Saturday, May 24, 2008

late May

One of the delights of early spring is finding unexpected edibles in the garden. Each year, at least if the winter is not too severe (and it has not been so lately), some vegetable plants, normally considered annuals, survive over the winter and put out new growth in spring. It's not predictable, although I often try to over-winter things, like spinach, by covering them with leaves in the fall, I'm not always successful. I've had good luck on occasion with the spinach in the past, but not reliably. Last fall we haphazardly covered a lot of things with the abundance of leaves - including spinach, lettuce, and some kale which was still small in the fall. This spring no spinach survived, but a bunch of radicchio plants surprised me with new growth since uncovered in March. I've been picking leaves regularly in the past weeks. Several little kale plants also survived the winter to grow again, and I will keep an eye on them to see if they get big enough to pick before flowering. They were planted on the late side last year and never got too big. The radicchio and kale had both been started indoors last June and transplanted into the garden in July.

Then there are the re-seeders. I've already mentioned the dill which has been re-appearing for years without benefit of re-seeding (June). Sprouting pockets of feathery growth in numerous spots around the garden, dill consequently ends up cut and scattered over all kinds of dishes. I'm getting in the habit of picking a bunch up by the in the mornings and sticking them in water like a small bouquet to keep fresh for using later in the day. The little plants go into a shot glass and as they get bigger and bigger they move up to a quart jar. There's a ridiculous abundance now, but it's always a challenge to still have enough around by the time the cucumbers are ready for pickling.

Deepening my love affair with arugula, I started some wild arugula (Rucola selvatica) seed a few years ago. A little more bitter than domesticated arugula, it's still a great wake-up call for the taste buds alone or mixed in with other greens. In the last couple of years I haven't needed to seed it again, as it has re-seeded thickly in some spots, and is scattered just about everywhere else in small bunches or single plants. It's slow to grow when first seeded, but after a while it seems almost invasive. Garlic chives is another delicious treat in spring and early summer, which has been spreading a little too promiscuously. This year I'm being more aggressive about picking the garlic chives and wild arugula, so as to make more use of them and make more room for other things! The garlic chives are solidly rooted and so I go around with a hand shovel and pull out bunches of plants to thin them out. Often I bring them into the house and put them in a big bowl with a little water in it to keep them fresh for a day or two while cutting off the tops and using them here and there. Other times I clip the tops off right in the garden after digging out the roots, carrying the compost bucket (to throw the roots) and scissors, along with the harvest basket.

It's amazing how many foods can absorb a quantity of garlic chives, especially stews and soups. Since it's good as an ingredient in pesto, sometimes I make a pesto with it as the major ingredient, and then later in the summer, when basil is available, the pestos can be mixed together.

The wild arugula can be cooked up like dandelions, garlic mustard and other greens, and saved in small containers in the freezer for use throughout the year. From early spring til late fall, it's one kind of leafy greens after the other. They each have their special qualities, but when there is an abundance they often get mixed up together in the pot as cooked greens. Dandelions and wild arugula are on the bitter side so they benefit from more liquid in the cooking. Garlic mustard can be awfully chewy, but if chopped fine or even pureed after cooking, it makes a fine deeply flavored sauce. Radicchio is already wonderful raw - a deep smoky taste, so only makes it into the cooked greens at times of most abundance when we can't use all of it fresh. Mustard greens can vary as for their sharpness of taste. In recent years I've been growing Tendergreen mustard (from Gurney's seeds) which is a milder and prolific form. After sowing seeds in early April, thinnings are ready to eat in a month and by early June plants are starting to send up flowers and it's time to pick them all.

Thanks to Golden Temple Vegetarian Cookbook, here's a lovely recipe for mung bean-mustard greens soup:

Cook 1/2 cup mung beans with a few bunches chopped mustard greens and plenty of water. Puree after it's cooked.

When that's almost done, sautee onion, garlic, and gingeroot. Add a teaspoon or two caraway seeds and curry powder (or garam masala), salt and pepper. Add the pureed beans and greens and heat slowly.

A surprise this spring was shallots. It shouldn't have been a surprise if I had been paying attention. I planted seeds for them last spring and didn't get around to harvesting them until so late that I didn't find them all. If I was thinking I might have done what I did by accident anyway, as people often plant shallots in fall for next year's harvest, just as we do with garlic. So we've been eating some of them as green onions, and now I'm going to let the rest mature into shallot bulbs, and maybe will plant a few in the fall! They are sending up a lot of shoots with seed tops, so I'm picking those for fresh-eating and to divert the energy back into the bulbs.

I had started epazote by seed a few years back and to my delight it re-seeded itself in subsequent years, so that I started to depend on it. It's good to throw in epazote leaves with the black beans. Besides adding authentic flavor, it is purported to neutralize the flatulent effect of eating the beans. Alas it stopped coming back last year, so I had to start seeds again. C'est la vie! But they didn't germinate! Then I discovered they were growing thickly in the pot where I had been growing cilantro, which was now dying off. In fact they're showing up in several potted plants that are using my recycled potting soil. What luck! Now I just have to rememer to use them when cooking black beans. The fragrance clears the head.