One of the fun parts of returning home after an absence of two months is in checking out how the various trees, shrubs, and garden have “weathered” the elements of a Northwest winter. For me, the major item is always how the fruit trees have fared – if we’re lucky, there has been enough cold so that the fruit trees are primed to blossom (Yes, most fruit trees require a good deal of cold, even hard freezes, in order to bloom). But once the blossom period has begun, an ill-timed frost can completely wipe out all fruit for that coming year – it’s a paradox of nature!
We returned to find a few types of fruits (plums and some pears) in full bloom, and apparently having suffered no frost damage – and there has been no frost since our return last week – fingers crossed. Apples and cherries are ready to pop! An absolutely beautiful time hereabouts. The garden, well, let’s just say it’s a work in progress. This is so because this past winter was my really first time for doing a serious “winter garden”. My previous opinion has been that when the real rains begin in November, the sun disappears, and the temp drops to daytime lows in the 40s, what the hell is going to grow?
But the reality seems to be that there is a lot that can be happening in a winter garden in SW Oregon, but one must be careful to differentiate between “growing” and “over-wintering”. Stuff like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, corn and green beans are simply not going to make it. Things like onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks will do quite well in the wet, sun starved and cool environment, but only their roots are doing much growing – there’s not much happening above ground. But, that still leaves room for quite a few other garden plants to not just sit there in limbo, but to actually grow during this otherwise non-productive period.
Like what? Well, for the first time I planted some stuff that had specifically been developed to grow in a wintry clime – things like kale, winter cabbage, rutabaga, collards, fava beans, and my personal favorite winter vegetable, Brussels sprouts.
How’d the winter garden turn out? Well – perhaps not to expectations, but then those expectations were made without experience – and experience has a way of adding reality to expectations. What I hadn’t bothered to consider was that a winter garden requires a good deal of attention and daily effort, just like a summer garden. And I forgot just how much damage slugs can do to a garden! Slugs won’t mess with your onions and garlic, but they sure love those cabbages and Brussels sprouts – and apparently, it takes a really hard freeze to kill slugs, cause they were fat and active when I got home last week.
The other thing I overlooked, especially with the Brussels sprouts, was that vegetables demand to be picked at their prime, or they begin a long slide into nastiness and toughness. Timing is another important consideration, and not just in when you pick, but experience will teach you the ideal planting time too. This past year has taught me that some of my winter garden choices need to have a little more maturity before they begin their winter season; others, maybe a little less – experience will teach me.
But I was especially eager to see the Brussels sprouts in my garden because my blogging friend, Cari, had recently mentioned that she found some Brussels sprouts greens at a local farmer’s market in Jacksonville. When I first saw Cari’s mention of this in her blog, I felt kind of dumb – you know the feeling – here was something that should have been evident to a gardener/cook long ago – but no, I had to read about it somewhere else before I tried them myself (in my defense, Cari too, a well experienced foodie in her own right, admits to never having tasted them before! And she has a Master’s in Gastronomy!). So, it was with some anticipation that I checked my plantings of Brussels sprouts first thing upon getting home.
What I found was quite interesting – while some of the plants had suffered severe die back from disease and slug attack and others had simply stopped growing due to non-picking, still others displayed the Brussels sprouts’ intent to keep growing until it finished nature’s intended reproductive cycle – and on those plants I found a very interesting growth pattern. It seems that the miniature head of a Brussels sprout – when left on a healthy plant – will eventually open into new branches and leaves, and later, into seed heads. I found these “new” leaves to be the most tender on the plant, and so the most likely candidates for the pot – I will assume that these are what Cari found for sale at the farmer’s market, rather than the very large major leaves which form under each individual sprout itself, which by the time the sprout is picked, are very old and tough. In any case, these new leaves were the “greens” which I picked and cooked up.
But it was the seed heads at the top of each healthy plant which I found most interesting. I’ll assume that just as the seed heads on broccoli raab and other brassicas are edible, so too are these. And apparently, in the cool Northwest winter garden, these seed heads are very slow to develop, and therefore remain edible for some time. They begin their development as a tight cluster of new, tender leaves around the tiny emerging seed pod – as this cluster reaches some two inches, the seed pod becomes more evident – at this stage, to snip them off and add them raw to a salad would be a superb experience, and quite enough to alone justify the annual growing of Brussels sprouts in one’s garden!
However, I took this experiment one step further – I also snipped the more mature seed heads (the unopened green blossoms) and stalks about 3-4 inches down, and steamed them briefly – only a minute or two – and served them with a butter/lemon dressing. Sweet, tender, and quite delicious. But be careful here, just as an asparagus stalk can quickly turn from tender to tough, so can these. Yes, you need a lot of these for a meal, but if you have a few healthy Brussels sprout plants in your garden, that’s all you need as they begin this phase of their life cycle.
A finishing note on how I cook these greens – my mother’s greens cooking sins aside (yours too, right?), I’ve never been a fan of quick cooking the tougher greens like collards, kale, and even Brussels sprouts. I know some good cooks like them that way, but frankly, I think the taste is quite different -and better- when given a good, long, braise. My first batch was done as simply as one can – tougher ribs removed from larger leaves, leaves torn, and braised in a deep pot with an inch or two of water and a little salt. Careful about the amount of water – mine took a good 30 minutes to get to the tenderness level I wanted – you don’t want to run out of cooking liquid during that time! Burned greens are not good. Turn the heat low, cover, and check on them often to stir and taste. When they taste right, they’re done.
For these simply cooked greens, I’d serve them simply as well – maybe butter and lemon on top – or a splash or two of rice vinegar, or as they like in the South, some pepper vinegar. Next time I do these, I’ll throw a piece of seasoning meat (smoked something or other!) in the pot – magic happens then. I may also cook them again in a simple way with water, and after they are fully cooked, toss them in a hot skillet with some olive oil and a few cloves of chopped garlic – Yum.
I’d like to thank Cari for sharing something new with an old dummy who thought he knew all about his garden. Wonder what else I’ll discover?