You Don’t Have to Wait for Basil Anymore

What if you could have a bowl of steaming fresh pasta with freshly made pesto right now? In winter freshly made pesto is a summer dream. I love pesto. I consider it vitamin P. I grow a forest of Genovese basil every year and make pesto with Parmesan cheese, home grown garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and pine nuts, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Serve it on homemade spelt pasta, Yum.


yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

This is a pleasure which begins in late May when the basil plants are big enough to pluck leaves, and ends in November when the frost hits, only to be prolonged by endless pots of frozen pesto, which just isn’t the same.

Now. A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner by my cousin’s Neapolitan wife. (From Naples, not chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Just kidding.) Chiara had actually found this recipe in Yoga Journal, but the meal was absolutely Italian. Fresh bread, red wine, a salad, and pasta……………with Kale pesto! Yes.

Bright green, creamy, smooth and parmesany, it’s a little more like a vegetable sauce than a condiment. You can load it on; it’s lighter than regular pesto, and it doesn’t turn black. And what is pesto, after all? Actually, it’s a raw chopped sauce, usually oily and garlicky, applied to a hot food. Pistou is like that as well. The kale pesto is different from basil pesto in that the kale is quickly blanched. If you don’t want to destroy enzymes maybe just wilt it with steam before plunging it in cold water. I demanded the recipe, but to be honest I just did it by feel and taste. Blanched kale (I used 3 kinds), Parmesan, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil whizzed in a food processor, tossed with hot pasta. I also threw in a small bunch of arugula tops which had bolted. We eat them blanched as well. It was great! Here is the recipe and the Yoga Journal link.

Kale Pesto

4 cups stemmed, chopped black kale (about 1 bunch), blanched and plunged into ice water.
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound fettuccine

Kale is still in season- our greenhouse is full of it, and some are bolting, but in gardens where it didn’t freeze it’s still growing. By the time harlequin beetles are wrecking mine the basil will be up and running. Hey, maybe we should try chard!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

By the sweat of thy brow

Michihli (Napa)Asian heading cabbage

Michihli (Napa) Asian heading cabbage

I love working in the garden- I think I just love work in general. Not so much paperwork and organizing, but real work; swinging a maul, cutting wood, hoeing weeds. I used to work in the garden at high noon when my children were small, because that’s when they were down for their naps. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which absolutely counts as the South, no lady stays in her garden after 9. Mad dogs and Englishmen.

One of the main reasons I got started on this blog was because of a friend’s excitement over digging sweet potatoes in my garden. She was raised in an affluent New Jersey town by parents who were one generation from the Georgia clay, and considered it good riddance, but she remembered the wonderful things her grandparents did, and felt robbed of an important heritage. I think so many people are, and more and more they know it and are doing something about it. But the ignorance is incredible. I met a girl who was at our farm a few weeks ago who looked at the shining bok choy heads in my arms and asked wonderingly “Did you grow that in the dirt?” She was a very nice person; she just hadn’t ever seen a vegetable outside of the context of buying it, and dirt was something to clean. I understood- I lived in a city for 12 years. The dirt there is

seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;.

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil.

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur.

As Joel Salatin would say, folks, it ain’t normal.

So here’s what we’re up to. Because of the cool spring, our cold season crops- lettuce, spinach, radishes, endives- lasted longer than usual. As a matter of fact I actually have beautiful cabbages which were planted later than they should have been in our area.

Napa and Red cabbages

Notice the handy carpet strip? Keeps down weeds as well.

The Michihli (Napa)B.rapa are almost ready to turn into kimchee and stir fries, but I am not sure that the red cabbage or cauliflower will make it. In the dry heat they become really attractive to harlequin beetles, and I’m not sure what to do about that except cuss, pick them off and squash them, and try to seduce them with other sacrificial brassicas, like the bok choy that is flowering.

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

They are not affected by Neem or Safer’s Insecticidal Soap. As far as I can tell they are down there happily brushing their nasty little teeth and scrubbing their gaudy carapaces with those products. I had a friend who always took her cordless Dustbuster to the garden to suck up squash bugs. But since the dry heat, which concentrates the sugars in plant sap and makes it even more delicious, is conspicuously absent this year, the beetles have been controllable by hand. So far.

