Zipping Up Winter Vegetables

Rockin’ Roots & Kicky Coles

Years ago, I was discussing winter gardening with Steve Solomon. We were both writing for Sasquatch Press in those days, and his book Growing Vegetables West Of The Cascades was game changing for me and many others. Steve explained that his family was able to live on just what they grew themselves. I was wildly impressed and said so, but his wife gave me a wry grin and said “In winter, we eat a lot of cabbage.”

Well, yes. There is that. Cabbage is marvelous stuff, but day after day… it could get a little old. The same can be said for all the winter roots, as our ancestors knew full well. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, all that their root cellars could hold might (hopefully) last out the winter, but you can bet that by spring everybody was mighty  glad to get a taste of something fresh and green.

Blessed Abundance

In a day when many of us can eat almost anything from anywhere in the world any day of the year, it’s hard to imagine just how uninspiring that limited diet might get to feel. It seems ironic that those of us who try to eat seasonally are embracing at least a certain amount of dietary restriction that our forebears might have thought distinctly odd. If they could have enjoyed fresh asparagus and raspberries in winter, you can bet they would have done so with relish. The fact that the term “fresh” is very relative (how old is that asparagus, really?), and that those choice tidbits may have been grown halfway around the world would probably have been seen as utterly irrelevant.

We, however, have both the luxury of exotic choice and an amazing bounty of fresh, local foods to choose amongst, more than any previous generation in the history of the world. Thus, we can enjoy our daily cabbage (or cole relative) spiced with the satisfaction of knowing ourselves to be well fed while lightening (at least a little) our burden on the earth.

Love The One You’re (Blessed) With

All this is really an excuse to share some of my current favorite recipes with you. The truth is, I love cabbage. And broccoli. And Brussels sprouts. And kale (but you knew that). I also love potatoes, carrots and onions, perhaps immoderately. I love playing with these favorite foods and finding new ways to delight in them that my ancestors could probably not even imagine. Such as….

Best Ever Broccoli

This stuff is decidedly addictive. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bright Winter Broccoli

1 pound broccoli, cut in florets
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 clementine, sectioned and peeled
1/4 cup diced apple (Opal or Gala or…)
2 tablespoons caramelized onions
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Steam broccoli for 3 minutes, plunge in cold water, drain, set aside. In a saute pan, heat oil and butter over medium heat until it sizzles. Add onion, garlic and salt and cook for 3 minutes. Add remaining ingredients (including broccoli), heat through and serve. Serves 2-4.

Jewel Burst Cauliflower

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 head cauliflower, cut in florets
1 cup raw cranberries (frozen work fine)
1 Cara Cara orange, sectioned and peeled
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
1 lime, quartered

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour 1 tablespoon oil in a rimmed baking sheet, add cauliflower and cranberries and rub with hands to coat. Sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 F until lightly caramelized (30-35 minutes). Toss with orange sections, paprika and remaining oil and serve, garnished with lime wedges. Serves 2-4.

Baked Potato Cakes

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped *
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1/4 cup grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cook potatoes until fork tender in water to cover. Drain and mash with remaining ingredients. Shape into balls (about 1/4 cup each), pat gently into circles and bake at 400 F until crisp and brown (15-20 minutes). Serve hot. Serves 2-4.

* Peeled or not, at your pleasure (if organically grown, I leave the peels on).

Hearty Carrot Soup

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium yellow potatoes, chopped (see * note above)
1 pound plump carrots
2 tablespoons flaked nutritional yeast (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 cup plain yogurt (optional)
1/2 cup diced apple (Honeycrisp or Braeburn)

In a soup pot, heat oil, onion, garlic and salt over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add celery, potatoes and carrots, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low and cook until well sweated (8-10 minutes). Add water to cover by an inch, bring to a simmer and cook until very tender (20-30 minutes). Puree with an immersion blender and season to taste with nutritional yeast and paprika. Serve hot, garnished with yogurt and/or chopped apple. Serves 4.

Love it? Hate it? Let me know…

 

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What IS The Soil Food Web, Anyway?

 

A World In Every Spoonful Of Soil

more photos at http://www.denniskunkel.com/

more scientific photos at http://www.denniskunkel.com/

I was recently asked to explain what the soil food web might be. A decade or so ago, only a handful of people in the country had even heard the term. These days, it’s more commonly used, yet many gardeners still wonder what on earth it means. The general concept of a food chain is fairly familiar, but not surprisingly, the real picture as applied to soil is more complex that the linear construct we often see in kid’s science books.

