Centering vegetables

In the days after Thanksgiving, I was casting around for something to write about in this blog post, when my husband surprised me at dinner with this masterpiece:

(From a Washington Post recipe; he used pine nuts instead of almonds because that’s what we had.) 

So I began to think about the idea of vegetables as centerpieces for the table. We are not vegetarians and this meal did include meat, but it was off to the side, not the focus of attention. Now, anyone who reads my posts here knows I love growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. When I go out to a restaurant, the kind where vegetables aren’t “sides” but a part of a constructed meal, I generally read the menu descriptions backwards and often choose the entree I’m ordering based on the vegetable accompaniment, deciding that I’m in the mood for parsnip puree or butternut squash risotto and that delicious-sounding salsa, and only afterwards acknowledging that the meat it comes with is just fine. (I’m also a sucker for unusual produce; I once ordered a meal at a restaurant in Oregon that was… probably fish? I don’t recall, but what sticks with me is asking the waiter what sea beans were, and when he was unsure, placing the order anyway and then pulling out my phone to search. They were great; can’t grow them here, alas, because they require a salty environment.)

But the point of those restaurant meals, and most of the ones we eat at home, is that the meat is in the middle. Even many vegetarian meals center a protein element that explicitly substitutes for meat, from plant-based burgers to Thanksgiving Tofurky. Many meals don’t, of course; pasta, pizza, and stir-fries are a few of many examples that combine elements from different food groups. But don’t we tend to describe them in terms of the protein, unless they’re a side dish themselves? How often do we talk about, yum, that dish I made with Chinese broccoli and those wonderful little peppers, oh and by the way I also put in chicken?

I think this is very much a cultural thing, and this is not the place to try tracing it through American history and sociology and noting the influences of and changes in various immigrant communities. I also don’t have the expertise to tell you exactly how much protein you need in your diet based on what food choices you make, and where you can find that protein. I do know, however, that it’s possible to eat healthily while thinking of meals in the way we’ve come to consider inside-out, that is with the vegetables first. This doesn’t have to involve spectacular centerpieces that take hours to cook; the pumpkin stuffed with onion, apple, fennel and cornbread, with maybe a little bacon for fun, can be relegated to the big holiday meal. But vegetables can at least be first in our meal planning part of the time. Maybe even all of the time.

Tamar Haspel, who writes for the Washington Post about larger perspectives having to do with diet, had a recent article about which plant foods are most and least impactful on our climate. (All plant foods are usually better climate choices than meat.) She concluded that fruit, nuts, and row crops such as grains and beans are better in an environmental sense than vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes, because the latter use more fertilizer and pesticides, go bad quicker and so contribute more to food waste, and provide fewer calories per acre. What this doesn’t account for, of course, is growing your own. Your home-grown veggies have zero crop transportation costs, and you will likely be using a lot less in the way of inputs. So I think you can eliminate climate guilt from the equation if you plant a garden. (Buying locally-grown produce would be the next best option.)

What are the best crops to grow if you’re trying to center vegetables on your table? Anything you like and will eat, basically, but if you’re going for the big centerpiece, think about squash or peppers that can be stuffed, beefsteak tomatoes (especially colorful heirloom types), or indeed cauliflower, though you’ll have to keep up with the fertilizer and water to achieve big, fully-formed heads, especially for a spring crop. Also think about ingredients you’d like to add to savory pies, galettes, or other pastries, or quiches and frittatas, or casseroles. Greens make a great base for many other dishes, or can star on their own mixed in with pasta or grains. And there’s always a big salad filled with lettuce, arugula, herbs, cucumbers, etc. – oh, and maybe some meat or fish too.

I’m still trying to shift my thinking from saying, when making meal plans, “We’ll have pork chops and…” “We’ll have macaroni and cheese and…” to a vegetable-centered focus. Here is a big lovely winter squash, I might think—what meat goes with that? Or maybe cheese and nuts? Can they go inside? Those Yellow Cabbage Collards I grew and put in the freezer: great with a little ham and a high-protein grain. I mean, sometimes we’ll just want a steak and potatoes with the greens on the side, but it’s worth doing the vegetable mind trick several days a week. And when there’s a little leftover steak, it might add something to a stir-fry of broccoli and beans.

If you’re looking for recipes, either search online for the vegetable you want to feature and “main dish,” or use a cookbook, vegetarian or not, that makes vegetables or vegetable families one of its primary organizing principles. And when you’re browsing the seed catalogs that are starting to arrive, consider what you might like to grow next year that will feature as the center of your table.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

In praise of turnips

Are you a turniphead?

I sure am. And I’d love to turn this from an insult, with connotations of “lumpy, dull, bitter,” to a compliment meaning “smart gardener”! Turnips are a great cool-weather root crop and an excellent addition to spring and fall meals. They’re easy and quick to grow, offer variety and good taste, plus you can eat the entire plant.

