Strawberry Shortcake

One of my fondest young adulthood memories is of strawberry shortcake. Or rather the woman who made it. Years ago my family gathered at my grandmother’s house to celebrate her 70th birthday. She had made strawberry shortcake for dessert after a traditional summer dinner of fried chicken and potato salad. When we all arrived that afternoon, my little sister was haunting the kitchen and asked “Nano – could we just have strawberry shortcake now?” 

My grandmother, who was a flapper, divorced a husband in the 30’s when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, and sailed to Africa on a steamship by herself, was nonplussed. She laughed heartily and said , “Of course we can!”. So we all sat down in the garden on a hot Texas afternoon and gorged on luscious strawberries and sweet whipped cream sandwiched between her lighter-than-air biscuits. And, yes, we still ate the chicken and potato salad for dinner. 

Strawberry shortcake to some means strawberries over angel food cake. But true shortcake is a type of flaky sweetened biscuit. They are split hot from the oven, piled with fresh sliced room-temperature strawberries and topped with icy whipped cream. Nirvana!

Make yourself some delicious memories this summer. 

Nano’s shortcake (or biscuits if you leave out the sugar)

The beauty of this recipe is that you can use any type of berry or fruit in season. Peaches, blackberries, blueberries or raspberries make delectable shortcake. 

2 c. sifted flour

1 T. baking powder

½ t. salt

¼ t. baking soda

2 T. sugar

6 T. butter 

1 c. buttermilk

Blend dry ingredients, cut in butter until it resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk and mix lightly, just enough to incorporate the ingredients. Pat into a loose ball, turn onto a floured board and roll out to about ½” thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes.

Let cool a few minutes, split with a fork and layer with sweetened fruit and top with whipped cream.

The solace of gardening

I know everyone is writing about how gardening soothes right now, especially in these trying times. But it’s true. There is nothing that calms the inner monkey quite like getting outdoors, planting seeds, and then nurturing them into food production. The sun on your face, the scents of earth and plants, the sounds of birds, bees and other creatures have a healing effect unlike anything else. 

I’ve always done it, but right now it seems more important and more effective than ever at being my Zen place. Not to mention making my family more resilient by growing our own food. 

I started my gardening as a manic doer, and it’s taken years to slow down. I’m a huge fan of the slow gardening movement – of leaving things alone when you don’t need to mess with them. It’s all about the soil.

Happily, the move toward regenerative agriculture and permaculture is taking this idea to heart on a larger scale. If you get a chance, check out One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. He is essentially the grandfather of permaculture with his philosophy that plants will thrive in their natural settings, without human intervention. 

It makes us lend a more critical eye to how our food is produced. If we do our best to protect and nurture our soil by adapting his methods of using nature’s cycles, we’ll have healthier gardens that are less susceptible to the vagaries of pests and diseases. Slow gardening, non-intervention at its best. 

And it’s all about the soil. Nurturing your soil will produce delicious results like these baby beets and turnips. With little care except planting the seeds.

Shredded spring salad

½ c. grated raw beets

½ c. grated or spiralized baby turnips

½ c. grated carrots

½ c. grated radishes

½ c. thinly sliced scallions

½ c. thinly sliced pak choi

2 c. mixed torn salad greens

Lemon dressing

1/4 c. fresh lemon juice

3/4 c. olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 t. dry mustard

1 T. chopped fresh herbs

1 t. salt or to taste

1/2 t. black pepper

Bok choi (pac choi) in the kitchen and garden

Bok choi or pac choi is my favorite of all the chinese cabbages. It’s tender and sweet and is sturdy enough to last for a couple of weeks in the fridge after harvesting. I love it fresh and sauteed or grilled, and it is full of the wonderful sulfur compounds that are so healthful. Just like the rest of the cabbage family. 

Grow transplants

It is so easy to grow as long as you start early enough indoors. I haven’t seen many transplants available in stores so I always start my own around February first. These babies do not like to be transplanted into larger pots like tomatoes, so they should be grown in small pots that they will stay in until going out in the garden. I’ve had great luck growing pac choi in containers, and in fact prefer that since I can control cabbage worms easily.   

Bok choi in a container

Full sun, good soil

They grow best in full sun in rich organic soil that is well-drained. They should be planted out early – they have the capacity to withstand frost. They are moderate feeders so benefit from a top-dressing of compost or composted manure when planting. Mulch with organic mulch such as straw once they are growing.