Instead of a straight line of critters feeding on the next lower rung on the environmental ladder, reality looks more like an interconnected web of life forms. More familiar models might show mammals and birds, but rarely include insects and plants. In real life, everything that can be eaten is involved in a cyclical food web, from algae to whales. It’s a web and a cycle because what goes around comes around: If few animals prey directly on Kodiak bears, a host of humble creatures from mice to microbes may dine on a bear’s carcass, assisting in a natural decay process that ends up nourishing new life.

The Amazing Life Of The Soil

The same kind of web is found in soil, where minute creatures feed on each other and plants eagerly lap up the residues (particularly bacterial excreta), leaving organic residues of their own (humus) which in turn feed microbial biota. Much the same kind of cycle can be found in water, and some folks even use the term “air food web” to describe the relationship between plants and insects.

When we add compost and other amendments to the soil, we are nourishing this host of tiny creatures, including bacteria, protozoa, and mycorrhizae. Soil biota are the microscopic beings that bring life to the mix of humus (rotting organic materials) and minerals that make up the non-living portion of soil. When we feed these minuscule arthropods and other beings, we feed the living soil. When the soil is rich and well fed, our plants flourish as well. Here’s a brief introduction to the cast of critters that create the soil food web and make soil come alive.

Beneficials and Pathogens

Soil fauna and flora come in many forms, from bacteria to nematodes and fungi. Some biota help build healthy soil and support healthy plants, and these are considered to be beneficials. Others can cause many problems for gardeners, from root rots to blights, molds, and mildews. These critters are considered to be pathogens. Both have a legitimate and important place in the growth and decay cycles of the natural world. In garden settings and on farms (places where we particularly enjoy the illusion of control), we prefer to boost the growth of our beneficials and suppress as many pathogens as we can.

Basically, when we improve soil tilth, texture, aeration, drainage, and nutritional content, we improve the •balance between helpful and harmful soil biota. All soils contain both bacteria and other kinds of biota, notably fungi, in varying proportions. Soils that are bacterially dominated are best suited for growing lawns, most annuals and perennials,  and most vegetables. Soils that are fungally dominated are best for woody plants (trees and shrubs).

Bacteria

Our native soils are full of bacteria, both beneficial and pathogenic. A spoonful of ordinary backyard soil  may contain billions of bacteria of thousands of different kinds, many of them specific to a region. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria dine off particles of humus, creating waste products (bacteria manure) that add new forms of organic content to soil.

Many plants absorb nutrients through this bacterial waste product, so the better the bacterial balance, the better the soil quality for plants. Bacteria (and bacteria’s waste products) are eaten in turn by fellow soil dwellers of many kinds. Thus, beneficial bacteria help retain the nutrients and organic matter they eat in the soil. Bacterially dominated soils are most favorable for lawns, flower beds, and most vegetables.

Earthworms

Charles Darwin wrote whole thick tomes about worms and their actions in the soil. In fact, he figured out that worms, not people, buried the dwellings of our ancestors. Worms are among the most beneficial of soil dwellers. Sadly they are harmed or killed by exposure to many pesticides and herbicides, including some common weed-and-feed products. Most gardens cherish their earthworms, knowing that these hard workers are the soil builder’s best friend. Worms do the mixing for us when we layer amendments onto garden soil. Worm tunnels open heavy soil to let air get down to plant roots. Worm castings promote sturdy root growth and feed many soil dwellers. It would be hard to have too many worms, but soils suffer quickly when worms are in short supply.

Fungi

Most gardeners assume that soil fungus most be bad but this is farâ from the truth. Fungi are vitally important to soil health and beneficial forms are found in virtually every kind of soil on earth. Like bacteria, fungal hyphae break down organic matter by digesting and excreting humus and recycle nutrients through the soil food chain. Healthy woodland soils are fungally dominated, meaning that there are more fungal creatures than bacteria.

To keep woodland soils healthy, we need to maintain the fungal balance by restoring the nutrients stored in fallen foliage that is often removed for the sale of visual tidiness. To restore the lost nutrients easily, simply shred the leaves and replace them as light mulch. Since woody plants grow best in a fungally dominated soil, “parking out” woodlands by replacing understory shrubs with grass usually results in stressed trees.

