchovy fillet if you like them, and a few ounces of good cheese, either Parmesan or part Parmesan and part Romano. Toasted pine nuts can be added as a bonus of you have any on hand.

Put on a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Don’t forget to salt it.

While the water is coming to a boil, chop up a small chunk of ham, or some good Italian sausage, or some pancetta, or a little slab bacon if it isn’t too smoky. Chop two large or three small cloves of garlic. Throw them in a small hot skillet with some olive oil, probably 2-3 tablespoons. Stir frequently. As soon as the garlic and meat are cooked, put in half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and, if you like, a chopped rinsed anchovy fillet or a dash of colatura. Add a tablespoon or two of water, just enough to stop the cooking, and take the skillet off the heat. Wash a bunch of broccoli rabe, using a bunch as big as you can hold in two hands, and set it in a strainer to drain a little.

Meanwhile, the water should have come to a boil. Put in half a pound of good dried pasta. I think penne goes especially well with chunky greens. If you like whole wheat pasta, this is an especially good place to use it. Don’t reduce the heat. Keep it at a hard boil until after you add the greens.

While the pasta is boiling, cut the bunch of rapini in cross section across the bunch, slicing about every half inch. Discard the stem ends if they are more than half an inch in diameter. Five minutes after the pasta went in the water, put the chopped rapini in the water to boil with it. Once the water returns to the boil you can turn it down a little, but be sure to maintain a boil, not a simmer. Grate about 2/3 cup of good Parmesan and 1/3 cup of good Romano, or use all Parmesan if that’s what you have. These measurements refer to loosely packed measuring cups. My trip to Florence convinced me that Americans over-sauce and over-cheese their pasta. Personally I don’t meaure grated cheese in any formal way, and prefer to think in terms of two loose, scant handfuls of grated cheese.

When the pasta is ready, pour out into a strainer, return to the pan, toss with a glug of good olive oil, toss in the meat mixture and half the cheese, plate, sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, and toss some toasted pine nuts on top if you like. Eat and savor this splendid green.

By the way, I estimate that a “glug” is about two tablespoons. But in a dish like this, use kitchen sense rather than measurements. How much olive oil do you need in the skillet to keep the meat and garlic from sticking, and how much olive oil do you need to give a light delicious sheen to your pasta and greens? Your eyes are a better guide than a measuring spoon.

My garden is intended as a food garden, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a treat for the senses as well, and nothing lifts my spirits in late winter like bright crocuses blooming away in whatever appalling circumstances the season hands them. I strongly recommend at least a dozen bulbs of the cream-yellow Crocus crysanthus “Cream Beauty.” It’s always the first to bloom for me, and if you put it in the warmest part of your yard it will bloom in February in the Albuquerque area, a visible harbinger that your garden, like you, has survived another winter.