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?
Don’t feel bad. I think we as a culture have lost a lot of knowledge that our ancesters knew. I just recently realized why they keep the tops on beets and radishes at the store. You can eat them! Who knew?
Radish tops? OK, that’s another one! Damn. Do you eat them in a salad, or cook them?
Now, you didn’t get me with the beets however – I’ve been eating those tops for a long time – but I can attest to this, if you can pull those babies when they’re the size of ping pong balls, both the tops and roots will be as succulent as they’ll ever be – in fact, once you have them this way, you may not want them any other.
I’m still trying to figure out the radish thing. I sautee’d them and they were… ok. The flavor was surprisingly a little bland. I thought they’d be spicy. Nope. I put them in eggs for breakfast and it was just ok.
Do you remember the “A bread a Day” blogger? She has a new blog and on the new blog, she made radish top pesto. She swears it tastes good. I was still intrigued after my failure, but I still haven’t tried it. She got the recipe here:
Like you I’ve been cleaning up my winter garden. Some of it is in the cold frame so I’ve been eating a variety of lettuces and swiss chard. But the arugula has been looking tough, I bet I could just heat it up and work it like any cooked greens.
It’s been unusual but my cilantro that had gone to seed and matured before the fall frost has not died back at all. It has been growing close to the ground and just now in the spring sun and warmth is growing taller.
I’m not sure about radish tops.
LOVED this post and the photos. I too like my greens braised until tender – usually about 30 to 40 minutes – and mine turned out much like yours! Boy did this make me miss having a garden. I’m in an apartment here and although we have a porch, it doesn’t get enough direct sunlight for me to even have a few pots of herbs. I will continue to live vicariously through yours. Thanks for this – very interesting! I hope you continue to learn new things about your garden… that’s half the fun (the other half comes in the kitchen)…
Very interesting about the cilantro. I’m trying to remember if I ever had cilantro that had gone to seed and then continued to grow, and I can’t remember that happening! Do you fool around with any Thai cooking? If yes, you may want to pull the roots of your larger mature cilantro plants and use the roots as the Thais do to achieve a subtle unique flavor blend for a soup or stir-fry – do a Google seach, there’s lots of recipes out there.
As always, thanks for stopping by – and good luck with this year’s garden.
I’ll be more than happy to share my garden adventures with you, and anyone else who cares to tag along – I know it’ll have lots of surprises for us.
Oregon has one of the nation’s longest, slowest springs – actually begins in Feb and only really ends in late June – all the while, it provides great cool weather for many greens, peas, beets, onions and lettuce. When summer starts in early July, it’s time for squash, tomatoes, and all the stuff that does great in a hot, dry environment – problem is that late Sept brings the rain again, and that’s the end of those plants! But the beginning of the winter garden.
It really is a three season environment, but few gardeners or commercial growers use all three – whereas Florida has actually four growing seasons (due to more sun and faster growth), and commercial growers DO often grow year round.
I’m sorry to hear you have such a limited opportunity for gardening, but you are more than welcome to join our party to grow and cook whatever nature gives us.
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Would you be interested in trading links or maybe
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me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Awesome blog by the way!
When I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me
when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I receive 4 emails
with the same comment. Perhaps there is a wway you can remove me
from that service? Thanks a lot!
Hey Vance,With my seriously limited knowledge of the mysteries of WordPress, I’m at a loss as to how I can assist here amigo – what I was able to do was to cut off comments on this post, thereby hopefully cutting off those notices to you (however, what I may have done is to cut off ALL comments on ALL posts, which is not what I want to do. We’ll see.) With my action, if you need to communicate with me in the future, you’ll have to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) as this comment route will be cut off.
There’s another route you can take – probably better than this one – and that’s to filter any incoming email notices coming from WordPress – I do this often to control the spam in my email inbox – just follow the specific procedure of your email provider (they all do this) and set it to delete all future notices, and you’ll never see another one!
Other than that, I’m stumped. But I hope your garden is doing well, and that you are enjoying another growing season.
Be well amigo,
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