Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More Early Vegetables

As you might have guessed from previous posts, I have a special liking for perennial vegetables or, at least, vegetables that in one way or another come back in spring. Whether they are really perennial or self seed, I like the idea of a vegetable that you did not have to plant or seed. I have already talked of turnip tops and various onions that survive the winter, here are a few more hardy vegetables.
Cultivar of Tulipa greigii

One of the best known perennial vegetables is sorrel. It certainly is a very tough plant that will live for many years and faithfully come back every spring. It is very easy to grow from seed or from a plant division. Despite the fact that it is so easy to grow, sorrel is not as popular as it should be, because it has a very sour taste (it is in the same family as rhubarb). In fact, it can be considered a spring tonic or “cleansing herb”. The traditional way of eating it is in a soup. There are many recipes for sorrel soups on the Net. We usually make a version with potatoes a few times each spring. It is quite tasty, but not something you would eat every day. Anyhow, because of its high oxalic acid content, you should not eat a lot of sorrel.

Our favourite way to use it however is not in a soup but in a pesto where the sorrel replaces basil. It produces something completely different from a basil pesto, but it is quite nice. You can serve it on toasted bread or over pasta. It makes a welcome change from basil pesto.

In a blender put a small bunch of sorrel leaves (you can remove the ribs from the leaves), some walnut halves, one or two cloves of garlic, a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper (you can adjust any of the quantities according to taste). You blend until you get a smooth mixture. If you find it too bitter, add a hint of maple syrup.

Strangely enough, the French for sorrel, “oseille”, is also a slang word for money (like dough in English). I don’t suppose it is any reflection on the plant’s culinary value.

Another vegetable that is coming along just now is chicory/escarole/curly endives/radicchio, a plant that is not lacking in names. This whole group of greens suffer from a name classification mess. They are mostly grown in the fall, but some survive the winter. Usually, when it is called escarole, it looks like a yellow-green head of lettuce. Curly endive is the same thing, but more open (more flat) with curly leaves. Radicchio is red or reddish green. However, they all are chicories, and what is more, if you grow several together, they can hybridize and produce new varieties.
Escarole-style chicory

All this to say that I have a variety I have grown for many years, but I don’t have a name for it, if I ever did (it might be a hybrid). It is an escarole-style chicory that self seeds and germinates in the fall. The small plants always survive the winter without any protection. Just now, they are still small, but by the middle of May they should have reached edible size.  We eat them in salad, usually mixed with lettuce. All these chicories are more or less bitter. Apparently, bitter tasting food tends to contain ingredients that may reduce the risk of cancer.  The older you get, the more you appreciate bitterness.
I just let one or two plants go to seed in autumn, and at this time of the year I move to a permanent place the small plants that are growing here and there wherever they sprouted in the late autumn.

This year, I also have some radicchios that have made it through the winter. These were seeded last summer and will also be edible earlier in the season. I had about a dozen left last November, four have survived. Before the winter set in, I should have put a row cover over them, and they might all have made it. Something to keep in mind for next year.
At 10:30 this morning the first tree swallows arrived from Mexico or Central America. As usual on their first day back, they did not stay long. They just checked that their birdhouse had been cleared of the old nest and that everything was in order.

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