Archive for November, 2006

Cardoons on the Table

Thanksgiving daécor from the vegetable garden: Gigante di Romagna cardoon, Bright Lights chard and Redbor kale.

It’s tough to grow artichokes if you don’t have a Mediterranean climate; either the growing season is too short ( Maine) or the summer is too hot (New York, and increasingly Maine, too, but that’s another story). In any case, the best you can usually do is about 6 artichokes per 5×4 foot plant; and while of course they are your own, they aren’t so splendidly wonderful they justify the space.

But cardoons, well cardoons seem possible. You don’t have to get as far as flowerbuds and because you’re eating the leaf ribs, big fat ribs from leaves that can be 3 feet long and more, yield is not a problem. Only catch is that you have to blanch them before harvest to keep them from being bitter.

Or at least that’s what all the growing instructions say. But in my experience – years and years of experience because some people are pigheaded about giving up on exotic comestibles – it doesn’t work. The standard blanching technique, unchanged for centuries ( loosely bind the leaves into a bundle, then exclude light with a wrapping of straw) makes the silver leaves even paler. But it does nothing else noteworthy, even when pressed past the suggested 2 or 3 weeks into 4 and even 5, the outer limit before rot sets in.

You do get a suggestion of artichoke, in that everything you eat afterwards tastes sweet and faintly metallic, but about the cardoons themselves suffice it to say that gall isn’t usually stringy.

Next year ( once more unto the breech), we’ll try a different variety: maybe “Large Smooth” instead of “Gigante di Romagna,” our current plants of which are now 3 years old.

We’ll probably leave the few oldsters around too, assuming they do come back again. Cardoons are beautiful, terrific bouquet material all summer long and especially welcome at season’s end, when they are among the last plants standing.

Crocus Lawn Revisited

Last spring, we decided to go for — if not broke at least financially depleted – and plant the 700 hundred more bulbs required to fill the bare patches in the crocus carpet.

Essential to mark where they were needed. Didn’t want to make a map (lazy, mostly). Already knew big nails anchoring little bows of surveyor tape wouldn’t work because I tried it years ago. The tape disappeared into the grass, as planned, and then disappeared.

So THIS time I stuck the big nails through the centers of metal washers roughly the size of silver dollars. No way those big shiny disks were going to get lost…

You can perhaps guess the next part. It’s early November, no time to lose. Bill mows the grass and fallen leaves, using the bagger so no debris will obscure the view. I peer down. Nada. I rake , gently. Rien. I get down on my knees and claw with my fingertips, covering an area I KNOW must have at least one washer in it. Gone.

So we went next door and borrowed our neighbor’s metal detector and the moral of this little story is a giant reinforcement of the new(er) understanding of soil improvement: spread compost right at the surface, don’t dig it in deeply; it’s headed down fast enough as it is. The washers were buried almost an inch in just one season and the only thing that rises is rocks.

Bill finding the crocus planting spots and marking them with stakes.

Spring Garden Tour

June 19-22, 2007. Hudson Valley garden highlights from Olana to Manitoga, and of course near neighbor Innisfree,

with a couple of spiffy private places to leaven the mix ( and plenty of the Hudson Valley’s great food, to fuel all that walking) . Full details from the tour’s sponsor, the Wellesley Friends of Horticulture.


So there we were at the Union Square greenmarket,

in search of interesting squash of which there turned out to be not very much, and there IT was, Romanesco! The absolutely best cauliflower in the world, if cauliflower it is. ( Some say broccoli, some say cauliflower, most in the know say they don’t know; but if you go by culinary properties, it’s cauliflower)

Photo by John Walker

Doesn’t do to go on about the holy grail or anything, but Romanesco has yet to be readily available, even in the uppermost of upscale markets, and growing it is – see below – a pain, so it’s definitely a “must buy,” even when it costs more than the very reasonable 3 bucks a head they were charging last Saturday.

Romanesco is as delicious as it is gorgeous: less crumbly than other cauliflowers, more toothsome than broccoli, slightly sweet , slightly nutty, not sulfurous unless you let it spend too much time in table-décor mode.

