Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Groundhog Day

Somewhere in the distant past, an idea emerged halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox that the groundhog could tell us the future on this day. This year, it was a sunny Groundhog Day, which means a longer winter. This is usually sober news for chefs and farmers anxious to bring some vegetables to the table. On Groundhog Day, I had a dinner date with some of Oregon's finest winter farmers, and I was anxious to see what the coming months had in store.

Sheldon Marcuvitz and Carole Laity tend the 11 acres of Your Kitchen Garden. Their farm lies just south of Canby, and they have harvested some of the best produce I have seen in the Portland area since I moved here over six years ago. They have three greenhouses, two for growing, and one heated for starting seed. Most of their crops are fully exposed to the elements, and they are very proficient at keeping their land productive.

While Sheldon was showing me the digs, he told me that there had been a film crew at the farm. It is a documentary project called Ingredients, which connects a local farmer with a Portland restaurant that uses their produce. The segment featuring Your Kitchen Garden will be released this spring.

At the beginning of February, they are digging sunchokes, salsify and leeks, cutting cabbages, brussels sprouts, kales, radicchio and treviso chicories, inspecting the turnips and celery roots to see which have survived the snow and frost, and checking the crowns of their cardoon and artichoke. Their mache and spinach are small now, but growing well. In the greenhouses, they have a variety of herbs and greens. They are cutting mizuna, shungiku, claytonia (minor's lettuce), sorrel, watercress and arugula. Things are coming along handsomely.

Of course, the challenges of winter farming are that things must be planted in the fall while they can still grow, but they must survive the weather for 90 days before anything can be harvested. It's risky. A farmer stands to lose a lot of money if they have a crop failure, and working in the rain and mud isn't easy work. There can be some advantages to keeping things in the ground during these difficult months. One of my favorite ingredients of spring are the rapini shoots that start to pop out of the stalks of brassicas that have already been harvested. Nothing else is really growing in January and February, so you leave the kale and brussels sprouts stalks in the ground, and you have another crop in March!

One of Sheldon's favorite vegetables is cardoon, the lesser known and under-appreciated cousin of the artichoke. He protects them in the dark of winter by placing straw-filled boxes over the crown until they establish themselves. On a recent trip to Italy, I had seen that the Italians will use these blanching techniques all the way through harvest, which results in an elegant, mellow white stalk.

My favorite winter vegetable from Sheldon's farm is the Japanese turnip. There are two prominent varieties, the hakurei and fuku komachi (you can order seeds from Kitazawa). They are firm and sweet, a perfectly white globe with delicious leafy greens. In Japan, I fell in love with a traditional dish called Kabura Furofuki, which is simply braised turnip or daikon covered with a sweet miso sauce. The beauty of these turnips is that the skin doesn't have to be peeled so long as they are scrubbed clean. They also make wonderful pickles.

One of the most admirable of Sheldon's philosophies about farming is not just the high quality of his produce, but that he chooses crops which actually have a high yield. He selects crops with good yields, and staggers his plantings, which staggers the harvest. He's not selling pristine baby vegetables or micro greens to high paying restaurants and grocery stores. He actually wants to feed people!

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