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.

Heat-tolerant tomato varieties we tried in 2022

Farmers, gardeners, and scientists have known for some time that tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is sensitive to heat stress at flowering and fruiting. Pollination and fruit formation can be disrupted when temperatures >90⁰ F. during the day and >70⁰ F. at night. Other fruit problems like yellow shoulders and white internal tissue are also caused in large part by heat stress, especially when determinate (self-topping) varieties are grown and pruned heavily. 

If you feel that high temperatures are reducing tomato flowering and fruiting in your garden you can try moving crops to spots receiving late afternoon shade or you can cover plants with 30% shade cloth (a mesh material that blocks about 30% of sunlight). Another option is to try some of the many heat-tolerant tomato varieties. Heat tolerance is a major focus for tomato breeders around the world. 

This year, some HGIC staff tried four determinate, hybrid varieties developed by Southern breeders (the first three are from the University of Florida) that I started from seed at home. They all have excellent disease resistance:

Florida 91 (F1) 72 days (transplant to harvest). 9 to 11 oz. red tomatoes 

Florida 91 tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Heatmaster (F1) 75 days (transplant to harvest). 7 to 8 oz. red tomatoes 

Heatmaster tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Jamestown (F1) 80 days (transplant to harvest). 9 to 10 oz. fruit. Purported to have a deep red crimson gene and high lycopene content

Jamestown tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Phoenix (F1) 72 days (transplant to harvest). 8 oz. red tomatoes

Phoenix tomatoes and slices on plate
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld
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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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Having an off year in the vegetable garden. Highlights and lowlights

Over the previous two summer growing seasons, I have blogged about my non-expert experiences building and growing my vegetable garden while attempting to put into practice a lot of things I’ve learned via osmosis working here at the Home and Garden Information Center (view past posts I’ve written to see my progress).

I didn’t write about my exploits during this year’s season since my ambitions were not particularly great or new, as I expected we would be too busy with our baby to put more than a large amount of effort into the garden. My wife started some seeds last year, but was too busy to do so this year, and we wanted to have a permanent rodent fence and gate, so that building project bumped back my direct-sowing and planting schedule.

The year turned out to have more lowlights than highlights, but put all together in one blog post here, I think there’s enough to provide some interest and learning.

Highlight: permanent garden fence and gate constructed

If you’ve tracked my blog posts over the last few years, you’ve seen me go from two store-bought raised beds stuck in the middle of the yard, to what I’ve built now: 3 total beds (one built from scratch), a gravel surrounding space, hand-crafted collapsible trellis and tomato support, and new for this season, a permanent rodent fence with gate.

Gravel garden area with wood fence
New, more secure and better-looking wood fence.

Our previous fencing, which I took down each season, was just garden stakes with wire fencing around the perimeter of our gravel area. This type of fence allowed a lot of grass to grow into the inside of the area via the base of the fence, making things look sloppy. The construction of the wood fence fixed the junction of the wire fence to our gravel base border, eliminating this problem, and making the whole garden look more like a designed, permanent fixture, rather than something sloppily put together.

I’m happy to report that we had 0 notable creature infractions in our garden since the permanent fence has gone up!

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Cover crops for climate-resilient soil: Try it, you might like it

Cover crops are so important for improving soil and protecting the environment that it’s public policy in Maryland to use federal funding to subsidize farmers to plant them. Nearly ½ a million acres across the state are enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop Program. Cover crops protect Maryland’s farm fields from soil loss over the winter and scavenge the soil for the fertilizer nutrients that weren’t used by corn and soybean crops and might have moved into groundwater and surface water. 

Cover crops are typically planted from late August through October and include grasses like winter rye, winter wheat, barley, and oats and legumes like crimson clover and hairy vetch. Plants in the legume family, together with special soil bacteria, transform nitrogen from air into a plant-available form. Tillage radish (a type of daikon radish) and other plants are also grown as cover crops. 

