It’s that time of year when lots of delicious, over-wintered vegetables start to produce some of their most interesting offerings. It’s also that time of year when it can start to get a little confusing at the farmers market or grocery store with many of these offerings becoming available all at once. Some vegetables have very similar names and can even look alike, which just ends up confusing the average consumer and can deter people from trying certain vegetables. While all slightly different, these vegetables should never be feared but rather celebrated and explored. So let’s go exploring.
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Radishes are one of those amazing vegetables that seem to come in all shapes and sizes, and they’ve got quite the diversity in flavor profiles, or level of “pepper,” to match. And I LOVE their "pepper." When I was a kid I would play the “How Peppery Is It?” game with my Dad. And, although the radishes were always more “peppery” than I anticipated, I bit through the “pain” and grew to love radishes. I found out later that my Dad had only been giving me French Radishes which tend to be more potent than others. Was my father sadistic? Maybe. Did it work because now I love radishes? Probably. Parents can get their kids to do almost anything if they turn it into a competition.
While I love radishes, when they start appearing at farmers markets, I find myself struggling to figure out what to do with them. This is partially due to the fact that I enjoy eating radishes by themselves so they never make it very far in our kitchen. But mainly, it’s because I have a few recipes or uses for radishes that I absolutely love, and so I’ve never put much creative investment into my use of radishes. So let's change that.
The other day I saw the first local rhubarb of the season for sale at Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana from Saturn Farm. The bright green stalks with just the hint of red at one end absolutely screamed: “BAKE A PIE WITH ME!” I, unfortunately, could not oblige the rhubarb’s demand at the time, but soon rhubarb...so soon. Rhubard truly is the harbinger of pie season, unfortunately for us all, local field-grown rhubarb only starts to become available a month and a half after Pi Day. In central Illinois, it is the first specialty crop that becomes available in the spring that is primarily used as a filling in sweet pies. Granted, there are a lot of other ways to use rhubarb other than pies, and in other pairings that aren’t sweet, many of which we will discuss below. But, for most people, rhubarb is all about pies, crumbles, jams, and jellies; not about the deliciously crisp and tart flavors of raw rhubarb out of the field.
“Pat, I’d like to solve the puzzle! Green Garlic - Garlic Scapes!” You’re welcome, Wheel of Fortune.
I loved watching Wheel of Fortune as a kid (I had a thing for word games and puzzles), and I became truly giddy just now because green garlic and garlic scapes are a true “Before & After.” Green garlic is young garlic that is harvested in later winter / early spring before the bulb has started to grow, while the leaves are still tender and the stalk is more similar to a thin leek. In fact, green garlic is probably at your local Co-op or locally-sourcing food store right now, so I highly suggest getting it before it goes out of season. Garlic scapes, on the other hand, are the bright-green curly stem and seed pod/flower that appear on a more-mature garlic plant after it is no longer green garlic. Scapes typically appear in spring and early-summer and are trimmed off before the pods open. Trimming the scapes allows for two things to happen, 1) you get to enjoy the tender stems before they get too woody and are inedible, and 2) by removing the scapes you reduce the drain on the garlic’s nutrients and allow the garlic to better mature before being harvested and hardened. I love garlic, so for me, the more ways you can use its various forms the better.
Although the chilly weather on Sunday tried to make us think otherwise, Spring is here. Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths are popping up everywhere. Evil rabbits are starting to decimate the buds and tender new plants popping up in your yard. Squirrels are digging holes in your yard for no apparent reason (there must be something there, you just have no idea what). Forsythia are bursting with beautiful yellow flowers from root to tip. The pink-speckled bark of Redbuds reminds you of the beauty that is right around the corner. And the delicate tips of Asparagus spears begin to poke through the moist soil.
One of the very first signs of Spring in a vegetable garden is the appearance of tender shoots of asparagus. The herbaceous, flowering perennial plant is one of my all-time favorite foods, and so I look forward to this time of year with intense longing. Unfortunately, the season for Asparagus is very short, just a few weeks or a month if you’re lucky, so make sure to track down local asparagus from local farmers, friends, neighbors, random people you see walking their dogs...just ask anyone. Once the season has passed, you can always find it in the grocery store, and with summer grilling season soon upon us there can never be enough of those deliciously tender stalks.
On Friday, February 15, I attended the Chicago Food Policy Summit in Chicago and got a chance to hear about many of the policy topics that are being addressed in Illinois this year that have a direct impact on our food system. While some of the initiatives were Chicago-centric, many of them were statewide.
Some of the ones that really caught my attention I have listed and linked to below. Many of the groups that I listened to have not yet released their Policy Agendas for 2019 (at least not online) so make sure to check in with your local policy groups to see what their legislative agendas for the year look like and give your support whenever you can.
Here we go...
Illinois Stewardship Alliance (https://www.ilstewards.org/)
This week I’m going to keep my food-centric entry brief. I could list all of the fun things I’ve been cooking (lots of soups and soba noodles with various braising greens and bok choi) or what I’m going to be making for New Year’s Day, but I’m going to focus instead on a newly inspired direction Rey and my food choices have taken. While I was visiting Rey’s family in central Texas over Thanksgiving I got to break down my own deer. It was a thrilling experience that I will never forget, and it turns out that it was one that has only deepened my appreciation for (and focus on) where my meat comes from. Since moving down to Champaign from Chicago we always tried to purchase locally raised and slaughtered meats whenever we could afford to. It meant a lot to us. We got to know the farmers who were raising the animals. Plus, the meat just tasted a million times better than the stuff you get at a general grocery store. It also meant that we naturally ate less meat, simply because we paid a little bit more for it, and in turn, we savored what we did buy even more.
Rey and I went to a Friendsgiving celebration last night and it reminded me what Thanksgiving is about, not from a historical standpoint but from an etymological standpoint. Thanksgiving is a celebratory embodiment of the actual act of giving thanks. But, more on that later.
It’s that time of year when everyone seems to be inundated with fresh, local produce. The late summer / early fall harvest just seems to keep on going and going with this continued warm weather. It’s October and it’s 90° outside...I thought central Illinois already had its week-long second summer?!?! As farmers and gardeners continue to harvest and begin to pull plants for winter planting, it seems that I’m being buried in eggplant, peppers, squash, green tomatoes, and bunching greens (kale, chard, and collards). Last year I was too busy to process all of the produce I bought or was given, and a good amount ended up going to compost (enter ashamed emoji here) but this year is going to be different!
It is the time of year when tomatoes are starting to come in hard and fast. Your own garden has become a squirrels candy store as you just can’t seem to get them off of the vine fast enough. Your friends and neighbors have resorted to leaving bunches of tomatoes on your patio table, front porch, and even back stairs (if I knew who put the tomatoes that I stepped on in front of the door I would go throw them at their house, seriously?!). Now, as your drowning in tomatoes and sitting at your kitchen table shaking your head and thinking to yourself “what the hell am I going to do with all of these?” don’t worry, there is hope!
If you’re like me you LOVE tomatoes, especially sun-ripened tomatoes, bursting with a flavor that the greenhouse tomatoes just can’t match no matter how great the variety is. I will eat plate after plate of tomatoes with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper all summer long, and even I will start to get tomato fatigue come early September. But then I remember that I just have to get creative in how I use them.