Garden report: Part 1

Tilling the vegetable garden.

Over the past two weeks, I planted my cold weather crops.
First, I had to harvest the last of last season’s parsnips, which we enjoyed tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted alongside some carrots.
On April 14, David rented a tiller from a local shop and, I say without hyperbole, it was the best $20 we ever spent. In two hours, he had tilled the entire garden, incorporating some of the decomposing leaves we applied in the fall into the soil (the rest went into the compost heap) and leaving lovely, loose dirt at least 30 centimetres deep, ready for planting.
I sowed seeds the next day: two rows of harris model parsnips, three rows of organic scarlet nantes carrots, two rows of organic rainbow swiss chard (with a bit of leftover standard green mixed in), a row of pak choi and a row of baby leaf blend organic lettuce. The greens are already sprouting.

Red and green lettuce is beginning to sprout.

In my herb garden, I sowed some curly parsley seeds I harvested off a second year plant (parsley is biennial) last fall.
I also dug trenches in anticipation of the giant jersey asparagus roots I ordered from Vesey’s. Growing this vegetable is an exercise in patience; I’m not expecting a real harvest until 2014. But I could not resist the appeal of a perennial edible that is ready to eat in May.

Young leeks.

April 21, during at an impromptu stop at Joe’s Market for some local honey, I bought three small pots of leeks and a large rosemary plant. This year, I may keep the rosemary in a pot and bring it in during the winter. But a row of leeks was planted in a shallow trench the next day. (The whites of leeks are created by covering the bottoms with soil as they grow.) I love leeks in soups, grain dishes and pastas (including David’s favourite mac ‘n’ cheese, which also features pancetta, gruyere and blue cheese). After reading in Lois Hole’s Favourite Vegetables that you can dig them up whole (with a shovel or two of soil) and store them in a box somewhere cool like the garage to eat all winter, I knew I had to give growing them a try.
Yesterday (April 24), the asparagus crowns arrived in the mail. I planted them in my pre-dug trenches this evening.

This year’s harvest has already begun, albeit very slowly, with herbs: A few chives in a lemon chive mayo for a piece of grilled pickerel; several sprigs of thyme in a potato onion soup; lots of cilantro (self-seeded) to balance the pickled onions in fish tacos.
To my surprise, a lone kale plant survived the winter and should soon have sprouted enough leaves to add to a vegetable soup.


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.

The last stalk

I picked the last of your Swiss chard on Sunday afternoon. I sautéed it simply with olive oil and a couple cloves of sliced garlic for dinner. It was a perfect accompaniment to roast pork loin with a mustard-peppercorn crust and apple cider sauce and puree of butternut squash and apple.
I also cut the kale and froze the leaves for a future soup.
And I dug up our first parsnips of the season for a thick turkey stew on Monday.
With a pitchfork stuck at the end of parsnip rows (we’ll need the visual reminder once the snow arrives) and brown leaves covering the now bare soil, the garden is ready for winter.

The last of the Swiss chard, ready for the saute pan.

Thanksgiving post mortem

Turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

Thanksgiving dinner was a success.
The turkey was stuffed and in a 325 Fahrenheit oven by about 2 p.m. The 9 kilogram bird would take about 4-1/2 hours to roast.
Our guests arrived around 3 p.m.
I had cooked the sausage, washed the apples and picked and washed the sage, so it only took a few minutes to pull together the sausage with apple and sage. We served these with the meringue nuts, sauvignon blanc and Creemore Springs Urboch before dinner.
After a walk around the garden, I started on dinner.
For the first course, I reheated the roasted squash and apple soup and whipped up the easy maple allspice sour cream garnish. The garnish was a surprise hit. The combination of maple syrup and allspice is something I will use again — perhaps as a flavouring for baked squash?
The fresh local turkey was tender, juicy and flavourful.
To accompany it, I served cranberry sauce, brown butter mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes and sautéed Swiss chard. For easy sweet potatoes, peel and cut into large cubes, then microwave with a bit of water until soft. Drain Add a little butter, brown sugar and nutmeg and microwave again for about a minute. The chard (the last from my garden) was sautéed simply in a little olive oil, red pepper flakes and chopped garlic.
My mother-in-law, who makes perhaps the best pastry I’ve ever tasted, brought apple and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Sausage with apple and sage

Sausage with apple and sage
I adapted this Laura Calder recipe only slightly. I used local Gala apples instead of Granny Smith (which tend to be imported) and in larger pieces than she suggests. I also cut down on the olive oil and butter.

2 pork sausages, cooked
1-2 apples, peeled and cored
20 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) olive oil
15 mL (1 tbsp) butter
pinch sugar
24 small sage leaves

Slice sausage into half-centimetre slices on the bias.
Cut apple into small cubes.
Heat oil in a saute pan and fry sausage slices on both sides until golden brown, remove to a platter.
Wash pan. Melt butter in pan. Add sugar and fry apple cubes tossing occasionally until golden on all sides.
Add a little more oil to the pan, if needed, and fry the sage leaves until slightly crisp, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Brown butter mashed potatoes
This is an occasion treat at our house, only served with big traditional meals such as turkey or prime rib. It is inspired by this recipe from PEI chef Michael Smith, although I use less butter and add a little milk or cream.

4-5 large potatoes
80 mL (1/3 cup) butter
60 mL (1/4 cup) milk or light cream
few pinches of nutmeg
salt and pepper

Peel potatoes and cut into large cubes. Place in pot with lots of cold water. Heat until boiling and simmer until cooked, about 20 minutes.
Drain and mash potatoes.
In another pot or pan, melt butter, swirling the pan, until it becomes golden brown and gives off a nutty aroma. Add milk to stop cooking.
Add butter and milk mixture, nutmeg, salt and pepper to potatoes and stir.