Cover crops improve soil health and help make soils more resilient to the climate crisis. They

  • increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration by feeding soil microbes with sugars and other root exudates 
  • improve soil structure and the strength of soil aggregates which lowers erosion risks
  • increase water holding capacity which allows crops to withstand drought better   

Cover crops use the sun’s energy (when food crops aren’t growing) to produce biomass- roots, shoots, and leaves. The cover crops are killed in the spring. Nutrients in the decomposing plants are eventually available for uptake by the roots of the vegetables and flowers we plant. This reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, whose production requires fossil fuels.

What’s good for ag soils is also good for garden soils! 2022 is the Year of Soil Health for Grow It Eat It, the food gardening program of the UME Master Gardener program. This infographic by Jean Burchfield introduces the idea of planting cover crops, a key practice in building healthy soils: 

Infographic about cover crops

Photo of seed packets
UME Master Gardeners distributed 5,000 crimson clover seed packets for residents to plant in flower and vegetable beds this fall.
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Diggin’ into plant-based diets

As gardeners, one of the many actions we can do at home to mitigate climate change is to grow and eat some of our own fresh produce. Meat and dairy products account for an estimated 14-16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Having a home or community garden gives you access to nutritious foods that can be part of a more plant-based diet — one that’s healthy for you, and the planet! Today’s guest post on this topic is from University of Maryland Extension Family & Consumer Sciences Agent Beverly A. Jackey.


Following a plant-based diet is very trendy these days. Whether it’s an environmental reason (reduce your carbon footprint) or a health goal (decrease the risk of some chronic diseases), many people, including myself are consciously reducing their consumption of animal products.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet? That really depends. Some interpret it as being a vegan or vegetarian. Others view a plant-based diet as being broader, including more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and also fewer animal foods, like meat, fish, and dairy. It’s not necessary to give up all the animal foods you enjoy; however, you can consider decreasing the portion sizes so these foods are no longer the main attraction on your plate. 

Ever since attending a 2019 nutrition conference, I’ve been inspired to consume more plant-based foods. It’s unlikely I will give up my glass of cold, fat-free milk in the evening (with one cookie); however, I do consume at least three meatless meals per week, eat smaller portions of chicken, fish, and lean beef and pork, and I load up half of my plate with vegetables (see my grilled vegetable recipe). This summer, my deck garden provided enough delicious red tomatoes to enjoy almost every day on salads. Since making these changes, I’ve maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and feel good about doing something for Mother Earth. 

Are you ready to ‘dig in’ and adopt a more plant-based diet? Here are some tips that helped me get started.

  1. Go meatless one day a week. Beans, lentils, and nuts are great sources of plant proteins and add fiber to your diet, which makes you feel full. Instead of adding meat to my pasta, I toss it with grilled vegetables. If you like chili, peruse recipe websites for a bean-based chili that appeals to your taste buds.

  2. Combine vegetable proteins. Quinoa is a perfect protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids your body needs daily. You can also combine other plant foods to get that perfect protein. Some of my favorite combos are black beans and rice, chickpeas and pasta, and whole wheat bread and peanut butter (with some jelly).

  3. Re-think your meat portions. You can still have meat at your meals, but in smaller amounts, like 3 cooked ounces (the size and thickness of a deck of cards). Many meals like soups (winter) and salads (summer) are full of vegetables and whole grains, but I add a small piece of protein, like a leftover grilled and shredded chicken breast or a few slices of pork tenderloin.

Try this recipe for Easy Grilled Vegetables!

Selection of vegetables:

  • Red, yellow, or green peppers – cut in half and seeded
  • Yellow and green squash – sliced length-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Eggplant – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Mushrooms – whole cleaned
  • Onion – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick

Additional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons, minced garlic
  • Fresh chopped or dried herb (parsley, thyme, basil, etc.) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Mix oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, and garlic together.

2. Arrange vegetables on the grill or in a grill pan (medium heat). Note: depending on the size of your pan you may need to work in batches.

3. Grill vegetables for 6-8 minutes, brushing with oil, and vinegar mixture.

4. Remove vegetables from the grill or grill pan and place them on a platter. Drizzle the remaining oil and vinegar mixture on the vegetables. Sprinkle herbs over vegetables and serve.

By Beverly A. Jackey MS, RDN, LDN, Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences, University of Maryland Extension (UME). This article was published originally on the UME Breathing Room blog, which covers topics on health, wellness, nutrition, and financial management.