Displaying Romanesco is simplicity itself; just cut the base so it stands level, then put it in a slick of water. (If you use a bowl, be sure the water doesn’t come more than a half-inch or so up the base.) It will stay handsome for 2 or 3 days if it’s kept out of the sun; you can get 4 or more if you put it in the fridge each night. The base is tough, difficult to slice without pressing so firmly you break off points. Use a serrated knife.

Eating Romanesco: For best flavor and texture, buy two, so you can display one and keep the other in the coldest part of the fridge until you eat it asap. Simplest thing is to eat it raw, with coarse salt. Next easiest thing is raw with just about any dip, although the very best may be

Bagna Cauda

Translates “hot bath,” and must be hot to be tasty, so the most important ingredient is a small chafing dish or a saucepan that fits neatly on a portable burner. Good with any vegetable firm enough to dip; just be sure to let whatever it is come to room temperature before serving; the vegetable will have better flavor and it won’t cool its coating and spoil the effect. This recipe is adapted from from my 1969 edition of Ada Boni’s justifiably durable – albeit currently out of print – Italian Regional Cooking. It’s much heavier on butter than most, and even I, the Dairy Queen, often use mostly oil. But before you dismiss the butter out of hand, try it, especially with strong flavored vegetables such as the traditional cardoon ( also endive, celery root, bell pepper and cole flowers ).
½ pound unsalted butter
¼ cup olive oil
2 – 4 tablespoons minced garlic ( use more if it’s hardneck , less if it’s conventional)
6 canned anchovy filets
optional : 1 small thinly sliced truffle

Melt butter with oil over low heat, then add garlic and let it seethe without coloring. Remove from heat, add anchovies and let them sit a minute to soften. Mush them around with a wooden spoon until they dissolve. ( Add truffle if using), salt to taste, reheat to simmering and serve ditto.

Please report back if you try the truffle; confess I’ve never in 40 years of using the recipe.

Cooking Romanesco
: like broccoli and cauliflower, chunks are tastiest steam-sautaéed.

1. Cut off florets, cut interior into slightly-less-than floret size chunks. Boil about 1/2 inch of water in a non-reactive sautaé pan large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer. Add pieces, partially cover the pan and stay nearby, alert for the sizzle of “watersallgoneeeek!”. Shake pan (or stir contents) from time to time.

2. In less than 5 minutes, when almost all of the water has evaporated, test a chunk. If it’s still near-raw, turn down the heat, cover the pan and keep cooking until almost done. If initial boiling yields almost done, proceed at once to

3. Remove cover. Stand right there shaking the pan until it’s dry, then add enough olive oil or butter to coat all pieces thinly. Add seasonings if wanted: minced garlic, shredded lemon zest, julienned sweet or hot red pepper, toasted cumin seeds… Turn heat to medium and keep cooking until the chunks are just cooked through and starting to turn gold at the edges. Sprinkle w/ coarse salt and eat ’em up. Good cold if you use olive oil.

Why I say growing Romanesco is a pain:

There are a number of different cultivars, some hybrid, some open pollinated (Romanesco dates back to at least the 16th century), but even the earliest takes about 80 days to single-head-per-plant harvest , counting from when you plant out the 4 to 6 week old seedlings. Seedlings are frost tender, but those 80 days must all be cool ones, so Romanesco is a fall crop in the Northeast.

That means getting the seedlings going in the heat of summer, a challenge given their preferred growing temperature of roughly 60 degrees. Then, Romanesco being a cauliflower, it needs near-neutral, highly-fertile soil, plenty of moisture, plenty of room to grow – at least 18 inches between plants and 30 inches between rows – and plenty of attention to bug and disease prevention; Romanesco is vulnerable to every one of the 350,000 afflictions that target brassicas. Other than that, piece of cake.

The photographer:

John Walker was attracted by Romanesco’s fractal form, then fell briefly into vegetable love before once more romancing the math.