onions and leeks

the leeks are on the left by the beans

I have high hopes for the onions this year. Not only did I educate myself about the different between short-day and long-day onions so I could stop trying to grow onions that don’t do well in my zone, but the constant moisture that onions love has been provided by God. Onions are pretty high maintenance that way. They absolutely will not get big if you are hit or miss with the watering, which I have to say I am. They need careful weeding because they can not tolerate competition. You have to be very strict about crop rotation because onion maggots can reduce your pretty bulbs to a stinking mess, and they have multiple generations in a growing season. Never plant onions where there have been any alliums in the last three years. Onion maggots are very legalistic about this. Two years won’t do. I have my garden mentally divided into 6 sections, and I can remember where they were. Since I grow garlic as well, but in the fall, it’s tricky. I have leeks growing next to the onions. I used onion starts this year, because I was late seeding the ones I grew last year that did well- the lovely white cipollini Bianca di  Maggio, and the all purpose old French Jaune des Vertus.  I recommend the bundled green onions starts over the bulblets because the bulbs sometimes believe it’s time to go to seed. I planted Walla Walla because some onions growers in our area said they were the correct day length. They seem good so far. I also got some red onion starts from a farmer at our farmer’s market who is growing in Bivalve. He advised me that my starts would grow better next time I sprout onions from seed if I trim them back with scissors. Since each new leaf adds to the size of the bulb, that makes sense, since cutting would stimulate leaf production. Unfortunately that leaves me without a good storage onion. The big sweet onions don’t keep well and I forgot the names of the ones the guy from Bivalve had. Stuttgart and Ebenezer are great keepers, but usually don’t get bigger than an egg for me- doubtless my watering neglect again.

planting leeks

They seem threadlike, but they will grow.

push small leek root end into soil leek seedlingLeeks are a wonderful crop in Maryland, because the winters are just right. Cold enough that they sweeten, but mild enough that they are undamaged. They are labor intensive when they are small. I start them in January- February in flats, in the house, so they will germinate, and then set them in the cold greenhouse, where they slowly develop. By the time I am ready to plant them they are still tiny, but they have a tough root system. I plant them in a trench, lay them along the wall of it, and then push soil down around their roots so they stand up. As they grow, I hill them up. This helps them to grow straight, fat, white shanks, and keeps their roots more constantly damp. In winter they stand in a military row, glaucous blue, and I leave a spading fork right there to dig them up for delicious leek and potato soup, braised leeks, yum. I cut the root system and the long leafy tops right into the compost bin, unless I’m making vegetable stock. In spring any uneaten leeks send up giant mauve pom poms that bees adore, a rival to any drumstick Allium in a flower catalog. From this I save seeds. The circle completes!

Garlic will be ready soon. I have been enjoying garlic scapes, the flower top which loops out of the top of the garlic plant in May. You snap them off and steam, boil, or grill them, and they become sweet and surprisingly starchy in texture. I made a garlic scape and potato soup that was as nice a hot vichyssoise as I’ve had, and a bowl of boiled scapes with butter is a fine treat for hungry gardeners. You have to snap them off anyway so they won’t waste energy on seeds. A handful of them tied with twine is cool looking, because they all loop the same way.

sugar snap peas

Sugar snaps coming on

Sugar snaps and snow peas are about done- past their glory anyway. The picture is from a few weeks back- ephemeral delight!  I tried a nice tall French heirloom, Carouby de Maussane, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, bless them. It has bi-colored flowers prettier than some sweet peas I have, and the pods are 5 inches long. You really do have to string them though, both sides; pull the strings off that have been bred out of many modern peas, along with the flavor. I planted them in March. We say plant peas and potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Easy to remember, with some wiggle room for the moon and the weather. The 3 1/2 foot tall pea fence is fine for most sugar snaps and English peas but snow peas need about 4 feet of support and maybe a bit wider spacing. Vegetable candy!

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

Next to them I built a bamboo trellis for my pickling cucumbers, about the same height. I didn’t see the need to grow slicers because picklers are like Kirby cukes anyway; smaller, sweeter, and all purpose. That way I can save seed as well if they do well. The jury is still out on how high to go with cukes- Some people let them rambler on the ground, others hang them high. I have a lot of bamboo which is easy to tie together with twine, and I like the way it looks. I do make a lot of kosher dills though, so if another way works better, I’m interested.

In this picture you can also see that we have a ton of kale, which I transplanted out of the greenhouse salad bed at the end of March. The seeds were saved, a bit mixed, yet the Russian Red Kale, or Ragged Jack and Scotch Vates curly type seem to have retained their separate characteristics. The Vates hasn’t gone to seed yet, whereas some of the Russian has, and is a magnet for harlequin beetles, so I go straight to them to pick them off, while the Vates is staying relatively unblemished. I direct seeded some Lacinato kale- what we call dinosaur kale because of its weird frosted dark blue pebbly leaves, and it is now doing well. My friend in Ecuador has some plants that have not gone to seed in  years. I saw them myself, still producing. Perhaps the unchanging day length confuses them.

This is getting a bit long and work calls so, to be continued