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Groundwork: Falling for fall

Autumn in the vegetable plot at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The importance of autumn as a growing season in the fruit and vegetable garden cannot be overstated. In the mid-Atlantic, it is our way to be Northern gardeners and to enjoy what our brethren in New England, or Old England for that matter, take for granted. That is, the capacity to grow cool season veggies to perfection.

Recipe Included

Fennel is an excellent example. Valued for its anise-flavored, feathery foliage and bulb, it grows happily in colder climes. But as a spring plant here it will steadfastly refuse to form its coveted bulb. Spring offers a tight window. Because fennel is frost-sensitive, the gardener toils to start fennel from seed in early March and puts out the transplants in mid-April, hoping the spring will stay mild and tempered. But it does not. The heat arrives for a few days in May and that’s the end of it. The foliage is okay, sort of, but the swelling at the base of the plant simply doesn’t happen.

Thistlelike cardoons are among the thriving food plants of fall. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Fall is another story altogether. Start fennel from seed in late August, put it out in mid-September and watch it thrive. By October the bulbs have begun to form, and they get to a fair size by early November. You will never get the hefty bulbs of the boreal garden, but you will have your fennel orbs to play with in the kitchen, around Thanksgiving. We are grateful for that. Bronze fennel is a decorative plant, worthy of the flower border. But it seeds like nuts, won’t bulb under any circumstance and it probably is best avoided, unless you like weeding.

At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, the fennel is doing just fine. This is also a choice moment for harvesting late summer-sown carrots, cabbages and beets and putting in your garlic cloves. In the former tomato beds, the gardeners have set a series of garlic bulbs. Put them in pointy side up, completely buried an inch or two, and space them six inches apart.

Cindy Brown and the gang at Green Spring have planted a series of fancy cultivated varieties, including California Early White, California Late White, German Extra Hardy, German White and Elephant garlic. The last produces huge bulbs with a mild flavor, and in the onion sisterhood is closer to the leek than the garlic. This is useful to know if you’re worried about vampires. In my garden, I just put in cloves from the supermarket, and they have sprouted already.

Asian persimmon, Fuyukaki. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Autumn is also the time of the persimmon. The native persimmon, dreadfully astringent until a good frost, is really not found in supermarkets, but the plumper Asian versions are. Some are astringent turning sweet, while others are sweet all along. As an ornamental tree, the Asian persimmon is a champ, and should be used much more in the garden. This picture is of a persimmon in my garden in Alexandria, a non-astringent variety named Fuyukaki (most often referred to in shorthand, as Fuyu). I think it took four years to bear, but doesn’t need a partner to fruit and is free of pests and disease. The fruit is so heavy and prodigious that it causes the branches to bend after August.

The fruit sells for $3 a pop in the grocery store. Lesson: What are you waiting for?

I’m waiting for Cindy to tell me what to do with the fennel and the persimmons.

-- Adrian Higgins

Fennel, Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Fennel, Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad
6 first-course servings

This salad showcases fall’s freshest ingredients. It is light and refreshing, yet flavorful enough to sit comfortably on the Thanksgiving table with the stuffing, gravy and turkey. Because the fennel is a digestive, it's nice to have this salad at the end of a meal.

1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large or a few small fennel bulbs, with stalks attached
1 medium head radicchio, cored and cut into thin slices
2 Asian persimmons (such as Fuyu), peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted (see NOTE)
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (sold in packs in the produce department), for garnish

Whisk together the orange juice, sugar, salt, pepper and oil in a large bowl until emulsified.

Trim any fennel stalks flush with bulb, reserving some of the leafy fronds on the stalks to garnish the salad; discard the stalks. Cut out and discard the core of fennel bulb(s), then cut the bulb(s) lengthwise into thin strips to yield about 2 cups.

Add the persimmon cubes, fennel strips, chopped hazelnuts and radicchio slices to the bowl; toss to coat evenly with the dressing. Garnish with the fennel fronds and pomegranate seeds.

NOTE: To toast the hazelnuts, spread them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 300-degree oven for about 8 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to promote even (yet light) browning.

Per serving: 340 calories, 3 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 218 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  November 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, persimmons, recipes  
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