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Groundwork: Chicory that's rad

The pansy relative, Johnny jump up, is an uninvited but welcome friend in the vegetable garden. Birds drop the seeds, et voila. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The Johnny jump up is a viola that gets its common name from its charming habit of seeding in the least expected spot and then popping up in delicate flower. The blossoms are quite edible, and would garnish any salad with a plum. Sorry, aplomb.

The taste buds may still await a good feast from the garden, but not the eyes, or the soul. Late April brings a flush of growth and a sense of anticipation that makes this moment really special in the year. The young kale is filling out, as are the beets and the transplanted cabbages and broccoli. The snap peas have emerged from the warming soil, and the hop leaves are chartreuse and eager. The blackcurrant is about to flower, and the raspberries' canes are rising above their green-blue leaves.

Recipe Included

The purple martins have returned to the martin house, and four of them are wheeling over the meadow at Green Spring Gardens, chattering noisily. So the best is yet to come; the garden is just making sure we know it.

Some of the easiest and most enduring greens in the garden are, collectively, the chicories. This family includes the red-leafed, Chioggia-type radicchios, the green-leafed endives (including the frilly frisee varieties) and the delicate, crisp escarole. All convey a slight bitterness that makes salads far more interesting. All dislike our summer's heat, so they are best grown and harvested as young spring plants, and re-planted in mid summer for the fall garden. They will also overwinter with a bit of protection.

Winter sown leeks, now ready for planting. Make sure the roots are teased loose and give the plants a good drink after planting. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

What's going on in the garden this week? It's sort of an onion fest, as the alliums that were seed started in January finally make their way into the garden via the greenhouse. The leeks have been set in among the broccoli, the broccoli will be harvested in the summer, and the leeks will be ready by late summer but stand ready for weeks longer. Indeed, leeks are one of the longest players in the garden; last year's overwintering leeks have only just been harvested, so it pays to put them in a bed where they can be left alone through the year. A lot of gardeners like to plant them in deep trenches, and then mound up the sides as they grow. This ensures the longest white stalks.

In another bed, the staff and volunteers have put in a medley of onions, including Super Star, declared "big and gorgeous" by gardener Donna Stecker, along with Mars (red, early) Red Baron (red, mid-season, great raw in salads), and Spanish and Granex (both yellow, big and sweet).

The gardeners are sowing more beet seeds, trying a quick crop of arugula and turnips, and mustard greens and bush beans (a little early but a good spring for it, warm and dry).

Leafmold to the rescue. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

It's been perhaps a little too dry, and so the beds were well watered and then mulched with a thin but complete layer of leafmold, which is last fall's shredded and half-rotted leaves. Leafmold is perfect as a mulch, and the worms and microbes will reduce it to organic matter in a few months. Straw works, too, but I find it too bright and distracting, but mulch is good unless you are willing to be in the garden daily to cultivate the soil and water. In addition to conserving moisture, the mulch will keep those pesky weeds from germinating.

It's still a little early for tomato plants, so coddle them under lights, or wherever you have the wee seedlings started, and we'll stick 'em in anon.

-- Adrian Higgins

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Warm Endive Salad
6 servings

The endive used in this salad is not the forced Belgian chicory root, but the Italian leafy green which is easy to grow in the garden.

Pancetta is Italian bacon that is cured but not smoked. It is available at good delis, Italian markets and some larger Giant stores.

Adapted from Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director for Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

6 cups mixed greens, such as escarole, endive and radicchio, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped (see headnote)
1/2 medium red onion, minced (1/2 cup)
2 red pears, cored and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the torn greens in a salad bowl. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil and toss lightly to coat.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the onion. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then add the pancetta; cook for about 5 minutes, until the pancetta begins to crisp on the edges.

Remove from the heat and add the honey, stirring to coat the onions and pancetta, then add the vinegar and stir to combine.

Add the chopped pear and mix well, letting it just warm through.

Transfer the mixture to the salad greens and pour evenly over the top; toss to combine. Add the crumbled cheese, season with ground pepper and serve.

Per serving: 170 calories, 4 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  April 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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