Vegetable garden top five

March is an important month for my vegetable garden.
I gather my thoughts and the notes I’ve written in the margins of my agenda and scraps of paper, consult my books and magazines for folded corners and marked pages, go over last year’s plantings with an eye to crop rotation, make a few rough sketches and order my seeds.

My vegetable garden after the final plantings last May.

I buy organic whenever I can. Veseys is a reliable source of quality plants and seeds, and is continually expanding its organic selection. I’ve also had good luck with Hawthorn in Palmerston, Ontario and am trying Cubits’ dinosaur kale for the first time this season.
I try something new almost every year and will share my final selections for 2012 in a later post. But first, here are my top picks for any Ontario vegetable garden.

When it comes to taste, there is nothing on your grocery store shelf at any time of the year that can compare to a sun-warmed tomato fresh from your own garden.
At a minimum, plant one beefsteak variety – for tomato sandwiches, caprese salads and just plain eating with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you have space and the inclination, add a couple more beefsteaks (for variation in taste, size and harvest time), a cherry/grape or two for salads and snacking and a paste tomato for sauce.

Bush beans
As I’ve noted before, one package of bush beans seeds can provide bountiful harvests for as long as you care to garden. I don’t bother with soaking, just poke the dried beans into the soil, water and wait for them to grow. Bush beans don’t require staking. The more you pick, the more beans your plants will produce. Leave a few pods to dry on the plants for next year’s harvest.

Swiss chard
Rainbow is my go-to variety — as much for the colour as the taste. The stems vary in hue from deep red to white, with shades of pink, orange and yellow in between. In a good season (like 2011), you can begin harvesting within six or eight weeks of planting (cut leaves, leaving about 2 cm of stem) and continue right up until the first hard frost.

If you’ve only ever eaten the grown-for-shipping-not-for-flavour carrots from the grocery store, you’re probably not in a rush to plant your own. But I would urge you to give scarlet nantes a try. Cylindrical roots that grow 15 to 20 cm long, with a bright orange colour, smooth, thin skin and a sweet crunch. I plant them fairly thickly and lazily, thin to 4 cm, then again by harvesting some as baby carrots and allowing the rest to grow to full maturity.

The promise of digging vegetables out of the garden in January or March makes these a regular in my garden. Harvest after a good frost or two for a sweeter flavour. Fresh seeds are a must for success with this root vegetable, so choose a reputable supplier.


Roasted vegetable pasta

Red pepper, Indian eggplant, zucchini, onion and Italian sausage ready for roasting.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. I needed a simple dinner for a busy Saturday, but wanted something that was a step up from our standard Monday to Friday fare.
While this recipe is new, the components are not. I often roast eggplants, zucchini, peppers and onions to toss with couscous for an easy dinner. Canned (or fresh) tomatoes roasted with balsamic are a key ingredient in my tomato red pepper soup. And Italian sausage is my go-to protein for quick weekday pasta meals. Roasting all the ingredients deepens and mellows their flavours.

Roasted vegetable pasta
Original recipe. Serves four or two generously for dinner, with leftovers.
This recipe results in a dish that is more vegetables than pasta. Use whatever ratio of pasta and vegetables works for you.
When I make this again, I might up the tomatoes to two cans. David wanted a saltier punch than the feta provided and suggested olives might work.

Tomatoes, garlic, basil and balsamic ready for roasting.

6-8 Indian eggplants
2 medium zucchini
2 red peppers
3 small onions
3 Italian sausages
olive oil
3 cloves garlic
10 mL (2 tsp) dry basil
1 28-oz. can chopped tomatoes
22 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
dried pasta, about 1L (4 cups) (I used brown rice rotini)

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut eggplants, zucchini and red peppers into bite-sized pieces. Quarter onions.
Brush baking sheet with olive oil. Place vegetables on sheet, season with salt and pepper. Add sausages to sheet. Drizzle everything with a little more olive oil.
Roughly chop garlic.
In a large baking dish, combine tomatoes, garlic, balsamic and salt and pepper to taste.
Roast vegetables and tomatoes for 40 to 45 minutes until vegetables are soft.
Remove sausages and cut into 1/2-cm (1/4-inch) slices. Transfer vegetables, tomatoes and sliced sausage to a large pot over low heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta. Before draining, add 125 to 250 mL (1/2 to 1 cup) of pasta water to vegetable/tomato mixture. Stir to combine.
Drain pasta. Add to sauce. Stir.
Serve topped with crumbled feta.

Roast chicken rediscovered

Roast chicken.

In the past year, I have found a whole new appreciation for the humble roast chicken — thanks to chefs Thomas Keller and Ruth Reichl.
From the former, I learned to dry and season both the inside and outside of the bird, truss it and roast at high heat (450 Fahrenheit) for a short time (40 minutes to an hour works well for an average 1-1/2 to 2 kg bird).
From the latter, I learned to trim visible fat, mince and stuff it under the skin of the breast, and to cook the bird on a bed of vegetables. She uses a rack, puts the chicken on top and potatoes, onions and garlic underneath; I forgo the rack and use carrots and onions because, roast chicken means gravy and gravy calls for mashed potatoes.
The result of combining these techniques is a juicy, flavourful bird with a golden, crispy skin — and a great vegetable sidedish.

Can I call this a salad?

Spinach with pancetta, mushroom and egg ingredients.

While a green salad is on the menu almost every day of the week spring and summer, eating with the seasons makes it a rarity during the winter.
Sometimes, though, I just give in to the craving for fresh and green. Combine it with a few more robust ingredients and you’ve got a hearty main course that could really go by a name other than salad.

Spinach with pancetta, mushroom and egg
Original recipe. Serves 2.

6-8 handfuls of baby spinach
75 g (2-1/2 oz) pancetta, diced
10-12 crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 shallots, halved and thinly sliced
2 eggs
olive oil
15 mL (1 tbsp) white wine vinegar
5 mL (1 tsp) Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Heat 5 mL (1tbsp) of olive oil in non-stick pan at medium-high heat. Add pancetta. Sauté until crisp. Remove. Add mushrooms to pan. Cook until golden. Remove. Add shallots to pan. Cook until soft.
Add 37 mL (2-1/2 tbsp) olive oil to pan. Stir in white wine vinegar, Dijon, lots of pepper and salt to taste. Return pancetta and mushrooms to pan and heat through.
In large bowl, toss spinach with pancetta and mushroom mixture.
Meanwhile, in the same pan, covered, fry eggs until whites are set and yolks are runny.
To serve, divide spinach mixture between two plates. Top each with an egg.

Spinach with pancetta, mushroom and egg.