And harvest young. I’ve had the best luck growing some of the “baby” varieties that are harvested when about six inches tall. They stay tender, and are early enough that they often avoid the cabbage worms.  

Cabbage moths are much more a problem on broccoli and regular cabbage, but occasionally they will be out early enough to attack pac choi. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), an organic bacterial pesticide that goes after pesky cabbage moth larvae, is easy to apply and safe to use.

Grilled pac choi

Grilled pak choi

Harvest small heads whole and carefully cut off the root end, taking care not to cut into the heart which will cause the leaves to separate (which is also okay because they can be used in a salad).

Sprinkle with a fruity olive oil and lay gently on a grill rack or in a grill basket. Turn with tongs after about five minutes, grill 5 minutes more and remove to a platter.

Splash with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and serve as a delicious side to whatever you are having as a main course.

You can change up the flavor a bit by using sesame oil instead of olive oil, and splashing with soy or ponzu sauce after they come off the grill.

Greens of summer

Italian Silver Rib chard

Greens are simple things. In a world of chaotic schedules, hurried meals, and gourmet foods, it’s pleasant to eat something as simple to prepare and wholesome as Swiss chard or kale. Besides, with the constant nattering about eating less fat and more vegetables, who can argue with getting a solid dose of cancer-fighting vitamins in something that tastes so good?

I wasn’t always a greens aficionado. When I was a child in the South, the preferred method of cooking collards and turnip greens was to boil them until they turned gray and then flavor them with bacon drippings. The last thing I wanted to put in my mouth was a pile of what looked to a ten year old like slimy gray-green glop.

It took a while to get past the specter of the sodden mass, but I’ve matured, at least according to rumor, and since I no longer have to eat greens, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy them. Sautéing or steaming them just until done makes a world of difference in how they look and taste. I toss kale and chard into almost everything I eat, just for the vitamin boost. 

Dual-purpose plants

Bright Lights chard

I’m also a huge fan of dual-purpose plants. Kale and Swiss chard leaves are as beautiful as any perennial flower and make wonderful accents for annual flowers as well. I was driving in a nearby neighborhood last summer, minding my own business, when in front of a typical suburban house was a sidewalk edged in a beautiful short hedge of rhubarb chard. Behind the chard, a single tomato plant occupied the front flower bed, surrounded with a little basil and some marigolds.

Beautiful additions to flower gardens

Winterbor kale

Dragon kale is a spectacular-looking plant with deep blue-green seersucker leaves, and scotch blue curled is a crinkled, beautiful dusty blue that is a perfect companion to pink and white flowers. Ruby chard has deep maroon leaves, and Bright Lights chard has stems in all shades of red, apricot, yellow, white and green. One of the most beautiful planters I’ve ever seen was a window box filled with chard and kale with sweet alyssum cascading over the edge. What more could you want from a flower garden?

Swiss Chard

There is no reason why the summer kitchen cannot always have greens. Once spinach and Chinese cabbage are finished in spring, and the heat of summer begins to weigh on the garden, it is time for the stalwart summer greens! Swiss chard is a humble vegetable, but one with an unbelievable array of culinary possibilities. Also called silverbeet or seakale beet, it is technically a beet (Beta vulgaris) that has been bred for its greens. It is simple to grow and monstrously productive. 

Mustard

Mustard greens will add piquancy to any salad or dish, with a zingy vinegary essence. The broad-leafed types are best for summer use, as they grow large and luxurious without getting stringy and tough. If allowed to go to seed, the mustard plant is useful in all forms. The seed stalks are tasty sautéed, and the seeds make the familiar tangy seasoning for hot dogs or pickles. 

Collards

Collards, another sizable green, are grown frequently in the South. And for good reason. They remain tender and tasty throughout the summer and are slow to bolt in spite of heat and drought. They have a more cabbage- like flavor than mustard greens, but a little taste of collards seasoned with garlic and complemented with prosciutto will make you wonder why you didn’t start growing collards years ago. 

Once you are hooked on greens, there is a wealth of other summer treats to try, from turnip greens to amaranth to Chinese kale to komatsuna Check out your local farmers market to try a few and plan to use them in your own garden next year. 

