Finally some warmth! The patches of snow are almost gone in the shade-licked corners of the yard. As I write, we are having a true April shower, no sleet, no snow, just an honest rain.
The first seeds and plants of the season went into the ground this afternoon: four early lettuces, lacinato kale, French shallots, and several sets of yellow onions. In the tunnel, I planted carrots and giant winter spinach. The bok choi plants, grown inside from seed and transplanted yesterday, seem to have doubled overnight. I brought all the plantlets from beneath the grow lights outside — for toughening up in the breeze and a taste of real sun.
What's up outside?
In Barbara’s garden
Radicchio, chard, sorrel, garlic, Welsh onions; perennial herbs: mint, sage, thyme, chives, savory, lavender and watercress.
In Kate’s Garden
Perennial herbs, rhubarb, sorrel, parsley (which managed to winter over), garlic (three varieties), bok choi
What's up inside?
In Barbara’s garden:
Radicchio, Sicilian cauliflower and artichokes, eggplant, basil, Thai basil, tomatillo, kale, broccoli, calendula, celery, onions, shallots, endive, fennel, za’atar, lemongrass, tomatoes (six varieties), hot peppers (16 varieties), cucumbers, melons, lavender, lettuces, kale (three kinds).
In Kate’s Garden
Tomatoes (five varieties), radicchio (three varieties), artichokes, calendula, German chamomile, fennel, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, hyssop, tarragon
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Abi brought the soil thermometer to church. “It’s just about 50 at my house. Is your soil warmer in town? Take this home, and give it a test.” Yes, Abi, it is. The soil in the front raised bed, which is dry enough to plant, was 53 degrees. Inside the tunnel, the soil was in the 60s.
Over the past two weekends, while waiting for some warmth, John and I have been puttering: mending the raised beds; building a hoop tunnel covered in plastic — a greenhouse/cold frame, where I have been planting seeds and transplanting; and reorganizing the compost.
The garlic is up. Last Sunday it stood half an inch high in the morning, and four inches tall in the afternoon. The sorrel in the herb garden is showing its first growth of pale green leaves tinged with ruby. The rhubarb is up. And the miniature irises lining the stone path to my studio are crowding forward. They will need thinning.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that the rows of leeks, solidly frozen into the ground at Thanksgiving, wintered over. I had planned to serve them at Thanksgiving with a proud announcement: “Not only are these local, but I harvested them myself a few hours ago!” But this was not to be. The ground was cement; and there was snow on top. One of the beauties of the snow this year, however: it was so deep and consistent, the leeks are still edible. Leeks can winter over, but the conditions have to be just right. If it freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws, they get soggy. These froze and were protected by last winter’s thick blanket of snow.
I grow leeks in trenches. Over the summer, between rains, weeding and my own brushing of earth towards the leeks, soil washes down from the sides of the trenches onto the leeks. The part of the leek that is covered with soil stays white and tender, shaded from the sun. I end up with about six inches of white on the leek — this is the sweetest part.
In fact, leeks are sweeter after frost has nipped them. That’s why I usually leave them in the ground until Thanksgiving.
The leek, a member of the onion family, is unlike most of its cousins; it does not form a bulb. Folks either grow them in trenches, or they build up hills around them to maximize the amount of white. When leeks are cooked (all of a leek is edible, though the green parts have less flavor), they are slippery in texture. We eat them in soups, in tarts, sometimes layered on a flatbread, and occasionally braised in lemon and chicken broth alongside a winter roast.
I start my leeks every year from seed in flats. When the green hair-like stalks, each with a tiny white tip, reach six inches, I form trenches in the raised bed. After carefully pricking out the leeks from inside the flat, I make narrow holes four to six inches apart along the base of the trench with an old chopstick. I place one tiny leek in each hole, covering up the white, fill in the hole with soil, and gently press the leek into place. Water liberally, and then leave them alone. They are hardy and grow well here.
While John fixed the corners of the raised beds and prepared to place the hoop tunnel over the bed nearest the house, I harvested the leeks, cleaned and sliced them, and sautéed them slowly in olive oil. We had a leek tart that night: winter-sweetened leeks, fresh eggs from my friend Bay’s chickens, and a little light cream from a nearby dairy.
Was this the final harvest of 2010, or the first harvest of 2011?
First I think … first harvest from my garden (the maple syrup in the fridge came from elsewhere) because finally I can feel spring. The skis hanging next to the front door need to go inside. Tomorrow, if it is not raining, I’ll plant my peas. But then I realize that there is no first, no last, there’s just the continuum that we are on, cycles repeating, gently, ineffably.
Like Ilaria (who wrote last week’s garden column), I usually cook by eye, or even feel, so the amounts of ingredients change from day to day as I cook and experiment in the kitchen. Thus every recipe is unique.
Generally speaking, for this recipe you need a partially baked pastry shell. An 8-inch shell will hold approximately two and a half cups of filling, as you will want to fill the shell about three quarters full (it will puff up a little), and will serve four to six people. A 10-inch shell holds about 4 cups of filling, and will serve six to eight people. Use a pastry recipe of your choice. On a workday, when I am in a hurry, I will buy a pastry shell from the food co-op.
I like to cram this tart — which is for an 8-inch shell — full of leeks. Take 2 pounds, more or less, of leeks that have been cleaned and sliced thinly, and sauté them slowly (the slower the better) in several tablespoons of olive oil, till they are drippingly soft. This takes time.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Beat an egg and two egg yolks (fresh) into two-thirds a cup of light cream, adding a little salt, a pinch of nutmeg (grind this fresh if you can) and freshly ground pepper. Add half a cup of either grated cheddar, or grated Swiss cheese (I think local and use Vermont cheddar). Stir in the leeks. Pour into the shell and sprinkle a little finely ground Parmesan cheese on top.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or at least until it has puffed up and browned a bit.
Serve with a salad. It tastes great fresh out of the oven. It is also good cold the next day.
My father has always adored leeks, so this recipe comes from my mother. We grew up eating leek and potato soup, cock-a-leekie soup, and lots of braised leeks for special meals.
If I am having folks over for dinner, I count three big leeks per person, or a few more if they are skinny leeks.
Melt butter in a skillet (you can use olive oil if you are off butter, but this recipe really tastes better with butter), and roll each leek around in the melted butter. Transfer the leeks to a covered casserole dish that is long enough for the leeks to lie straight. Pour in any of the leftover butter. Add the juice of one or two freshly squeezed lemons, depending on how much you like the taste of lemon. Add chicken broth till it comes two thirds of the way up the layers of leeks. Add several twists of freshly ground pepper. Then bring the leeks in broth to a boil, and cover partly, so that steam will escape.
Cook until the thickest white parts of the leeks are tender and while there is still some liquid in the pot, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with the liquid.
Not only do these taste good, there will be a wonderful aroma filling your house! Serve with meat. We frequently eat them next to turkey at Thanksgiving, or alongside leg of lamb.