Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eating from the Garden in April

We are soooo lucky in the Pacific Northwest!  For lots of reasons, but in particular because we can grow so much food over the winter.  This week, we’ve eaten carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, Purple Sprouting broccoli, parsley, chives, sorrel, thyme, rosemary, oregano, kale, Swiss chard, arugula and beets out of the garden.  And I’ve discovered that as much as I love kale anytime, my favorite season for it is spring!  Not the leaves, but the luscious little flower buds, or raab. 

Purple Sprouting Broccoli, planted last July, eaten this week.
We’re used to eating the immature flowers of the Brassica family—broccoli and cauliflower heads are just unopened flower buds.  But even varieties grown primarily for their leaves produce these yummy little treats.  Best of all, they’re available when most of the other food from the garden is either running out or not ready yet.  The Purple Sprouting Broccoli and some overwintering varieties of cauliflower and cabbage are maturing, but it’s nice to be able to get a few last fabulous harvests off of the plants you thought were ready for the compost heap. 

Tuscan/Dinosaur Kale
Most of the members of the Brassicaceae family are biennial, meaning they grow leaves their first year, then flower and (usually) die the second.  They need the cold of winter to produce flowers and seeds.  Starting in late winter, they begin to elongate and send out shoots with buds that look like tiny broccoli heads.  Depending on the variety, these are either incredibly sweet (kale) or have a stronger flavor of whatever they are like in the summer (arugula and cabbage.)  The plants are determined to make seeds, so the more you pick the flower buds, the more they produce.  The flavors are mildest when the flowers are still buds, but still tasty when completely open.

Russian Kale really going to seed.  It was about 8' tall!
I’ve been growing a variety of Russian kale for several years, saving seed and selecting for the plants that are the most vigorous and the most aphid-resistant.  The first year was an accident, really.  I knew you could keep the kale plants through the winter, cutting leaves as needed.  Then a weird thing happened in February that year—the plant got HUGE and started making flowers!  A gardening mentor told me to try eating those flower buds and I was hooked.  Now I always let at least one plant go to seed completely although I rarely use the seeds myself.  Enough germinate on their own in the garden to keep us in kale all year.  We pick and eat the flower buds from the other plants for several weeks.  I like to just steam them like broccoli, or use them in salads.  If I don’t eat them in the garden long before they ever get to the kitchen… 

Brussels Sprouts
Some favorite cole crops to let flower:
Russian kale (red or white)
Tuscan or Lacinato (dinosaur) kale
Brussels Sprouts (Long Island Improved, Rubine and Franklin Hybrid this year)
Arugula (The opened flowers are beautiful and surprisingly sweet!)
And a brand new plant (to me):  Spigariello!  My friend Annette gave me some seeds last summer. I have to admit, I wasn’t too excited about the long stringy leaves, but let it go overwinter.  Its flower buds are the sweetest of all the plants in the garden right now!  The seeds I have are from Nichols Garden Nursery, but they're not offering them this year.  Terroir Seeds has a description on their website.

Spigariello--most of the flowers have been cut,
but it's making more everyday.

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