Cooking greens

Greens are delicious simply sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Toss with cooked pasta and top with fresh chopped tomatoes and a few gratings of parmesan and you have a delectable meal. Dark leafy greens pack an unbelievable vitamin wallop, to say nothing about their cancer-fighting phytochemicals. In addition to eating greens for themselves, try adding them to omelets, fresh or marinated salads, soups and savory breads.

 Growing tips

Fall mustard greens

Other than their great looks, another reason these basic vegetables appeal to me is that they’re carefree to grow. Sow seeds from early spring (even right on top of the snow) to fall. The plants grow without much attention – except thinning early on (which you can eat) and then harvesting. I like that in a plant. Starting them under a cold frame will give them a great head start and sowing more seeds in September and then putting a cold frame over them will assure you the freshest of greens into the Christmas season. 

All greens produce well if given ample nitrogen. Composted manure or manure tea is one of the best ways to do this because it is mild enough to be used every three or four weeks. Provide plenty of sun, moderately fertile soil and ample water. After the seeds germinate, be sure to thin adequately to give them plenty of room to spread. It may seem a waste to pull out so many tiny plants, but they are delicious additions to a salad. 

Harvest the outer leaves first, before they get too tough, or you can simply cut off a head of all the leaves at one time. Eventually, new leaves will be produced from the crown. 

Red Russian kale seedlings

Although you can grow most greens from transplants started indoors, they germinate readily in cool soil outdoors as well. Also, you can cut many of them to ground level in late fall and leave the crowns under about four inches of straw mulch through the winter. They will start producing tiny leaves in very early spring. Thus you get the pleasure of the tender greens early in the season, while your new seedlings are getting off to a good start. 

Sauteed greens for two

Sauteed greens with tomatoes

5-6 large leaves of your choice of greens, chopped (remove stems if desired) 

1 large clove of garlic, minced

5-6 scallions, chopped

2 T. fruity olive oil

1 c. chopped tomatoes

1 T. balsamic vinegar

1 t. sugar

Heat olive oil and sauté garlic and scallions until soft, about five minutes. Add greens, tossing to coat in olive oil. Cover and let the greens steam about three minutes. 

Toss with tomatoes, eason with salt and pepper to taste and top with fresh grated Romano cheese. 

Pasta Alfredo with Swiss Chard

1 lb. Swiss chard (six-eight large leaves)

8 oz uncooked pasta such as penne or farfalle 

1 T. olive oil 

3 garlic cloves minced 

3/4 c. ricotta 

1/4 c. Parmesan cheese 

1/2 t. salt 

1/8 t. pepper 

Remove stems and chop chard. Set aside. Cook pasta and drain, reserving 3/4 cup cooking liquid. Sauté garlic 30 seconds in oil, add chard and sauté 3 minutes or until wilted. Combine cooking liquid, ricotta, 2 T. Parmesan and stir well. Combine with chard mixture and toss well. Top with remaining Parmesan. Serves 4. 

Blackberry jam

I collected blackberries along my walking trails late last summer and froze them for use later. Since they are getting ready to bloom this spring, I figured it is time to make jam. 

I do this frequently – collect or purchase fruits when they are ripe in summer and if I don’t have time to make jelly or jam, I will freeze it until I do have the time. It actually makes a wonderful winter project. Not to mention, lovely holiday gifts. 

Freeze summer fruits

Photo by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

It’s important when freezing fruit for jam that it be washed and prepared because you won’t be able to do it once it thaws since it will be very soft. If it is cut, peeled if necessary, and ready for cooking, all you have to do is toss it in the pot, prepare your jars and get busy.

Blackberry jam from wild berries has a flavor that is so much more satisfying than commercially made jam. And, making jam is fairly easy to do once you get past the stigma that it is labor intensive. All it really takes is a bit of patience. 

Pectin or not?

Blackberries have plenty of naturally occurring pectin (so do currants, raspberries and apricots) so you don’t have to add commercial pectin to make your jam jell. In general, jams and jellies made with commercial pectin are more foolproof, but they also require more sugar. 

To seed or not to seed

Wild blackberries can be somewhat seedy, so your jam will be more palatable if you remove some seeds. No, you don’t have to pick them out. If you cook down your berries until they are soft and then run through a food mill, you will remove about half the seeds. If you really want a seedless jam, you’ll need to push the pulp through cheesecloth and you will lose a good bit of pulp in the process. 

