Leafy Greens for Fall Harvest

Assorted lettuces await harvesting for salads and sandwiches.

Assorted lettuces await harvesting for salads and sandwiches.

The days are still warm and sunny for sowing a fall crop of lettuces and other leafy greens, and the cooler fall temperatures result in superlative leaves for eating. Unlike spring-sown crops, fall-sown ones are less likely to bolt and turn bitter. Those in cool Mediterranean climates (i.e. the Pacific Northwest and Tasmania, Australia) are fortunate beneficiaries of leafy greens throughout the year except for a month or two. In Tasmania, we were harvesting lettuce from spring into early winter, and our guests always marvelled at how tender the salads were during dinner parties. Soil-grown, the lettuces did not have the flaccid taste of hydroponic ones as they were hardened off by the cold nights (mid to high 50s F). It was a treat to pluck a leaf or two for sandwiches, allowing the head to produce more. The scent of the cut leaves have that stimulating coolness of cold water on a hot summer day. Hypnotic are they not even if Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies did doze off after feasting in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden.

Salad greens are easy to sow as long as the seeds are planted shallow and keep watered. The soil should be warm, but not too cold for best results.

Butterhead lettuces are beginning to develop large leaves for picking.

Butterhead lettuces are beginning to develop large leaves for picking.

Sweet and gentle, butterhead lettuces are ample reason for having salad greens in the garden. They have that appealing green color reminiscent of lush summers and sea glass. Despite their fragile look, butterhead lettuces can withstand heavy dressing and can be gently braised in vegetable stock and with cooked bacon. I like them rolled in Vietnamese summer rolls with prawns, rice noodles, and Thai basil.

'Merveille de Quatre Saisons' lettuce (the red coloring seems to disappear during the high UV summer light of Tasmania)

‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ lettuce (the red coloring seems to disappear during the high UV summer light of Tasmania)

‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ is an old French bibb lettuce rarely surpassed by modern varieties in flavor and texture.A friend accustomed to eating prepackaged salad greens was taken aback by this variety’s buttery taste, and wanted us to keep it on the list for next year.  Heavily ruffled, the mature heads seemingly resist efforts to tease apart their crisp cores.  For some reason, the red coloring famous in ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ never appeared in our plants, and the high UV light may be faulted.

Arugula or rocket beg to be picked in the morning light.

Arugula or rocket beg to be picked in the morning light.

Arugula or rocket (Eruca sativa) needs successive sowings for frequent harvesting. Plants tend to have this unsuppressed desire to reproduce as soon as they emerge from the soil. Older leaves do not have the same succulence and mild flavor as the first batch of leaves, although their piquant bitterness may appeal to some people. Funnily enough, rocket was once regarded highly for its aphrodisiac qualities, leading to its forbidden status in monastery gardens.  Erotic or not, rocket is essential for its peppery note in mixed salads, and by itself goes well with a simple dressing of extra virgin oil, shavings of Pecorino Romano cheese, and pine nuts.

Bok choy ready for stir fries.

Bok choy ready for stir fries.

Bok choy (Brassica rapa var. chinensis) produces a fast crop if you are willing to forgo the signature heads seen at Oriental markets. We usually picked them for quick stir fries with chicken or pork. Other Asian greens, such as pak choi and mizuna, grow equally fast and like most brassicas, seem to taste better after the first light frost.

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Harvesting is straightforward – for lettuces, the entire head can be sliced one inch above the ground if a secondary flush of leaves is desired or individual leaves can be picked off, and for rocket and boy choy, the same applies although the hairy midribs of rocket need to be trimmed off for salads.

Harvested and prepared simply this way, salad greens undergo a transformation from those sadly enclosed in plastic containers.

 

Prolonging Cut Poppies

Cut Iceland poppies stand out against the pop art painting (private home, Tasmania, Australia)

Cut Iceland poppies stand out against the pop art painting (private home, Tasmania, Australia)

One year, I purchased two flats of Iceland poppy seedlings (Papaver nudicaule) from a garden center and planted them in the vegetable garden.  In the rich soil, the seedlings romped away and became very free-flowering as the days lengthened. We could not cut enough and it was wonderful to gather generous bouquets of poppies that could have cost a fortune from florists. The colors may be somewhat retro  to some people, but I find them lively and modern. Here they look brilliant against the Lichenstein-inspired painting originally used for Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade.

