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Groundwork: The sweet, maligned turnip

At the Green Spring vegetable garden, hops spring eternal. On the entrance arch. Cindy Brown readies for her appointment with Grant Wood. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

In many community plots, one common rule (and there are lots of rules) is that you have to start planting something by May 1. I am told this the other day in the midst of the bounty that is the vegetable plot at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia. I soak up the irony. The garden here was started in January, by way of innocuous seeds in foam cups, but this "jump" on the year has yielded a productivity we only think belongs to the summer garden. No sweetcorn or zucchini yet, or for weeks, but the beds are stuffed with vegetables well on their way to maturity. Much of this has to do with the penchant of Cindy Brown and Donna Stecker to sow pretty much everything in pots under lights, bring them along in the greenhouse, and stick them in the spring garden as the soil warms in April.

This is the norm with veggies such as cabbages, artichokes and cauliflowers, but the gardeners here have adoped this practice for, oh, lettuces, beets, radishes and turnips, cold-hardy vegetables that the books tell you to sow directly into the garden.
By ignoring the rules, they have presented a garden that is uncommonly far along for mid-spring. Moreover, the beds are full of cool-season plants whose near maturity positions them to take the roller-coaster ride that is spring in the mid-Atlantic region. Heat and uneven moisture stress these plants, and the stress can throw off the flavor and draw pests.

But I am looking at healthy and robust specimens of cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi and broccoli. I'm a believer. (And I'm a guy racing to finish construction of a new vegetable garden with beets and onions getting perilously large under growing lights in the basement, but that's another story).

Turnip Purple Top, perfect when seed started early. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

One of the best examples of the value of seed starting in late winter for the spring garden is the turnip. This is a sublime root crop that needs clever cultivation in Washington. As I've said before, it is best as a fall crop, so that it matures as the air temperatures cool into the 70s and 60s. When the temperatures are consistently hotter than that, the turnip tends to set weak bulbs that turn bitter. And yet, grown well and harvested before it gets old, the garden turnip is one of the most flavorful vegetables you can grow. Clearly, by following Donna's lead of sowing indoors in February and planting out in March, the turnip become a reliable spring veggie as well.

The pretty flowers and stalks of the bolted kale. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The young kale is delicious now raw in salads, especially the handsome ruby-veined variety Red Russian. But Cindy has let a stand from the fall go to flower. She says the blooms are yummy when sauteed, but she also wants people to see the full cycle of greens that we think of only in leafy stage. The blossoms are gorgeous, primrose yellow on deep burgundy stems. Do try this at home.

The construction of the deer fence promises to alter the life of the gardener here, and for the better. The fuss of netting beds of plants is a real pain, and their removal is not just physically but psychologically liberating.

There is a practical consideration, too. We think that the proliferation of the harlequin bug on the brassicas is worsened by the fact the crops are netted. This prevents birds and other predators from getting at them, so they flourish and damage the leaves as they feed. Cindy has this notion that with the netting removed, the purple martins will swoop down from the nearby nesting house and take care of the bugs. To which we say, "Swallow, swallow." We do know that the fencing has kept the deer out. So far.

-- Adrian Higgins

Turnip Fritters
Makes about 20 small fritters (6 servings)

Turn vegetables into crisped coins like these and watch them disappear.

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

2 pounds fresh turnips, green attached (if greens aren’t attached, substitute mustard greens for turnip greens)
White and light-green parts of 1 large leek
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1/2 cup freshly grated cheese, such as Parmesan, white cheddar or Gouda
1/3 cup flour

Detach the greens from the turnips; wash the greens and spin-dry. Working in several batches, roll the leaves and cut them into thin ribbons (chiffonade). Then chop the ribbons to produce a fairly fine chop of leaves. The yield should be about 3 cups.

Cut the leek lengthwise, then rinse thoroughly to remove any grit. Place the halves cut sides down on the cutting board and cut each one lengthwise in half, then into quarters, then crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.

Heat a tablespoon of the oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and cook for about 4 minutes, until it has softened, then add the chopped turnip greens and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have wilted. If the mixture begins to brown, reduce the heat to medium-low. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Use a food processor fitted with a disk blade to grate the turnips; the yield should be about 4 cups. Add to the leek and greens mixture, along with the eggs, cheese and flour; mix until well combined.

Place a wire (cooling) rack on top of a few layers of paper towels.
Use paper towel to wipe out the nonstick skillet. Place over medium heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. When it is hot, drop in about 5 separate heaping tablespoons of the vegetable mixture, using the back of a spoon to slightly flatten each one. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, turning them to make sure they have browned on both sides. Use a slotted spatula to transfer the fritters to the wire rack to drain. Repeat to use all of the mixture.

Serve warm.

Per fritter: 50 calories, 2 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 3, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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