Blackberry Jam

8 cups blackberries

4 cups sugar

½ c. water

Place the berries in a large pot and cook over medium-low heat about 20 minutes until the berries are very soft. You can mash them up a bit to help them release their juice. 

Run the berries through a food mill. Measure your pulp, return to the kettle and add the same amount of sugar. Put a ceramic saucer in the freezer (I’ll explain in a minute). Stir and cook over medium heat until the jam thickens. To test for thickening, take a spoonful and drip it onto your frozen saucer. This cools the jam very quickly and you can tell how thick it will be when finished. When it doesn’t run when you tip the saucer, it’s ready. 

Take the jam off the heat, skim off any foam (I like to save this in a jar for my toast – tastes just as good as the jam, just not as pretty). Ladle into clean, sterilized jars leaving about half an inch of headroom. Seal with hot flats and bands and put in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove to a cutting board to cool. And get an immense amount of satisfaction as you hear the pings of your sealing jars. 

Spring Greens

With the spring coming on like crazy, I find myself constantly walking the garden to see shoots of edible things peeking through the mulch. I know it’s too early for asparagus, but the sorrel is beginning to show signs of life.

Leafy greens are earliest spring vegetables

Usually the first shoots we see are leafy greens. Many of them actually have chemical substances (mostly sugars) that act as antifreeze so they are perfectly at home in the coldest weather. They are the best plants to bracket the growing season with since they are so cold tolerant. They also make great cold frame crops. 

Greens are simple things. In a world of chaotic schedules, hurried meals, and gourmet foods, it’s pleasant to eat something as simple to prepare and wholesome as Swiss chard or kale. Besides, with the constant nattering about eating less fat and more vegetables, who can argue with getting a solid dose of cancer-fighting vitamins in something that tastes so good?

Greens are easy to grow

Most are easy to grow, and only need moderately fertile well-drained soil and full to partial sun. I actually like to seed several types of greens in the fall so they will be up early and provide me with tasty meals when there’s not much else around that is so fresh. Some greens bolt quickly when the heat comes, so giving them a head start by planting in fall means I’ll have plenty of spinach, lettuce, mustard and Chinese cabbage in early spring.

Spinach in the cold frame

Spinach

Spinach is one of the first greens that comes to mind. Who doesn’t love spinach? You can start plants under a cold frame in fall, where they will start growing and then go into suspended animation for the winter. As the days lengthen, the small plants will take off. I actually have baby spinach for the table now.

Mustard greens

I always grow mustard greens. Red mustard is beautiful for ornament, and the frilly green mustards are absolutely delicious when steamed or sauteed with garlic. I let some go to seed at the end of spring and they provide new plants for fall harvest. Then I let the fall plants set seeds to provide the next spring’s crop. I have a steady supply and I don’t have to do a thing except thin or move them around where I want them. I like that in a plant.

Mustard greens in fall

Swiss chard and kale

Of course I also always grow Swiss chard and several types of kale. I leave the old stalks in the ground through the winter and about half the time they will sprout giving me very early greens. These stalks don’t usually last past May, but that gives me time to get new plants in the ground before they give out. And neither of these greens bolts in warm weather so I have greens all summer. 

Kale is a favorite

I get some pushback when I talk about kale these days – “it’s so passe!” as everyone says. But it will never get old with me. I love it in soups, stirfries, and my favorite, kale salad. But not your usual chopped raw kale. That often leaves people cold. But I’ve learned to massage it into a sweet, tender vegetable that doesn’t resemble the woody, chewy kind often found in kale salads. 

Massaging Kale

My favorite to use is dragon kale, also called laciniato, an Italian heirloom. I find it’s the sweetest. It may sound strange to think of massaging kale into a salad, but crushing it takes away the bitterness and toughness. Try it – I think you’ll be hooked. 

Massaged Kale Salad

One large bunch kale (laciniato preferred, but any kind will work)

1 t. salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1 T. olive oil

Juice of one half a lemon

Parmesan cheese to garnish

Remove the ribs from the kale. This can be done by grasping the end of the rib and stripping off the leaves. Discard the ribs. Roll the leaves into a “cigar” and slice into ribbons. 

