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Groundwork: Digging Alliums

Allium is gardenspeak for a member of the onion family, a vast tribe of fabulous vegetables essential, in my view, to human well-being. Indeed, the thought of a world without an onion brings tears to my eyes.

Before we really dig alliums, let me describe the scene: The garden at Green Spring Gardens is at that marvelous moment of balance and transition, where the spring crops are ready for harvesting and the summer and fall veggies are going in. Cindy Brown is beginning to pick peas while still harvesting plump lettuces of striking color and shape. The kale looks hale, the endive shouts "eat me" and the green and purple varieties of kohlrabi are bulbing up nicely.

An eight-foot bamboo pole, 15 ground-pegged strings and bingo: a trellis for pole beans. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

This is not a maypole -- well, I suppose it is of sorts, because the children dancing around the bottom are actually pole beans that were put in last week and are now sprouting. Cindy put in Kentucky Wonder, a classic heirloom variety that will produce edible pods in 70 days. At the feet of the strands she also has planted a zucchini squash, Costata, which is a ribbed Romanesco type that looks like a starburst in cross section. She will be harvesting the first fruits by mid-July.

Cindy has used two types of alliums for this week's recipe (after the jump): chives (the prettiest onion?) and good old leeks. They, along with scallions, are grown in different ways.

The scallions are sown in the greenhouse or indoors under lights in late winter and planted out as seedlings about a month later. They take about two months in the garden to reach full size, and successive sowings will provide late-summer and fall crops. Leeks can be seed-sown in similar fashion or purchased as seedlings, the latter of which can go in at any time. I put in seedlings last June that are now mature and beginning to flower, as are some of Cindy's.

Scallions and leeks grow happily through the winter without protection; leeks need a long growing season. For spring-planted leeks that will be harvested in the fall, Cindy likes to hold back on watering as the leeks thicken up in autumn. That reduces problems with onion maggots, a pest that I have mercifully avoided so far.

Fall-sown leeks ready for harvest. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The leeks at Green Spring were planted last fall and need to be harvested soon. Once the distinctive flower stalks and buds appear, their eating quality starts to decline.

Chives, a perennial herb, take a couple of years to reach a good clumping size. The pretty purple flowers of May and June make attractive garnishes and are edible. Look for flower heads that have not gone to seed, and don't try to gobble the whole flower at once. Just pick off (and admire) the individual florets before popping one into your mouth. The flavor is pleasantly pungent.

-- Adrian Higgins

Chive blossom petals lend color and lightness to this tart. (Patti Harburger)

Pancetta, Leek and Goat Cheese Tart
6 servings

Pale-purple chive blossoms and dill give this tart a lovely look and a taste of summer. If you have chives growing in the garden (or if you have a friend who does), you’ll have access to the blossoms. Otherwise, leave them out of this recipe for now and put chives on your to-do list for next year.

MAKE AHEAD: The dough for the crust needs to be refrigerated for 1 hour. The leeks need 15 minutes’ soaking time to clean them properly.

From Cynthia Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, based on a recipe from Bon Appetit (December 2003).

For the crust
1 1/4 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 to 4 tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium leeks, white and light-green parts only, cut crosswise into thin slices and soaked in cool water for 15 minutes to dislodge any grit, then drained
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 to 4 ounces pancetta, chopped (1/2 to 3/4 cup)
2 large fronds dill, chopped (2 tablespoons; no stems)
4 chive blossoms (about 3 tablespoons; see headnote)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
2/3 cup whole or nonfat half-and-half
3 ounces soft goat cheese, preferably fresh

For the crust: Combine the flour, salt and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to form a coarse meal, then add 2 tablespoons of the water. Pulse just until a dough starts to clump together; add water as needed without making the dough too wet. Transfer to a large piece of plastic wrap; pat into a disk, wrap well and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Heat the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes, until the leeks have softened but not browned (adjust heat as needed).

Add the wine and stir to incorporate; cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then transfer to a medium bowl to cool.

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Return the pan to medium heat and add the pancetta to taste; cook, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes, until some of the pancetta’s fat has been rendered and some of the pieces have browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain, then add to the leeks along with the dill, petals of chive blossoms, cooked pancetta, salt and pepper.

Whisk together the eggs and half-and-half in a liquid cup measure, then add to the leek mixture. Add the goat cheese and mix to incorporate.

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch pie plate. Lightly flour a work surface.

Roll the dough out to an 11-inch circle, then transfer to the pie plate, creating a 1-inch overhang. Fold the edges over and crimp them as desired, then pour in the filling. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is just set and lightly browned on top. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Per serving (using nonfat half-and-half): 408 calories, 11 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 514 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, alliums, recipes  
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So glad to see this series. Cindy Brown does great work at Green Spring and I love reading her column each issue in the terrific Washington Gardener Magazine.

Posted by: KathyMJ | May 27, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

To read Cindy's "Edible Harvest" column - subscribe to Washington Gardener Magazine at This issue (MayJune09) she writes in growing Eggplant and gives easy recipes.

Posted by: KathyMJ | May 27, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

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