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Dining on garden leftovers

Making the best of the freeze.

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Good-bye, crazy cold winter. Your arctic antics did a job on my vegetable garden, and I am not one bit sorry to see you go.

True, a lot of folks up north were much harder hit, but many of us Central Texas gardeners have grown accustomed to (been spoiled by?) year-round food gardening. And we like to brag about it — especially when we're comparing notes with northern gardeners. (Na, na, na, na, na ... I can gro-ow lettuce aa-all win-ter lo-ong.)

Well, I've changed my tune, at least for this winter. The lingering freeze that tortured and then finally killed most of what was left of my drought-parched fall and winter vegetable garden has not only robbed me of winter bragging rights, it also left me feeling more than a little sad. (Poor sugar snap pea pods. Once so sweet and tender, and now so droopy and dead.)

But I've tossed the last rubbery remains of broccoli and the freeze-burned leaves of kale and chard into the compost pile, and now I'm ready for renewal in every sense of the word: new seeds and transplants, new compost and worm poop, new hopes and harvests. I'm thinking of it as a spring do-over. And although it might be true that spring equinox is still several weeks away, March 1 (aka the start of meteorological spring) is right around the corner.

But it will take another month or two for new transplants and seeds to start bearing fruit. And in the meantime, I still have a monthly column to write, one that is supposed to focus on cooking and eating seasonally from my so-called year-round garden. (Note: I should mention that I do in fact have a few freeze-frazzled survivors in my garden that are showing signs of new life — one purple mustard, two fennel plants and three romaine lettuces, to be precise. Oh, and several cilantro plants that apparently survived because the wind buried them under a pile of leaves.)

So given the slim pickings in my garden, I'm glad Central Texas has plenty of fast-thinking professional gardeners (aka farmers) who managed to protect and/or rescue enough vegetables from the jaws of Old Man Winter to have a decent showing at the farmers' markets this month.

Two Saturdays ago at the downtown market, Carin Moore of Blackland Prairie Farm in Noack said she had harvested every single carrot and beet she could find that wasn't frozen before she headed out for the market that morning. She was all smiles as she explained that the carrots and beets she was selling that day would probably be her last for a while. As she spoke, she radiated the practical optimism so common among farmers: "At least I don't have to worry about making room for spring crops," she said. "There's plenty of room now."

Most of the farmers I spoke to had similar stories. Some crops were lost, some were saved, and many were being planted anew. Happily for me and the friends I had invited to dine with me that evening, I had no trouble finding plenty of homegrown goodies suitable for one more winter dinner, or as I'm now calling it, Winter's Last Supper.

Fresh ingredients

I didn't choose a menu for my winter dinner until I got to the market. Here's what I bought:

From Blackland Prairie Farm: Gorgeous carrots in maroon, deep purple, white. (Yes, white. Did you know that carrots came in white? I didn't.) Also white beets. (Milder than red beets. Again, who knew?)

From Ottmer's Family Farm: Tomatoes (grown in soil in a greenhouse), sunflower sprouts and cabbage.

From Johnson's Backyard Garden: Green garlic, kohlrabi.

From Countryside Farm: Feral hog steak.

From Sand Creek Farm: Homemade dulce de leche (If you haven't tried this, let me just say that I was only one of many market shoppers who were swooning over the free samples.)

From my garden: Purple mustard greens, thyme, cilantro.

The menu

These are simple dishes that are perfect for a freestyle, "no recipe" cooking approach. For those who prefer cooking from a recipe, I've estimated the amounts I used, but taste and adjust as you go, because you might come up with something you like better.

Brown Sugar Rubbed Feral Hog Steak

1 lb. fresh ham steak, thick cut, including skin

1 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 Tbsp. salt

Combine sugar and salt and sprinkle on both sides of ham. Press and rub the mixture gently into the meat. Place meat in a shallow roasting pan and cook for 11/2 to 2 hours in a 325-degree oven, or until meat is fork-tender and skin is crunchy. Baste with drippings a few times during cooking.

Note: Any fresh, bone-in pork can be used here. For larger cuts of pork, increase baking time and add small amount of liquid (broth, diluted fruit juice, or water to roasting pan to help keep meat moist.