In a large bowl, douse the kale with the olive oil, add the garlic and salt and begin to massage or crush the kale with your hands. This can only be done well with the hands, so get into it and enjoy it. Your hands will thank you for the olive oil massage. 

Once the kale is dark green and reduced considerably in bulk, squeeze the lemon juice over it. Adjust the salt, add pepper if you desire and garnish with plenty of fresh grated parmesan cheese. You will find this irresistible!

Sourdough

I have time! I’m going to make my own sourdough starter. I love the unique flavor and there are so many delicious breads with a sourdough base that it’s time. Sourdough also falls into that category of probiotics that are so good for gut health, something we can all use. Who knew bread or biscuits could do that for us?

I love the idea that the starter is alive and living in my refrigerator. The thread of using and replenishing it regularly is a wonderful addition to the kitchen. Whether you received starter from another cook and have been nurturing it for years or you plan to start your own from scratch, it’s definitely worth trying. 

Sourdough English muffin bread

I’ve seen many recipes for creating your own starter. Some use commercial yeast, but the purist way to do it is to basically capture wild yeast that is floating around in the air and give it food to reproduce and make the lovely starter. Even if you use commercial yeast to get started, your starter will capture some wild yeast and will eventually take on the distinct sourdough flavor. 

The simple key to using starter is to use it. Every few days, make pancakes, biscuits or sourdough bread. Then you will replenish your starter and let it grow again. It’s a lovely cycle. There are recipes on the web for all types of breads, English muffins and even pasta and desserts. 

One of my favorite sources for recipes is the King Arthur Flour company. They produce cookbooks regularly, which are full of every type of baked good, including sourdough breads and starters. For step-by-step instructions for starter from commercial or wild yeast, go to their website: 

https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes. Once you get hooked, another great website is https://www.sourdoughhome.com/

And get baking! It’s good for your gut, your stomach and your soul. 

English Muffin Bread

2 c. active sourdough starter

4 ½ c. flour

1 T. sugar

1 t. salt

¼ t. baking soda

2 ½ c. milk

½ c. water

Cornmeal

Remove the starter and let it come to room temperature (a good time to replenish your starter). Combine 3 c. flour, sugar, salt and soda. Heat milk until quite warm to the touch. Add liquids to dry, beat well. Stir in enough flour to make stiff dough. Put in two greased and cornmeal dusted pans, sprinkle with cornmeal. Cover, let rise 45 minutes. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes. Remove immediately and cool. Toast slices for serving. 

Knotweed Jelly

I sat down to write on how to survival cook, but everyone seems to be doing that these days, so, I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to instead. Yes, I’ve certainly been cooking a lot, but I’ve had fun trying to be somewhat creative at the same time. 

Knotweed Jelly

I was out walking the other day and noticed the rampant Japanese knotweed along the trail where I was walking. It’s considered a noxious weed in most states, and is just about impossible to get rid of once it becomes established. You often see it along roadsides in six to eight foot high impenetrable thickets. 

I decided to find out a bit more about it, especially since it seems to be taking over a large part of this riverside trail. Not being much of a forager at heart, I was quite skeptical when I read that it is edible. A bit more research from several knowledgeable sources let me know that yes, it is edible, in many forms. Happily, it is supposedly quite an immune-booster, so it’s quite welcome right now when we need healthy immune systems.

It can be grilled, sauteed, stewed, kimcheed (is that word?), and my favorite, turned into jelly. I found a jelly recipe that likens the flavor to that of rhubarb, so I decided to try it. I picked several pounds of young stems (they have to be young to be tender), and after removing the leaves, giving them several washings and roughly chopping, I had eight cups to simmer into juice. 

Japanese knotweed

Knotweed has green stems with reddish spots, and often the new leaves are reddish tinged. The stems made lovely pink juice that produced a delicate pink jelly. My eight cups of juice made six half-pints of jelly. After it was finished, I stirred a spoonful into plain yogurt and was absolutely thrilled at how delicious it is. I’m hooked – back to the trail to pick some more. 

Fruit Jelly

This recipe can be used for jelly from just about any type of fruit (currants, berries, rhubarb, peaches, apples, elderberries, blueberries). Remember, jelly is made from juice, jam has the fruit in it.

