Lots of Chicago-style politics going on right now around the One Seed Chicago vote! Gardeners are pulling out all the stops for their candidates… so far the competition is polite but who knows what passionate growers will do for their favorite vegetable as the April 1 deadline gets closer!
I’m not one for politics… with a Libra rising I’m eternally cursed with the ability to see all sides of an issue… being a life-long veggie grower I’ve had vast experience with all three of this year’s candidates and have reasons why each of them deserves to win.
RADISH. Full disclosure, I am somewhat indifferent toward radishes… cooking-wise there’s not a lot you can do with them other than salads – I do like them sliced and tossed with rice wine vinegar and a little sugar and salt. But, in their defense, they’re easy to sow and fast growing and they do make for a happy and optimistic spring garden.
I grow them every year for my friend Betsy. She’s one of those special friends that no matter what nonsense I’m up to she’s wants to participate and makes things extra fun. I grow them for her and do eat a few myself – the French Breakfast variety are quite charming and mild tasting. Peter likes radishes but always seems to forget about them.
Last season I really enjoyed growing Cincinnati Market Radish – they’re very productive and long like a carrot. You get a lot of radish with this variety. Another one I enjoy is called Watermelon -they’re white on the outside and red in the middle – very pretty!
EGGPLANT. I love eggplant! We start them from seed every spring and grow at least six heirloom types and try a few new ones each season. I tend to like the purple varieties although I also grow Casper each summer for the novelty (they’re also sweet and yummy). I’ve tried some Asian non-purple egg-shaped eggplants, like Lao Green Stripe, which I haven’t been crazy about eating but enjoyed growing. This year I’m really geeked about Brazilian Orange Oval Eggplant.
My favorite way to serve them – and one of my favorite dishes of summer – is a variation on an Italian dish called Involtini de Melazana. Instead of mozzarella and basil I use feta and mint. And a splash of lemon juice. Yum.
As much as I’m gushing about lovely eggplant, I have to tell you why it isn’t getting my vote. The decision is made purely with the new gardener in mind… the eggplant starts that you get from local nurseries are usually boring varieties. If you start your own interesting types by seed, they’re sometimes moody and slow to germinate unless conditions are just right (they really like a heating mat to get growing.) Once you set them out, they need lots of warmth to get started and the payoff comes toward the end of a long growing season. If you harvest them too late they tend to be bitter tasting. They also have nasty spines. This isn’t to say they aren’t worth growing – I’ve clearly stated that I do grow them religiously. But for all those new edible gardeners out there, I’d hate for them to get free eggplant seeds and be discouraged…
CHARD. Oh how I love chard! It is second only to spinach as the healthiest vegetable and can be cooked in so many ways. It is easy to direct sow early in the spring and performs well all season long… the large wrinkly seeds are easy to handle, it is fast to germinate and is one of the first spring vegetables. You can eat it as a baby vegetable in salads or quickly sauteed. If you practice the “cut and come again” method with chard, your plants will last all season long. Unlike spinach, they defy summer heat and keep growing all the way into late fall even through light frosts. We’ve even had chard regrow in the spring from plants we had cut back at harvest. They’re a happy site in an empty early garden!
Versatility is the name of the game in cooking with chard… You can use the ribs as you would celery or carrots in sautes or stews. The stems even make for tasty pickles!
The leaves can be steamed with lemon and garlic for a great side dish or blanched and frozen to eat all winter long. I like to use it as a layer in lasagna – I’m partial to polenta lasagna pictured here. The leaves may be used as a substitute for spinach or kale in almost any recipe. The stems or leaves are a tasty and pretty addition to soup. I haven’t tried it myself but hear you can stuff them as you would grape leaves for dolmades.
Probably one of the main reasons I love chard is because it is beautiful. Bright Lights chard offers some colors not often seen in the vegetable garden. A new strain – Flamingo – offers hot pink stems! If you are an ornamental gardener just getting into edibles in your landscape, chard is a beautiful start.
Finally, chard is a vegetable with a long, venerable history. Lucullus is an heirloom variety that was recommended during the 1940′s as a staple for Chicago Victory Gardens… we grew it out last year at The Peterson Garden Project and donated it, along with over 200 pounds of other fresh produce, to food pantries in the 40th Ward.
So there’s my vote… while I love and respect the competitors, Chard is always a winner in my garden!