Microarthropods & Protozoa

These tiny recyclers feed on bacteria and fungi as well as plant particles, making nitrogen and other nutrients more readily available to plants and other soil biota. Soil dwelling protozoa eat bacteria and produce a manure rich in available nitrogen. Protozoa are a favored food for nematodes and other soil fauna, which release nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil as they excrete in turn.

Nematodes

Nematodes, like fungi, are usually assumed to be pathogens but beneficial nematodes abound. Good garden soil contains an ample supply of beneficial nematodes which feed on many other creatures, from bacteria and protozoa to other nematodes (including the pathogens). These support root growth, passing vital nutrients along to plants through their manure. Pathogenic nematodes eat live plant tissue, harming roots rather than promoting healthy root growth. In healthy soil, beneficial nematodes help keep their pathogen cousins under control.

Pretty amazing stuff, and it seems likely that we barely know the half of it. Bottom line: love your soil and treat it well!

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When Kissing Cousins Marry

You Say Tomato, I Say Potato

It’s not often that a childhood fantasy comes true, but my, how delightful when one does. As a kid, I was fascinated by a neighbor’s mail order plant catalogs, especially those that featured amazing novelty plants. One memorable time, she ordered a roll-out garden that consisted of a thin fiber mat that was said to be full of seeds of colorful annuals to bloom all summer long. Sadly, despite our faithful watering, nothing ever appeared.

The same enchanting catalog offered a plant that promised to grow tomatoes on top and potatoes on the bottom. Of course we ordered it, but what we got was a withered looking seedling stuck into a shrunken potato that never did show signs of life. The idea, however, continued to intrigue me and many others. Tomatoes and potatoes are nightshade cousins, so might they in theory be compatible? Recently, that goofy idea has been realized in the form of a grafted combination called Ketchup ‘N Fries (or TomTato in the UK).

Wondering About Wonder Plants

Ketchup ‘N Fries is not a GMO Franken-plant, but the partnering of actual tomato and potato plants. Specially bred potato plants (the eventual root stock) and amazingly productive cherry tomato plants are carefully matched for stem size, then hand-grafted to create a vegetable chimera. The result is Ketchup ‘N Fries, a wonder plant that produces hundreds of super-sweet cherry tomatoes, along with a substantial harvest of full-sized potatoes.

The cute little tomatoes ripen quickly, ready for salads, snacking, roasting, and even ketchup making. The plump potatoes are harvested when the prolific tomato crop is done. According to the hybridizers, you can expect to harvest as much as 4 or more pounds of potatoes per plant, which is quite a good rate of return. (Many popular potatoes yield closer to 2-3 pounds per plant.) Once planted in the ground, you can expect these wonder plants to take up a fair amount of space, so allow at least 4 feet between plants if you grow more than one.

Potted Productivity

In the UK, these remarkable grafted plants have been called “a veggie plot in a pot,” and they were indeed bred to produce well even in captivity. They’ll do best in a generously sized container that holds between 15 and 20 gallons of planting soil would be perfect, especially half whisky barrels, which hold about especially a half whisky barrel, which holds about 4 cubic feet of potting soil.

Though most tomatoes or potatoes grow best in the ground, the Ketchup ‘N Fries partners are productive in pots thanks to patient breeding. Under development over the past 15 years, this pair is the result of a great deal of research and controlled breeding and can truly be called unique. Special hand-grafting techniques are required to pair a sweet hybrid short season indeterminate cherry tomato with a flavorful, mid-late season white potato. Again, no GMO is involved, only hand grafting of plants developed through years of hand crossing.

Even More On The Horizon

Happily, this extensive research and development is leading not just to grafted pairings like Ketchup ‘N Fries. From it are coming whole new classes of plants, including dwarf indeterminate tomatoes, which we will no doubt be seeing more of in the near future. To develop Ketchup ‘N Fries, SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables LLC researched and trialled many promising combinations. It also took five years to come up with the special grafting processes that allow this crazy-cool partnership to thrive. This was assisted by the work of a Dutch breeder who had conducted similar research for 12 years, resulting in the TomTato introduced last year by England’s premier seed and plant company, Thompson & Morgan. All these eager folks continue to trial new potato-tomato combinations, and someday soon we may even see a delightful array of choices.

