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Celt's Garden - Roots and Greens in the Winter Garden

It's the end of February, and the chicory is volunteering. Chicory is a hardy cold season green with a pleasantly burly taste. Raddiccio, best known as yuppie chow, is green in fall when it first comes up. Cut the fall head and eat it in a salad, and the regrowth in cool weather is red, as are spring heads coming up now.

It is the season for inadvertent vegetables. Broccoli is the flowering head of a member of the cabbage family. In the warm false spring that often comes upon us, we get "broccoli" in the garden as the cabbages and kales head up to flower and the true broccoli that you never got around to clearing out of the fall garden sends out new side shouts. A foraging expedition yields a whole basket full, increased by some distinctly shaggy looking brussels sprouts that have tender clusters of young leaves instead of hard round sprouts. The cabbages that you harvested over the winter have sent out new and delicious leaf clusters around the old cut.

You wonder how you are going to eat it all, as you discover some parsnip sprouts that were too small to bother harvesting in December and January have grown into full sized parsnips. Your overwintered beets are looking surprisingly good, and the chard is back and leafing out with enthusiasm.

In a dry spell, you try to get a jump on springs weeds by forking over a wide row, and there you discover the unexpected gift of new potatoes. Potatoes are planted in spring to early summer and harvested in fall and into winter. In the small urban garden, a potato patch is wonderful for the incomparable taste of a freshly dug potato, for the pleasure of growing specialty varieties that you may be too cheap to buy (cranberries, fingerlings, blue) and for the very useful practice in growing potatoes. This year they kept through January in the ground. The hard snow of December 2008 kept the potatoes good until February 2009. Last year's spuds have gone funky in the ground, but there are new potatoes in the row now. Even the row that you thought was harvested clean has few new potatoes, due to the difficulty of getting all the tiny "drops" out. It is generally good practice to rotate your potato patch. Potatoes are members of the Solanum group and hosts for late blight, the scourge of tomato growers and the virus which caused the Irish Potato Famine. As you clean out last year's row, the small potatoes are just the size to drop in the soup or steam whole and eat with a bit of butter.

The traditional roots, turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, beets and Hamburg parsley, are planted in late July and early August. The difference is remarkable between a freshly dug, sweet and juicy turnip and a sad, bitter root that has spent weeks in storage and transit. Garden fresh roots are a whole different creature. They do take some fussing, though. July is often dry and people are often on vacation. Be sure to plan for a relief gardener. The young sprouts need steady watering until the rains pick up, or they will be bitter even if they survive.

I like to grow root vegetables in winter, because it helps maintain seasonal eating. Growing your own encourages reorienting a person's diet to the seasons. Roots were a staple winter food for Europeans for centuries. In hard winter areas, they are dug up and stored in wet sand or in a root cellar.

In our maritime climate, storage in the garden works nearly as well as a root cellar. Since I am the sort of minimalist gardener always looking for the most utility for the least effort, I am happy to leave the roots undisturbed in the ground until eaten, unless I have an unusual bounty of something or we are headed for a warm spell. Then I dig them up, wash them off and store them in the vegetable bin in the fridge.

Territorial sells a carrot variety called Merida, which is sown in September and harvested the following May. They are quite decent, although I had trouble keeping my Meridas alive all through winter freezes. Most carrots are spring sown and overwinter in a root cellar, or, eh, the veggie bin in the fridge. They keep for months if stored in one of those green vegetable bags (available at Terra Organica and other fine retailers in town.)

The leeks and onion greens are up now. Here's my recipe for kale and leek frittata. The Minimalist Gourmet published something similar a few months ago. I like it for breakfast, but it also makes a nice light supper with steamed new potatoes or some leftover pasta warmed up in butter and olive oil.

Wander out in the garden and pick a double handful of young kale tops and leaves. Slice the tops off 3-4 young leek or onion sprouts. Wash everything well and cut in 1/4" slices. Cut up half a small onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in a little oil and add sliced leaves. Put a lid on it and turn the heat down to steam the leaves. Meanwhile, beat two eggs with some milk. Pour the eggs over the softened vegetables and season as you like. A little thyme, savory, rosemary, basil and a small dried red pepper minced fine or pimenton is particularly good. When it barely sets, add some cheese, turn off the heat and cover to finish cooking.

The bitter chicories, sturdy beet leaves and new mustard sprouts benefit from an oil and vinegar dressing. The oil helps the body digest the cellulose. The vinegar liberates the iron from the green leaves so it can be absorbed.

Smash up a couple of cloves of garlic and some peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Add to olive oil. Flavor as you like. I am partial to a teaspoon of Italian seasoning. Add vinegar and salt to taste. Spoon over a salad of fresh winter greens or a lightly steamed haul of "broccoli".

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