Grow Baby – Trials of Growing Baby Vegetables

Posted on November 13, 2007. Filed under: food, gardening, more food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Salad of baby carrots, broccoli, walnut oil, saba and parmesan shavings

I really want to be a gardener. I try hard. (Well, Walter tries hard. He’s our gardener.) I research hard. I pour over seed catalogs imagining myself walking through lush rows of possibilities for the kitchen. I have visions of tomatoes, greens and herbs rounded by hedges of roses and fruit trees. I dream of peppers and zucchini. I ache for a squash. But our vegetable garden has brought me so much frustration. We have had some successes like an unexpected hot, dry winter crop of jalapeñoes and poblanos and more arugula than I could give away to neighbors, friends and people I don’t even know. But mostly the results of our vegetable garden are plants that start off strong from seed, then peter out before they can finish producing their fruits. It’s like they ran out of gas. Then we started growing baby vegetables.

We dedicated a very ample piece of the yard to be the vegetable garden. Our house in on a steep hill, so we created plateaued beds. I know that growing vegetables is really growing soil, so we dedicate a lot of energy enriching the soil with organic matter. We use the compost we make and buy organic soil enrichers like bone meal and steer manure. The problem comes when with the rain. Being at the top of the hill is a hindrance. The rain washes away all the soil nutrients. After the plants mature, they yellow and rot, unable to nourish their dangling green young fruits. (My in-laws, by the way, live at the bottom of the hill. They have never had the necessity to buy any form of fertilizer, as any seed dropped on the ground there will grow). I thought- well I’m not going to wait for the plant to die on me. I’m going to plant things that I can harvest young, then build the soil back up for the next crop.

The plan worked. We planted carrots and beets. I don’t know which varieties we planted. The seed package had a picture of a carrot on it. Walter planted the seeds in little bunches as we were in a dry period. The carrots grew well right next to each other. We have been harvesting them as they become at least as thick as a pencil and not thicker than a magic marker. We have been reaping a steady supply of young carrots for 4 weeks.

carrot harvest

We applied the same methods for the beets, harvesting them as they reach the size of a radish. We used no pesticides and the bugs really didn’t come around. One of the best things about harvesting the beets young are their young and tender greens are still intact.

We’ve continued the logic of the underage harvest to the zucchini patch. We’re harvesting flowers and young zucchinisZucchini Blossom leaving a few male flowers for the plants to continue reproducing. Last year’s rains turned the zucchini patch into black goo. This year we’re planting in hopes of ratatouille. We’re stuffing and frying blossoms.

The most common broccoli here in Brazil is broccoli rabe (rapini). Every time we plant it, it grows very strongly, but the florets are overtaken by aphids. (We’re surrounded by tropical rain forest, so bugs are king here). This year we’re using a solution of coconut soap and water to keep the aphids away and harvesting the florets very small. The broccoli rabe is tender and bug- free.

This week we planted lettuces and spinach. We’re planning to stagger the planting as to have a more continuous crop of lettuces. I hope to write a followup of our baby greens.

By growing baby we found it easier to stay organic. The soil stays strong with a good dose of organic matter and we harvest before the bugs have figured out what we’re up to.

Baby vegetables aren’t just a quick harvest. They are quick to prepare and quick to disappear off the plate. My kids think they’re cute. They get involved with planting seeds, harvesting the crop and gobbling up the results.

Carrots: Harvest very young, pencil thickness or little more. Saute or quickly toss them in salt, sugar and a few drops of water to steam them in the microwave for a minute. Choose to go peeled or unpeeled.

Beets: Harvest them the size of radishes or superballs. Roast, boil or even microwave them. They are best roasted in their skins. They are beautiful peeled, and spilt lengthwise. Leave a little bit of the tender tops. They’re delicious. Prepare the young beet leaves by cutting them into a chiffonade and sauteing them in a little olive oil. Sprinkle with lemon juice. They are an excellent addition to chicken stock. They are subtler than at their adult stage. The really perfect young shoots add an earthy note to a salad mix.

Zucchini Blossoms: Pick just a few. Always leave a few on the plant, especially the males. The males have long thin stems, while the females have the beginnings of a zucchini at their bases. Stuff flowers with ricotta cheese ( I season it with salt, pepper and a cut up red chili). Coat the flowers with a thinned-out pancake batter ( I use flour, baking powder and water). Fry them 2 or 3 at a time in at least 2 inches of very hot oil. Dry on towels, sprinkle with kosher salt and serve hot.

Throw whole zucchini blossoms into pasta dishes, an omelet or include them in a zucchini souffle.

Broccoli Rabe (Rapini): The plant grows big leafy stalks. From the center and along the sides of the stalks sprout the green flowers of the plant. Harvest the flowers and their accompanying young leaves as they begin to sprout. These are amazingly delicious in any saute or stir fry. You may also lightly salt them, steam them slightly (really just show them the steaming pot) and save them for a crunchy addition to a salad.

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