Combine 1 part water to two parts fruit. Eight cups of prepared fruit to four cups of water is a good proportion and will give you about three and a half to four cups of juice. Simmer for ten to twenty minutes, mash with a potato masher and then strain the juice in a jelly bag. Let it drip for a couple of hours to retrieve all the juice. Don’t squeeze or the jelly may be cloudy. 

To four cups of juice, add the juice of one large lemon and four cups of sugar. Bring to a rolling boil. When you cannot stir down the boil, add one packet of liquid pectin, bring it back to a boil and boil for one minute while stirring constantly. 

Turn off the heat and pour into hot, sterilized jars. Seal with canning lids and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Hard times, yes.

Hard times for us all. But I’m so amazed by the indomitable spirit of all of you gardeners and cooks out there. We will get through this and in the meantime, let’s garden. And do yoga and take walks. And cook. Making healthy food for those you love does wonders to mend the soul.

A few tips for cooking now:

Use lots of chilis – the heat releases the brain endorphins which increase your happiness. Chocolate does the same thing, so maybe brownies are in order. Although I don’t usually do much posting of sweets, perhaps this is the time to indulge.

Katherine Hepburn’s brownies are famous. The recipe is so easy and delicious that it’s become the only one I use. I’ve added my own riff by adding chili pepper to it. So you get the chocolaty goodness topped off by a hint of chili. Not good for your body but definitely good for your heart and soul.

And her words to live by:

Never quit.
Be yourself.
Don’t put too much flour in your brownies

Katherine Hepburn’s Brownies (borrowed from PBS History)

Photo courtesy of skeez, Pixabay

½ cup cocoa or 2 squares (2 oz.) unsweetened baker’s chocolate
1 stick unsalted butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
¼ c. flour
1 t. vanilla
¼ t. (or more) chile flakes
Pinch of salt
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans

Melt butter with the cocoa or chocolate together in a heavy saucepan over medium low, whisking constantly till blended. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Whisk in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in flour, salt and walnuts. Mix well. Pour into a well buttered 8-inch square baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees for about 40 minutes till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely and cut into squares. The fudgy goodness is hard to slice so use a sharp knife and spatula.

Make plans to make elderberry syrup this year

Elderberry Lime sparkler

Scope out the wild blooming elderberries in the next few weeks and make note of where they are so you can harvest the lucious purple berries in July. Elderberry syrup is simple to make and its immune-boosting qualities make a great reason to use it daily. Elderberry (Sambucus) is a powerful antioxidant and immune system booster, and they grow wild all over the woods and fields. Make your own tonic to keep you in peak health through the winter.

Elderberry blossoms

Elderberry Syrup

Collect and wash heads of elderberries. Clip as many stems off as you can and add the fruit and a very small amount of water to a good sized stock pot. Turn on to a simmer, and periodically mash the berries with a potato masher. After about half an hour of simmering, turn the mashed berries and seed heads out into a cheesecloth bag and let drain over a bowl. When cool, twist the bag squeeze as much juice out of them as you can. Then, either freeze the juice to use later or make your syrup immediately.

Measure into a sauce pan 3 cups elderberry juice and 1 cup honey or other sweetener of choice. Mix and simmer gently until thick. Refrigerate and use a tablespoon in a glass of water daily for health. You can also pour into pint canning jars, leave 1/4″ head room, seal with fresh canning lids, and then process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. Store in a dark cupboard.

Perennial Vegetables

Vegetables that come back year after year? I can’t think of anything more enticing to a gardener than the reward of delicious food with little effort. As I keep trying to ease my gardening load, I’m captivated with the virtues of perennial vegetables. 

rhubarb flower

I have a good start on some, but I’m going to add more this year. There’s something so appealing about not having to replant every year. I’ll never give up my annual peppers, tomatoes and green beans, but why not add some other less intense plantings?

Earliest vegetables

Although some vegetables function like perennials, reseeding themselves or being first up in spring after having been planted in fall, there are a few true perennial vegetables that are delicious and exceptionally easy to grow. One of the best rewards is that these vegetables are often the earliest in the garden. 

Perennial onions

Perennial onions

One of my favorite aromas in early spring is the combination of moist soil and a freshly pulled spring onion. Also called Egyptian onions or walking onions, they start as small bulbs that send up green scallion-like leaves in early spring, much like any other onion. 