Puree of Roasted White Roots and Green Garlic

1 pound white root vegetables, peeled and coarsely chopped (such as white carrots, white beets, new potatoes and baby turnips, but go easy on turnips unless they're really mild)

1 large green kohlrabi, peeled and coarsely chopped

Olive oil

Sea salt and pepper

2 green garlics, white and green parts, coarsely chopped (see note)

1 Tbsp. mild goat cheese (or cream cheese)

1 cup milk, or more for thinner puree

In a bowl, combine vegetables, except for garlic, and toss with a splash or two of olive oil and generous pinch of salt. Spread evenly in single layer (without crowding) on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Meanwhile, add garlic to bowl and toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat pieces. Remove vegetables from oven, add garlic, stir gently to distribute, and return to oven for another 15 or 20 minutes, or until vegetables are lightly caramelized and fork-tender. Set aside until time to puree and serve.

When ready to serve, puree vegetables using an immersion blender or food processor and reheat over low flame or in microwave.

Note: If you don't have green garlic — immature garlic that looks like a scallion — use 2-3 whole cloves of garlic instead.

Purple Carrot Mash

1 1b. purple carrots, topped, peeled and sliced in 2- to 3-inch chunks

Water

Sea salt

1 tsp. butter

In a saucepan, bring carrots to a boil in enough water to cover. Lower heat to simmer and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain carrot water into a skillet and reserve. Add butter to carrots, cover pan and set aside. When ready to serve, puree carrots using an immersion blender or food processor and reheat over low flame or in microwave.

Carrot and Port Reduction With Dulce de Leche

About 11/2 cups water reserved from cooking carrots

1 Tbsp. ham steak drippings

2 Tbsp. tawny port

1 Tbsp. dulce de leche (or substitute dark honey)

Salt

Combine first three ingredients in heavy skillet, bring to slow boil, and reduce heat to medium-low and cook uncovered until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in dulce de leche and continue cooking until sauce is thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. Taste and add salt as desired.

Marinated Salad

2 cups cabbage, purple or white, washed, drained and sliced thin

1 cup sunflower sprouts, washed and drained

1 cup raw, spicy mustard greens, washed, drained and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup cilantro, tender stems and leaves, coarsely chopped

Tangy peanut dressing (recipe follows)

Toss ingredients with just enough dressing to coat and refrigerate for about 30 minutes until ready to serve.

Tangy Peanut Dressing

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. crunchy peanut butter

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 Tbsp. dulce de leche (or dark honey), more or less to taste

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt to taste

Whisk ingredients together and set aside until ready to dress salad.

Baked Greenhouse Tomatoes

2 tomatoes, stemmed, cut in half

1 tsp. minced fresh garlic

1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Olive oil

Sea salt

Remove about 1/2 tsp. of center of each tomato half. In a small bowl, mash tomato bits together with garlic, thyme and salt. Place tomato halves on baking sheet, cut side up. Evenly distribute garlic/tomato mixture on top of each tomato half. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in 325-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tomatoes are soft and bubbly.

Note: Try this on store-bought tomatoes that are low on flavor.

To serve family-style winter supper

On a large platter, spoon the white root-vegetable puree and the purple carrot mash side by side, top with ham steak, and then top with cabbage salad and baked tomato halves. Serve reduction sauce on the side, along with additional salad dressing. Serves 3-4 people.

Variations: Orange carrots will work just fine, but your puree will be orange, of course. If you can't find white beets, look for pale yellow or orange beets, which are becoming easier to find at grocery stores. If you like strong beet flavors and you don't mind pink purees, feel free to add red beets to the mix.

Aren't carrots supposed to be orange and beets red?

The first domesticated carrots were probably yellow, white, red and purple. According to most historical accounts, we can thank Dutch growers for orange carrots. They are thought to be the first to use selective breeding techniques to turn all their cultivated carrots orange. Why? To match the color of the royal family, the House of Orange.

White carrots are a little milder in flavor, and deep purple carrots are a tiny bit stronger in flavor. Some years ago, a Texas A&M University horticulturist developed a purple-skinned, orange-fleshed carrot, the 'BetaSweet' (also known as the maroon carrot). If you want to grow your own multi-hued carrots, you can usually find seeds for purple, maroon, red and yellow cultivars at nurseries, or search online for ‘colored carrot seeds' or ‘white beet seeds.' Popular carrot varieties include ‘Purple Haze,' ‘Deep Purple,' ‘Atomic Red,' ‘Rainbow' and ‘White Satin.'

Carrots are cool-weather crops, so if you want to try growing your own purple carrots, be sure to plant soon. You can probably squeeze in one more harvest if you plant seeds by the end of this month.

— Renee Studebaker