If you mail order Ketchup ‘N Fries plants, you can choose delivery for the last half of April or the first or last half of May. Early delivery will bring you plants that need the same coddling you’d give any heat loving tropical plant in spring. Be ready to keep your double-duty plant indoors or in a greenhouse until the ground warms up. This usually means waiting to plant until night temperatures get up into the mid- to high 50s. Cloches, water-filled jackets, floating row cover and similar protective measures will help your grafted baby plant to size up quickly. Though special planting and care directions  come with each plant, these cross-over cuties are as easily grown as any tomato.

Ketchup ‘N Fries are available from Territorial Seed Company, http://www.territorialseed.com, and plants will also be available in early spring from independent nurseries throughout Washington.

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Brightening The Bleak Midwinter

 

fennelFeeding Body And Spirit

This has been a tough winter in some ways, notably for family and dear friends struggling with physical and emotional issues. Several friends are dealing with serious illness and wounding, while others experience deep depression in these dark day. For my 91-and-counting Mom, this may be the last winter, giving each day a bittersweet quality. It may seem simplistic to feel that food can help such dire situations, but of course it can. Beautiful, wholesome, delicious food truly does nourish body and spirit and may even soothe a troubled mind, however briefly.

At this point in my life, I am glad to claim those brief moments of soothing and sweetness wherever they appear. Sharing them makes them even more precious, and I’m delighted to be able to look back on a pleasant meal with family and friends despite otherwise rocky situations. Lovely food, pleasingly presented, can tempt fading appetites and turn around a disappointing day. Thus I find cooking for others to be a high calling and even a sacred trust of sorts. Fortunately, it’s also fun and distracting in the best possible way. Here are some of my favorite recent distractions that found favor with a wide range of dismally distracted dear ones.

Fabulous Fennel

I learned to love fennel as an impoverished student in Italy. Though I never did like the cheesy fennel recipes, both sweet and savory combinations blew me away. Raw fennel with oranges is now old hat, but the first time I tasted them in a salad with cilantro and red onion, I gasped with joy. This velvety soup is a blissful partnership between lightly caramelized leeks and onions, fennel, and creamy potatoes. It gets a remarkable lift from Fennel Flower salt, a sumptuous blend of fennel blossoms and pink Himalayan salt from Viriditas Wild Gardens, a small family business in Days Creek, Oregon. They also make a spectacular Variety Basil salt that transforms pesto, salad dressings, and plain goat cheese, as well as a hauntingly subtle French Tarragon salt that does marvelous things for sliced oranges, grilled fish, and roasted apple rings.

Caramelized Fennel, Leek & Potato Soup

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 clove elephant garlic OR 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups sliced leeks (white and palest green parts only)
2 large bulbs fennel, chopped
3 cups chopped Yukon Gold potatoes
1/4 teaspoon fennel flower salt (or favorite seasoning salt)
1/4 teaspoon grains of paradise or pepper

In a soup pot, combine oil, onion, garlic and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (6-8 minutes). Add leeks and fennel and cook for 10 minutes (mixture will brown). Add potatoes, cover pan and cook for 10 minutes. Add 6 cups water, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until potatoes are tender (15-20 minutes). Puree with an immersion blender and season to taste with fennel flower salt and grains of paradise or pepper. Serves 4-6.

Best Ever Brussels Sprouts

This dish was the hit of our holiday Open House, pleasing vegans and omnivores alike. Even–maybe especially–those who dislike Brussels sprouts (and sweet potatoes as well) fall for this combination in a big way. Most folks who claim to hate them have usually only experienced badly cooked sprouts (ditto sweet potatoes). For such, these come as a revelation, bright with cranberries and nary a marshmallow in sight.

Indeed, a pound or more of sprouts barely serves 2-3 people fixed this way, because the combination is so addictively more-ish. The key to fabulous roasted sprouts is to trim and halve them, then soak them in cold water for up to an hour before roasting, which keeps them plump and tender instead of dry and corn husk-ish. Avocado oil is another key, bringing rich, buttery flavor and taking high temperatures in stride (olive oils tend to scorch).

Jeweled Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts
1-2 cups raw cranberries
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped (1/2 inch)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Trim and halve sprouts, soak in cold water, drain and pat dry. Rinse and pick over cranberries, drain well. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour avocado oil on a rimmed baking sheet and toss sprouts, cranberries and sweet potatoes to coat. Sprinkle with sea salt and roast at 400 degrees F until caramelized and tender (30-35 minutes). Spoon into a dish and toss with a little more oil if the mixture seems dry. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves at least one.

Happy New Year!

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