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Groundwork: Must-Have Mustards

The cold frame at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The days shorten, the weather turns a little crisp and the first leaves begin to drop, but the vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens has weeks and months of bounty ahead of it. The cold frame, fashioned from boards and black plastic tubes, is a machine that will allow vegetable harvests through the long fall and into the dead of winter. When the weather turns cold, the young cool-season vegetables within it will be protected from killing freezes by a plastic row cover that allows water and light to penetrate but raises temperatures inside by as much as 10 degrees. You could achieve the same results using clear plastic, but you would have to vent it on mild winter days to prevent overheating.

Recipe Included

The carrots were sown about a month ago and are now robust, though not ready for harvesting. They take about 2 1/2 months in the fall (earlier for the baby stage) but can be stored in the ground through the winter and taken as needed. Cindy Brown and the crew have sown arugula and spinach, both of which can be taken at the baby stage through the fall or allowed to mature in March and April. They have also sown fava beans, which will be harvested in mid-spring.

Fall is the best season for hardy vegetables to mature. In the spring, there is always the risk of a precocious heat that could ruin crops such as radishes or turnips. Sown in late summer for autumn, these beauties mature as the air temperatures drop but the soil stays relatively warm.

There is a vast array of Asian greens that perform best at this time of year, from the familiar bok choy to lesser-known greens and bunching onions. Cindy has devoted a bed to East Asian veggies, including a cabbagelike brassica named Asian Longevity, bok choy and two mustard greens, Red Giant and Osaka Giant. Red Giant has been growing for about a month and has already produced a harvest of robust leaves, which were taken to allow younger leaves to grow on. The leafy green has a peppery flavor, not bitter or too hot but agreeably spicy.

Asian mustard greens, variety Red Giant. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The gang has ripped out a stand of corn (old and starchy) and put in lettuce seedlings grown in the greenhouse. In another bed, where the deer have discovered the crunchy Malabar spinach vine, the gardeners have put in seedlings of cabbage, kale and fennel. In a bed now cleared of basil plants and squash vines, more lettuces have gone in, along with onions and beets. The lesson, of course, is that a well-run veggie garden is a series of successive plantings. Cindy likes to give all these seedlings a jolt of organic fertilizer, either fish emulsion or kelp, so they have a nice growth spurt before the weather gets consistently cool.

The sweet basil that is left doesn't look so sweet: woody at its base, wan in leaf and generally out of sorts. Once night temperatures drop to the mid-40s, basil tends to give up the ghost. "It's on its way out," Cindy concedes. "I'm leaving it in a bit. I'm not quite ready to give up on summer."

And now, time to hear from Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Summer kitchen gardens are transitioning to fall gardens; one of the first crops to signal the passage is mustard greens. Mustard green seeds germinate in late summer’s warm soil temperatures but improve in flavor when air temperatures dip in fall evenings. Leaves can be harvested when young and small to add a bite to salads, or harvested when large and a bit tougher for slow braises, as in the recipe below.

Varieties vary in color, flavor and texture, but most have the characteristic bite that becomes silky when cooked for long periods at slow temperatures. Don’t cook them to mush, however, as is traditional in old Southern recipes. Our tastes in vegetables have changed, and most of us do not appreciate being served flavorless, overcooked vegetables whose only redeeming qualities are the bacon bits sprinkled on top to reintroduce some flavor.

I enjoy mustard greens sauteed briefly in olive oil with minced garlic. After just barely wilting them, splash them with a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Serve with pasta or a bake potato for a basic, simple supper.

The recipe below makes mustard greens that are fancy enough for company. Just don’t make the same mistake I did if you are trying to convince someone that mustard greens are delicious. I used a variety called Red Giant. The dish turned out the most unbecoming grayish-pink color. Thank goodness my husband realizes you can’t always judge how something tastes by its appearance!

Mustard Greens Braised With Cilantro and Rice

4 to 6 servings

Adapted from “Local Flavors,” by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2002).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 or 2 large leeks, white and light-green parts only, chopped (1 cup)
1/2 cup (uncooked) white rice
1 teaspoon paprika
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced (1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup vegetable broth, or more as needed (may substitute chicken broth or water)
About 1 pound mustard greens, washed but not dried then chopped (8 cups; the liquid clinging to the greens helps to keep the mixture moist)
Leaves from 1 large bunch cilantro, chopped (1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Yogurt or lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook for 4 minutes. Add the rice, paprika, garlic and cumin; stir to coat evenly. Cook for 3 minutes, then add the broth and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low; cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the mustard greens and cilantro. The greens may have to be added in batches to fit in the pot; stir with each addition. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the greens are tender, adding liquid if the mixture begins to stick or seems dry. Taste the greens, checking for tenderness; if they are not to your liking, cook for 10 minutes. Add the salt; season with pepper to taste.

To serve, top with plain yogurt or a squeeze of fresh lemon, if desired.

Per serving (based on 6): 132 calories, 4 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 0 g cholesterol, 1 g saturated fat, 184 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  October 5, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, beets, kale, mustard greens  
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young mustard greens add a terrific zest to salads

Posted by: euclidarms | October 5, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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