What’s in the garden – late winter?

From SAGE member Stephanie Williams

I am writing this on the first day of August beneath yet another beautiful blue sky. I think we should all spare a thought for our growers, large and small across this land, who wait anxiously for good rains.

While the unseen activity continues unabated below ground level, the worms and beetles and bugs have to burrow ever deeper to escape the dryness above. In some ways this is good, as the creatures make new channels through dry layers, but seeds planted in dusty topsoils do not germinate or thrive.

However the news is not all bad, because while air temperatures remain between 10 and 20 degrees, we can start many good foods off in the ground from seedlings if we have a sunny spot, or even as seeds if we are lucky enough to own one of the wonderful SAGE above ground veggie garden beds.

Bitter greens

In summer, eating a wide variety of raw salad foods is easy and enjoyable, but in the colder months many people find them less palatable. My old mentor used to tell me that “lettuce is junk food compared to endive, spinach, radicchio and chicory”. While I refuse to believe lettuce is junk food — especially the lovely variety of dark red, green and lime coloured leaves we grow these days, I think we can discover a whole new world of flavour by adding the strong, bitter leaves of the Cichorium genus to winter meals. Not only that, we can significantly improve our digestive processes without the use of pharmaceuticals.

In Europe, the tradition of including bitter leaves in meals is an ancient one. In the French tradition, people “drank” their bitters as an “aperitif” before the meal. In Italy, most pasta dishes were and still are served alongside bitter greens, which include the crisp red/white variegated ones we might know as chicory or radicchio. Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal and other Mediterranean countries all have their own traditions of using whatever green leaves are available “in the field” to add nutrition to the simplest meals.

In the UK, bitter endive (Cichorium endivia), is a frilly, light green concoction resembling an open faced lettuce but heavier, has a short summer season and does not tolerate cold. Here, it is everywhere in warm weather so we can add it to summer salads. Watch out for cultivars of endive that are being developed to “sweeten” the taste! This defies the whole point, so always allow your taste-buds to guide you.

A good bet for bitters is radicchio (Cichorium intybus var. radicchio), which can be tight leaved and called chicory or loose leaved and resemble our cos lettuce (Lactuca sativa) but with red tips. Phew – talk about confusing!

But whatever you choose to call them, the bitter greens pack a nutritional punch at any time of year. Dark green spinach leaves are easy to find. The variegated reds or greens of radicchio or chicory intensify in colour as the climate grows colder. The fleshy leaves are structurally strong and will withstand being grilled or roasted. They enhance rich cheeses, virgin olive oil, creamy pasta sauces, sour cream or yoghurts and their biting flavour makes for memorable meals and healthier digestion!

At this time of year, you may find a few bitter plants scattered around your own garden. Most people consider these to be “weeds”, but they are a convenient source of salad bitters. They include rocket, red mizuna, nasturtium, violet, gotu kola or pennyweed, parsley, dandelion, chickweed, marigold and more. Make sure you identify any weeds you intend to eat.

Among the plants you might like to start getting into the soil over the next few weeks are spinach, mustard greens, onions and radishes, beetroot, chard, carrots, peas, rocket, lettuce — as well as the Cichoriums above. And don’t forget the cabbages and garlic, which are medicine in themselves.

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