The underground bulb becomes tough and woody through the summer, but you can harvest the greens until about midsummer when they become tough. In midsummer the onions send up a flower stalk, and once the flowers bloom, they turn into small bulblets sitting at the top of the plant. If left alone, this flower stalk bends over and “plants” these bulblets. 

The small bulblets then send up green scallions in late summer and into fall. They go dormant in winter and begin again the following spring. By bending over to plant the bulblets, the onions spread, thus “walking” to other parts of the garden. 

Horseradish

If you’ve never tasted freshly ground horseradish, you are in for a palate teaser. Traditionally it is an accompaniment to robust meats, but try a dollop in a glass of tomato juice or as a side dressing for roasted vegetables. 

Horseradish is a beautiful adornment for the garden, although it loves to spread and thrives on neglect. So site it carefully. If you don’t want it to spread, plant the horseradish in a large pot. It will reward you with handsome tropical foliage followed by clouds of airy white flowers. Any time you are ready for a dash of heat and pungency, pull up a crown, break off a piece of root and stick the remaining root back in the ground. You can harvest any time, but the roots do sweeten a bit in the fall after the first frost. Grate the root into vinegar and keep it in the refrigerator for many months. 

Sorrel

Sorrel and perennial onions

Sorrel greens have the tangy flavor of lemon and can be used fresh in salads or cooked in soups. You can harvest all season although spring and fall are traditionally the best times. The tang comes from oxalic acid in leaves; and the leaves are packed with vitamin C and minerals. 

Once established, the only cultural requirements are to keep it watered during drought and divide the plant every three or four years to keep its vigor. Don’t be tempted to fertilize or the leaves tend to lose their flavor. 

Asparagus

There is nothing quite like the ephemeral delicacy on your tongue of roasted asparagus. Dress with a sorrel sauce for the epitome of a fresh spring treat. Asparagus is best planted in early spring. The old adage of planting the crowns a foot deep and then filling in soil as they grow has been replaced with some sound research showing that planting about six inches below ground is all they need. The bed needs to be prepared well by loosening the soil and adding compost since an asparagus bed will be in place for twenty to thirty years. Spread the roots on a small mound of soil and cover. 

It’s a labor of love because you should not harvest for the first two years because the crowns need time to establish themselves. It’s hard, but you will be rewarded with beautiful thick spears in their third year. As they come up in that third spring, you can harvest until the new spears become smaller and smaller. Stop when they are about pencil-sized and let them go to leaf. The ferny leaves are quite attractive as a backdrop to other flowers, and they turn a brilliant yellow in fall. 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb chutney

It’s hard to talk about asparagus without mentioning rhubarb, the other perennial vegetable that is so prominent in early spring. Rhubarb buds actually begin appearing at 40 degrees, and the enormous leaves explode into growth at the first hint of warmth. Rhubarb also takes little care, and the stems can be harvested until mid-summer when new emerging stems become considerably smaller. 

Rhubarb bread and strawberry rhubarb pie are traditional favorites, but think about stewing it in maple syrup for a topping for yogurt or ice cream. It makes a great chutney or relish, a refreshing drink or a tangy barbecue sauce.  

Sunchokes

Sunchokes (photo by William Brauner)

Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes are a striking addition to the garden. They take a good-sized bed as they grow to about six feet, with golden sunflower blossoms. The chokes are underground tubers that can be harvested in fall and early winter. You’ll never get them all, and the ones that stay in the ground will sprout the following year. So you plant only one time. 

Roasted sunchokes taste nutty and earthy and are a wonderful substitute for potatoes, especially for those whose diet requires fewer simple carbs. 

Creamy Sorrel Sauce

Creamy sorrel sauce (photo from Pixabay)

(adapted from More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden by Renee Shepherd)

This lovely light green sauce can be modified in a lot of interesting ways, adding herbs like basil and dill, changing the carriers from mayonnaise to all yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, etc. You will love it on salmon, vegetables, potatoes and especially on freshly roasted asparagus. 

1 c. any combination of plain Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, sour cream

1 c. fresh sorrel with stems removed and leaves chopped

1 T. soy sauce or 1 t. salt (soy sauce gives it more flavor but you can pump up the flavor with herbs also)

1 clove garlic, minced

Blend (a blender works best to make a velvety sauce) and serve cold.