Spring is a time when many of us are dreaming of those big beautiful tomatoes we are hoping will arrive in mid- to late August. But while you are dreaming of the future, don’t forget the present.
There’s still plenty of bounty to be had early in the season with asparagus, spinach, pea shoots, lettuce, kale, chard, bok choy, baby greens, rhubarb and maybe little snippings from those herbs you seeded indoors.
Don’t forget the flowers – pansies, the hearty spring standby for window boxes and container gardens, are edible and beautiful in salads or as a garnish.
Growing many of these vegetables just requires a little planning and direct seeding in the garden. Make sure that the bed you choose has been fed with a generous helping of compost to keep your plants healthy and disease- and insect-free.
Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips are perfect for direct seeding in the springtime garden. They are easy to grow, tolerate cool weather and give you two vegetables to harvest for one seed – the greens when they are young and the root vegetables when they are mature. When sowing the root vegetable crops, I tend to plant them fairly close together and then thin them out. This is the best way to harvest greens (and the baby vegetables) without disturbing the vitality of the vegetables that will mature to full size.
Other perfect springtime crops for direct sowing are peas and greens such as spinach, bok choy, chard and the myriad lettuce varieties available. The tender baby leaves are all wonderful in salads, or you can try pea shoots for a beautiful addition. Of these, lettuce, bok choy and the heartier kales and brassicas such as broccoli raab and broccoli will take well to planting indoors and then transplanting later into the garden.
I usually seed lettuce once a week starting indoors and then later directly into the garden to stagger the days to maturity. Sowing lettuce every one or two weeks throughout the summer ensures I’ve got a lettuce crop all summer long and into the fall. Otherwise, we end up with a huge crop of lettuce at the end of June, which we couldn’t possibly eat, and nothing but bolted heads a few weeks later.
However involved you decide your garden will be this year, delight in the simple and satisfying feeling that comes from harvesting at least part of your dinner from what you grew with your own hands.
CLEANING GREENS – In any of these recipes, thorough cleaning is essential to remove any trace of grit. Cut your greens to the desired size and soak in a large bowl of cold water for at least 5 minutes, distributing the greens throughout the water a few times. Transfer the greens from the bowl to a strainer with your hands, not by pouring. If the remaining water is very gritty, rinse the bowl and repeat the process until the water comes fairly clean.
• Steamed – with just a little salt, pepper and lemon – my favorite! Use as a side dish for an entree or a vegetable for a dip.
• Leftovers, whether grilled, steamed or roasted, are wonderful in the next day’s baby greens salad with a little pungent cheese and toasted nuts such as pine nuts or pecans.
• In a bag – a friend brought this method to me, and the asparagus was terrific. Toss the asparagus with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh black pepper. Add lemon slices and sprigs of thyme or rosemary. Place all in a large paper bag and curl the top closed. Place on a baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes in a 375-degree oven or until the asparagus is tender but not mushy and still bright green.
BABY ROOT VEGETABLES
• Roasted – of course, with just a little oil, salt and pepper. The sugars in these vegetables make them perfect for roasting, giving them a slightly sweet, rich and mellow flavor. For a twist, use a different kind of oil – sesame, walnut, hazelnut, chili, rosemary or lemon.
• Grilled – only a little oil, salt and pepper needed. Or toss them in the same marinade you like to use for your fish, chicken or steak. Sometimes, I’ll just use a simple garlic, lemon and herb marinade and play.
• Roasted radishes – try them; you won’t believe it’s the same vegetable.
BABY BOK CHOY, SWISS CHARD, KALE OR SPINACH
• With browned garlic – slice garlic thinly, saute in olive oil until brown, and add bok choy or chopped greens, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar.
• Asian style – add bok choy or chopped chard to hot oil and saute. Add sesame seeds, tamari and a tiny bit of honey.
• Spicy – saute garlic and red pepper flakes in a little extra virgin olive oil for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the greens and sea salt, and turn with tongs.
BROCCOLI AND BROCCOLI RAAB
• Sometimes, I’ll cut the tender leaves and shoots from a broccoli plant to use as a “baby broccoli” dish and leave the center shoot to develop a full head of broccoli.
• Green Indian rice – puree spinach with parsley and cilantro and water in blender, and use it in place of plain water with your jasmine or basmati rice for an Indian-style rice.
• Soup – add chopped greens to a bean or vegetable soup 15 minutes before serving for a color-and-vitamin boost.
• As a bed – for grilled fish, chicken or pork. Toss the greens in a simple vinaigrette that blends well with your other ingredients and let the heat of the grilled fish or meat wilt the greens a little before serving.
• Creamy greens soup – saute greens, garlic and onions in butter until all are tender. Add chicken stock and cream and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree in a blender if desired.
Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea,” a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family’s windjammer. She can be reached at: [email protected]