To be fair, some varieties of turnip (and its cousin rutabaga) are used for animal feed, and as human food are valued mostly for their storage capacity. Turnips have fed people in the midst of famine and wartime rationing, and while this is a terrific feat for a plant, it doesn’t lead us to think of them as tender, delicate, spicy little treats. But they really are!

Turnips are a subspecies of Brassica rapa, which also includes many of the Asian greens such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and tatsoi, and the Italian rapini. Turnips likely originated in northern Europe, probably one of the first domesticated crops there, and later made their way to Asia, where many new cultivars were created. Until recently, most American seed catalogs listed one type of turnip – Purple Top White Globe – or if you were lucky maybe two or three (including Gilfeather which is actually a rutabaga). And listen, PTWG is a perfectly decent turnip, but it’s easy now to find more interesting fare. Many catalogs will at least sell you seed for one kind of round white Asian turnip, probably Hakurei. Grow these, from seed planted directly in the garden in late March or early April, or in September, and you’ll be rewarded about 45-50 days later with a perfectly white ball, mild and crunchy cut up for a salad, or tender and sweet when braised, roasted, or stir-fried.

You only need to do a few things to help your plants along. Provide a planting bed with loose soil that’s been amended with compost, give your plants plenty of water, and cover them with a floating row cover to keep off insect pests (and also rabbits, if you don’t have a fence. But you have a fence, right?). Turnips grow so fast that it almost doesn’t matter if the leaves get chewed a bit, but since they’re also edible, spicy in a mustardy way and great either cooked alone or mixed with other greens, you don’t want to have to pick off caterpillars. (If you really love turnip greens, you can grow types that produce leaves and not much in the way of edible roots, or add extra nitrogen fertilizer for the same effect. But why not have both greens and roots?)

Perusing catalogs with wider selections, you may find other types of round white turnips. I have no idea what the best one is, so pick what sounds good and experiment. You can also find red-skinned, white-fleshed types, which look really striking, though for some reason I’ve had trouble getting them to produce the few times I’ve tried them.

And then you can branch out into the weird ones, like Hinona Kabu, which I grew for the first time this year.

They are not actually meant to be that twisty and branched (the catalog photo looks like purple and white carrots) but I guess the bed I grew them in still has some issues with compacted soil. But it doesn’t affect the taste. This type of turnip is traditionally pickled, so that’s what I did. This is a fairly spicy turnip and the pickles add a nice potent bite to other foods. I made some squash soup the other night and offered various toppings to add, such as rye bread croutons, green onions, and cubed sausage, and also pickled Hinona Kabu turnips, along with Nadapeño pickles.

The pickling process turned the turnip slices pink – very cute! As with the round white types, there’s no need to peel these, just clean and remove some of the odd side roots.

I’m going to make sure turnips are a regular part of my spring and fall garden from now on. Frankly, there are few easier crops to grow, so why not? Let’s all be turnipheads!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Pepper and okra recommendations, and some updates

The end of the summer season is a time to take serious stock of what you grew this year, but sometimes it’s just all about the WOW.

These are the Sherwood Red okra plants that reached over 8 feet tall in my garden. They bore moderately well, with pods that started green and finally turned red when pretty large (6-7 inches long) at which point they were still tender enough to eat–and very tasty, too, with only a small amount of mucosity. (I learned somewhere that the best way to fry okra (okay, the second best way, but the best way without coating and deep-frying) is to make sure it’s dry when it goes into the pan, without even a drop of water combining with the oil. I cut mine into the size pieces I want and then pat them dry between dish towels. Much less gooey using this method.)

And yes, I could still pick from the tops of those plants, since the stems bent down nicely without snapping. It just took a little effort. Possibly they violated the height limitations of my community garden, but I bet they impressed my neighbors too.

Read on for some pepper news…

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Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

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What to do when your seedlings grow too big

I started my peppers too early.

Every year I warn fellow gardeners not to rush on getting seeds into pots for warm-weather vegetables. Tomatoes, in particular, outgrow their indoor space under lights much faster than you’d think, but you can make this mistake with many plants that shouldn’t go outdoors until the chance of frost is past and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees F. There’s often a several-week gap between the average-last-frost day that you used to count back from when calculating start dates and the actual day that it’s safe to put the plants in the garden. That can go either way, of course, but unless you’re inclined toward taking risks, it’s better to err on the side of later planting. The seedlings will grow faster under warm conditions and catch up with their early-planted peers.

So, there was no reason to put the pepper seeds in as early as the very end of February, but I did it anyway. We all have those moments. Mid-March would have been fine, but I know I was feeling anxious about other things and probably projected those feelings onto my peppers. And now I have some large strong well-grown pepper plants that are more than ready to go into the ground–which some of them are going to do this week, soil temperatures notwithstanding.

Some of my large pepper plants hardening off, guarded from inside by a helpful cat

If you have been in this situation, which most of us seed-starters have, here are some things you can do, more or less in chronological order. This applies also to plants you may have bought a while before you could plant them–we all do that too!

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Grow It Eat It in Montgomery County, May 14

April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.

The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!

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