Cooking from the garden brings so much pleasure that it’s a shame to give it up when winter comes. Luckily, folks in mild climates don’t have to, and now even Northern gardeners can put homegrown produce on the table 12 months of the year.
In part, that’s thanks to season-extending structures, such as cold frames, plastic-covered hoop tunnels and simple greenhouses. But year-round harvests are also a matter of choosing the right crops — ones that prefer winter’s bite to summer’s heat. Doing so means you’ll use lots of fresh greens and roots — not just from the root cellar, but pulled right out of the ground.
Two brassica crops that are strikingly superior when grown at lower temperatures are turnips and arugula, which also pair well in the kitchen.
Tune In to Salad Turnips
When you think of turnips, you likely imagine the earthy storage kinds, such as the standard purple-top types and the strong-flavored rutabagas (sometimes called “yellow turnips”). If these are the only turnips you know, you’re missing out.
Round, white Japanese salad turnips are so mild and sweet when grown in cool months that it’s hard to believe they’re turnips at all. Two of the more
popular varieties are the open-pollinated ‘Shogoin’ and the hybrid ‘Tokyo Cross.’ Although both can grow quite large and still be good for cooking, they’re delectable when harvested at golf-ball size. Another satisfying open-pollinated variety is ‘Tokyo Market.’ My favorite is the hybrid ‘Hakurei,’ a snowy white turnip. It’s so sweet and crisp when picked small that you can eat it raw.
Turnips are a perfect quick spring crop, picked before age and heat turn them woody. Prepare a fertile soil rich in organic matter, and then, as soon as the ground can be worked, sow turnip seed directly in the garden in rows 12 inches apart. Cover the bed with floating row cover at planting time to protect the foliage from flea beetles and the roots from root maggots. Voles also love to gorge on the sweet roots, so you may need to trap them. After the plants are about 4 inches tall, thin them to 3 inches apart, and then toss the thinnings into the next salad you make. From September onward, sow fast-growing turnips in succession for a steady supply. Both roots and greens will be ready to enjoy in as soon as a month after planting. They can handle light frosts, but will need protection against a hard freeze.
Baby turnips will keep in the fridge for several weeks before they turn pithy. I love having them on hand to toss into stir-fries, salads and rice dishes. In fried rice, they take on the role I used to offer water chestnuts. Add them for only the last minute or two of cooking, to preserve their famous crunch. When sautéing baby turnips, avoid crowding the pan to keep their high water content from turning them to soup — hot oil and frequent stirring will do the trick. You can also strew them around a roast during its last 30 to 45 minutes of cooking (depending on the turnips’ size) to brown a bit and flavor the meat juices.
Small Japanese turnips rarely need peeling; just give them a quick scrub. I like to leave an inch or so of greens on the tops, even when cooking them, to signal the turnips’ freshness. The greens, of course, are a bonus, and ‘Hakurei’ greens don’t have the fuzziness of other varieties. Drop the chopped greens into soups, succotash, or any dish that their healthy touch could improve. Try steaming the roots and greens separately, and then set the roots on a bed of the greens that have been dressed with butter and a wee bit of honey.
Arugula has made an odd journey from the “rocket” of colonial days to its rediscovery as a gourmet item. Now, it’s so mainstream that it turns up on tray tables in airplanes. In Maine, we can grow arugula in summer, but only with floating row covers or in a greenhouse where flea beetles rarely venture. When grown outdoors in fall, arugula tastes fantastic, with much less of the peppery bite that it has when grown in hot weather. When serious cold sets in, it’s back to the greenhouse or cold frame.
Arugula can reach harvestable size in as little as 21 days, so it pays to sow it every few weeks in fertile, well-drained soil, with plants at least an inch apart to prevent bolting. (You can broadcast the seeds and then thin the seedlings accordingly.) On our farm, we grow a heat-resistant salad variety called ‘Astro.’ For a more winter-hardy arugula, try the so-called “wild arugula” varieties, such as ‘Sylvetta,’ which are a different species altogether. Wild arugula’s flavor is similar to salad arugula’s but stronger, and its leaves are a bit darker with deeper lobes. Both are great as cut-and-come-again crops, so you can keep a bed going for a long time by snipping it at 3 inches tall and then letting it regrow. In milder regions (Zones 6 and warmer), wild arugula is a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Arugula is an upright green you can often cut and serve without washing. Make sure you trim off long stems, which can be awkward to eat. Arugula will keep for a few days when well-wrapped and chilled, but will deteriorate within a week. It’s excellent for perking up lettuce salads or mesclun mixes with its bold, pleasantly hot taste. Dress sparingly, lest it become soggy with oil.
Some people love to cook with arugula, but I find that sturdier greens, such as kale and collards, hang on to their flavors more and hold up better when cooked. I’d rather nibble arugula bunny-style, right after picking.