Iceland poppies are planted between arugula and leeks (private garden, Tasmania, Australia)

Iceland poppies are planted between arugula and leeks (private garden, Tasmania, Australia)

Poppies are best cut early in the morning when the bud begins to reveal some color. They then should be  plunged into cold water immediately and kept cool and away from direct light. To prolong the life of cut poppies, trim to the desired stem length and expose the cut ends to an open flame. The flame will naturally seal in the cut ends and prevent the stems from drooping and wilting.

~Eric

 

Broad Beans

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Broad beans will remain one of those vegetables that defy commercialization as their flavor deteriorates post-harvest unless quickly shelled and cooked as soon as possible. Store-bought beans are often too large and starchy. Along with asparagus and strawberries, broad beans have that springtime and early summer succulence.

In northern climates, broad beans cannot be sown in autumn, but instead in late winter under glass. Seedlings are planted out in early spring and the first crop usually appears in early to mid summer. Gardeners living in Mediterranean climates can grow them reliably for good harvests since winters are not cold enough to deter their steady growth. Once the plants flower and produce the first pod, their top growth can be pinched and are supposedly delicious  sauteed (I have never tried them). Pinching out this growth forces the plant to concentrate their energy into the beans.

Chocolate spot and aphids are two common ailments of broad beans. Chocolate spot appears as brown dots on all parts of the plant, but good fertilization and air circulation can prevent the disease from gaining a foothold. Aphids can be easily dispatched by strong jets of water or insecticidal soap.

Do not allow the beans to become too large since they become mealy. The ideal size of each bean should be no smaller than a thumbnail. A bit of sea salt and pepper goes a long way. The Australian Gourmet Traveller suggests serving them with lemon, garlic, extra olive oil, parsley, and Pecorino cheese.  Another way of serving is to harvest and finely dice herbs, such as chervil, dill, and mint, and add extra olive oil, white wine vinegar. Slivers of asparagus can be added as well.

Any shelled beans can be frozen and used when another time calls for those memories of spring especially during the short days of winter.

Broad Bean Flowers

Rhubarb

Spring Rhubarb LQ

Despite its Chinese origins, rhubarb never figured largely in my childhood culinary repertoire and its name was vaguely mentioned by my classmates who talked about their grandmother’s pie. I did see rhubarb stalks in the supermarket, but they were never part of my mother’s shopping lists. Their red color was intriguing enough, and I wondered about their taste, given how strawberries were often displayed along them. Only years later in Australia did I became acquainted with rhubarb, which grew plentifully in a friend’s vegetable garden. The mild climate meant that rhubarb stayed evergreen throughout winter and their stems made for a welcome change from the meager choice of seasonal fruits.

With its largess, rhubarb is a voracious plant that appreciates fertile, moist soil and cool summers (plants will become dormant in hot summers). Stems should not be harvested until the plant becomes established (cutting the stems in the plant’s youth deprives its ability to build up reserves).

Like quinces and cooking apples, rhubarb will never have the immediate gratification of a strawberry or peach. It needs cooking (along with generous lashings of sugar) to tame its astringency from oxalic acid, the same compound in spinach and Swiss chard. Shall you dare to eat the stems raw, try shaving slivers for salads and roasted meats. Poisonous, the leaves should never be consumed and should be discarded during preparation. Even the stems require cautionary cooking in heatproof glass, enamelled cast iron and stainless steel  –  aluminum reacts with oxalic acid, resulting in a metallic-tasting, if not dangerous dessert. Some recipes suggest cooking the stems on the stovetop, although I prefer to bake them, finding the flavor to be more nuanced and tastier.  Regardless of your cooking method, you will find the stems delectable with cereal, yoghurt, or ice cream. I sometimes add blood oranges or strawberries if I have them in the refrigerator.    ~E

Recipe

1 bunch rhubarb (5 to 6 stems) cut into 1 to 1 1/2″ pieces (2.5 to 3 cm)

2/3 cup caster sugar (155 grams )

2 tablespoons of orange zest

2  to 3 tablespoons of water

1. Set the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius)

2. In a large bowl, mix the rhubarb stems with sugar, water, and orange zest well.

3. Spread evenly on the tray and place into the oven (once set at 350 degrees F (175 degrees Celsius).

4. Bake until the stems still hold their shape and a knife cuts through the stems cleanly.

5. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with cereal, yoghurt, or ice cream.

Rhubarb stems with sugar, orange zest, and some water in a cast-iron tray.

Rhubarb stems with sugar, orange zest, and some water in a cast-iron tray.