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no longer just a post-holiday pick-me-up?

are we having fun yet? more tree than car to carry

I love the November/December holiday season! Ask Bob, he’ll confirm. After the fall harvest, I love the thought of an extended family gathered at my Thanksgiving table, followed by four straight weeks of holiday carols, holiday gatherings, thoughtful gift planning, maybe travel, maybe hosting kids and grandkids. My quest for the biggest tree that could unreasonably fit into my family room is legendary. Once my kids were grown and out of the house, and theoretically my motivation for holiday decoration gone, there was no decrease in my enjoyment of decorating, cooking, baking, eating, and making merry.

just getting it through the door was no small feat!

Yes, the December holidays are great. . . but then comes January and the potential for winter doldrums. Take heart! You could always count on opening your mailbox on January 2 and finding it filled with seed catalogs. Spring might be many months away, and the fizz of New Years’ champagne a fading memory, but now that you were armed with catalogs, you could do something! You could plan your summer garden and get ready to start some seedlings in a few weeks. Joy!

four-season harvest, or just jumping the gun?

On November 16, 2010, I strolled to my mailbox to find not one, but two 2011 seed catalogs. Yes, seed catalogs. I would expect the clothing, useless gift, and toy catalogs that clog my mail box and keep the USPS alive, but honestly, seed catalogs? Perhaps I’m not as enlightened agriculturally as I’d like to assume, and maybe this post will prove to be an embarrassment. You readers have heard me speak fondly of Eliot Coleman and other proponents of winter and four-season harvest, but even Coleman suggests that for winter harvest, you would have planted in the late summer or early fall. While I do recognize that there are folks in warmer climes than Connecticut; folks who could do something with seed catalogs,  I do believe that the seed growers have become impatient, like so many of us, and are opening the season prematurely.

now is the time

The tree is on the mulching pile at the town dump and the holiday decorations are tucked away in plastic bins in the basement. The sky is a bleak, steel-gray; temperatures cold enough to make you want to stay inside; and upwards to a foot and a half of snow in the forecast. This is the time that you need the promise of spring and summer crops delivered to your door. This is the moment when your spirits need buoying, and nothing can do that like a four-color spread of tomatoes, peppers, or beans in your favorite seed catalog. Not in November when there’s not enough time to sift them out of the mail. Not in November when they will be in a losing competition with the winter holidays. No, not in November; now is the moment!

basement beauty

 

getting ready to start some summer seedlings and kitchen herbs

 

Yes, poised to plant some hope! Working with potting soil on my basement work table helps to fill the void of not digging in the soil outside. Once filled, these self-watering planters will graduate to the window seats in the family room.  Not exactly a Martha Stewart touch, but works for me.

My mid-winter garden endeavors (besides what I’m harvesting from the cold frames — more on that tomorrow) take a two-pronged approach. I’m going to start some tomato, beet, and herb plants using seeds that were left over from last year. I’ve had pretty good success with “old” seeds, and with the price of good, organic seeds, it’s worth testing their shelf life.  Between stretching a couple of years out of purchased seeds and beginning to save my own, I’m able to reduce my costs for seeds.

But that won’t stop me from pulling up next to the wood stove with my favorite catalogs — or, more realistically, with my laptop and WiFi connection — and begin to imagine a the joy of planting, the pride of nurturing, and the immense satisfaction of harvesting!

 

kale Lacinato "trees" in my garden

 

Kale. Three years ago I had heard of it, but really didn’t know what it was. Knew that it was a vegetable, but not much beyond that. Brendan encouraged me to plant it a few seasons ago, and it did remarkably well in my not-terribly-sunny garden plot.  It has done so well that this year, we had a plot of what we called “kale trees”! The stalks were at least four feet high and have surrendered countless pounds of produce!

If you’re not familiar with kale, give it a try. It is one of the healthiest vegetables around.  High in fiber, it’s been found to reduce cholesterol, reduce risk of at least five different types of cancer, and is off the chart in levels of vitamins K, A, C, manganese, and more. Kale is a cruciferous vegetable (part of the Brassicaceae family) whose cousins include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. But unlike many of it cousins whose leaves simply frame their fruit, kale’s leaves are its raison d’être. Think spinach, but on a mega scale. The very young leaves can accent a salad nicely, but the larger, older leaves can be a bit tough and need a long marinade to work in a salad, but make a great kale soup, see recipe below. I love to include kale in a mixed vegetable stir fry, or steam it and serve like spinach. 

While I love kale for its high nutrition value, I love it equally because it’s a flexible and hearty species. I planted it once in the spring and it grew all summer (after a somewhat rocky start, which I’ll explain). It loves cool weather and can withstand cold weather and a hard frost, but also survives a hot, dry summer. The trick to making it last through the summer is to pick only the outside leaves and let the center leaves grow. The trick to making it last through a frost is let the sun thaw it completely before picking. It won’t make it through the dead of winter — at least not here in New England — unless you try a tunnel cover or cold frame. Check out Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook
for details.

 

typical curly leafed kale

 

This year, I planted both Winterbor and Lacinato varieties, but only the Lacinato survived. The Winterbor, which is a traditional, curly-leafed variety, was the target of an as-yet-unidentified pest that insisted on demolishing the emerging plants before they could establish themselves. The reason the Lacinato survived is because I started it in a cold frame; grew it there until it reached a couple inches in height, then planted in garden. After planting, I kept it covered with a floating row cover to keep off the pests until it reached a size that allowed it to withstand the predators. I sewed the Winterbor directly into the garden and it never made it to the critical size.

 

kale "trees" on left side of garden, winter squash and chard on right

 

Now it’s nearly the end of October; there’s not much left in the summer garden, but there are still kale “trees” that we’re harvesting, as shown in the picture. I can count on them to yield the makings for salad, steamed kale, and kale soup until nearly December. During that time, there will also be enough kale to freeze for the winter months. Kale is the gift that keeps on giving!

The next time the weather forecast is cold and dreary, make some kale soup: it’s a soup star that ticks a lot important boxes: comfort food, healthy, tasty, and local.

Kale Soup

3 T. olive oil

1 large onion chopped

6 C. water

1 teasp. salt (or to taste)

1 teasp. freshly ground pepper

4 large potatoes, scrubbed (not peeled), diced

1 lb. Portuguese sausage (linguica or chourizo) or Polish kielbasa sliced into 1/4 inch circles

1 large bunch of kale, center stem removed, and thinly sliced to make 8 cups chopped

3 T. white vinegar

In a large soup pot, sauté onion in olive oil until golden brown. Add water and diced potatoes; bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are soft (about 30 minutes). While potatoes are cooking, place prepared kale in colander; rinse well with cold water; blanch by pouring 2 qts. boiling water over kale in colander; drain well, set aside.

Using an immersion blender, puree broth, potatoes, onions until smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, use a potato masher (texture will be slightly more chunky) to mash. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer on low for 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning. I like to use very little salt, but more vinegar (total 4 — 5 T.) Simmer for another 30 minutes — longer for a thicker broth. Serve with crusty bread. Or better, put in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat and serve the next day when the flavor has developed even more. Delicious!

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