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Groundwork: Salad greens bonanza

Note the decorated sled and the tepee of shovels in the compost pile. It doesn't get any more festive than this, folks. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The garden shed at Green Spring's veggie plot is decked out in its seasonal finery. A month from now, the gardening year will reach its only (and brief) nadir, but for now we are reaping the rewards of the fall garden. In our climate, we are harvesting cool season plants that northern gardeners enjoy in late spring and into the summer. The fall garden takes planning and patience; both attributes result in a sweet harvest of greens, mostly, that have behaved as they should: heading up and not flowering precociously.

Recipe Included

The harvest this week included bok choy, Daikon radishes, beets, carrots, and, for one cheeky visitor who helped him/herself, the calendulas.

The bok choy, as you can see, is just showing off. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Our featured veggies this week -- lettuce, endive and radicchio -- embody the bounty of the season. Raising them to perfection has been aided this year by a long, mild and moist autumn. It's not unusual to have a first frost in Washington by mid-October, and common to have one by mid-November.

But until the weekend's storm at least, Green Spring had yet to experience one. The garden is west of Alexandria, inside the Beltway. All three greens can take a light frost without missing a beat, and a winter-weight floating row cover can give them another several degrees of protection, extending their garden life for weeks. Even in a normal or harsh year, you can harvest these greens well into December.

Some lettuce varieties are more cold-tolerant than others, and all are hardier when they are beyond the baby stage. Typically, heading types such as bibb and butterhead, which enwrap themselves, are the hardiest. Some Italian varieties have been bred for winter hardiness, but would still need some serious protection to make it through a Washington winter.

Cindy Brown and the gang at Green Spring have produced, as they did in the spring, a lovely medley of varieties, in rows that form stripes of charteuse and red, and in contrasting textures. Varieties include Pablo, which is a red-green Batavian lettuce that produces the semblance of a head at maturity. There are a couple of red-leafed Romaine and Cos types, the classic Black Seeded Simpson and the Merlot, which is both very frizzy and of the darkest maroon-purple. An old variety named Tennis Ball forms its desired litte head in the coolness of autumn.

The lettuces have been planted with beets and onion, and they all look quite handsome before the cold beat them up a bit.

Curly endive. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The secret to vegetable gardening (apart from attention to the soil) is timing. The lettuces and other greens were started from seed on Aug. 8 in a greenhouse. You don't have to have a greenhouse to sow indoors; you can use the same growing lights and workbench of late winter used to start pepper seedlings.

At Green Spring, the transplants were then placed in their garden beds in the first week of September. You can directly sow, but lettuce seed is shy to germinate in the hot soils of the open garden in August. Indoors, you also can spare the seedling attacks by slugs and cutworms. Make sure the young lettuce plants get the misting and watering they need at a vulnerable stage. Delay seed-starting a couple of weeks if you insist on taking a vacation.

Radicchio variety Red Orchid. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The endive and radicchio are each forms of chicory but quite different in appearance. Curly endive is a ground-hugging, exceedingly frizzy plant, green with a white center (The French blanch the whole plant shortly before harvest by covering it). The radicchio forms a tight ball, often with red and white leaves. Again, this is accomplished by growing it in the fall, not the spring, and though you will never get the large-headed radicchios of northern climes, you will get fair approximations. But what to do with all these lovelies?

Cindy has an answer: Harvest Salad.

-- Adrian Higgins

Harvest Salad
4 servings

Green salads are usually associated with the summer months, but the lettuces are at their peak in the garden right now. They limp along in high summer temperatures but thrive in the cool fall months.

In this salad, endive and radicchio add heft, and incorporating the third green, lettuce, is used to get all of it from the garden before cold temperatures turn it to mush.
Serve with crusty bread.

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

3 cups radicchio, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
3 cups endive, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
3 cups lettuce, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
6 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, cut into 1/4-inch rings
1 pound sliced mushrooms
Leaves from 2 sprigs rosemary, minced (1 tablespoons)
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 1/4 pounds)
2 medium firm red pears, cored then cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup apple cider
1/2 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled, for garnish

Combine the radicchio, endive and lettuce greens in a big bowl; toss with 3 tablespoons of the oil and salt and pepper to taste. Divide equally among individual plates or salad bowl.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, then the mushrooms and rosemary. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the mushrooms have softened and are browned on both sides. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.
Return the saute pan to the stove, over medium heat. Add the red onion rings and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until just softened. Transfer to a small bowl.

Increase the heat to medium-high; add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the chicken, making sure both sides are coated with oil, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the chicken is browned on both sides and cooked through. (If you can, pound the breast halves as needed to make them an equal thickness, for even cooking.) Place a chicken breast half on top of each portion of salad. The heat from the chicken should wilt the greens slightly.

Carefully add the balsamic vinegar and apple cider into the pan; use a wooden spoon or spatula to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the pears, stirring to combine. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the pears soften slightly and the liquid has reduced by half. Remove from the heat.

Cut each chicken breast crosswise into 1/4-inch slices (while they are still on the dressed greens); the greens will absorb the juices. Then divide the cooked mushrooms, onions and pears among the plates, spooning the mixture on top of the chicken slices.

Drizzle the cider-vinegar sauce from the pan evenly over the portions; top each one with the Gorgonzola. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 468 calories, 39 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 194 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  December 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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Enjoy your blog! We still have lettuce under row covers in SE PA but this current cold snap is likely the end...have covered it with a wool blanket as it is too sad to see it turn to mush....will probably pick as much as possible if it survives, we are definitely on borrowed time. Surprisingly the mice and meadow voles have not devoured the lettuce yet. It makes winter seem shorter here to still have veg in the garden.....

Posted by: paula58 | December 10, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

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