Saturday, January 18, 2014

The First Seeds of Spring

Now that the January full moon (and a beautiful one it was with Jupiter beside it) has come and gone, it is time to plant leek and onion seeds. These plants grow slowly when they are young, do well when transplanted, and are universally required in cooking. It therefore makes sense to start a bunch of seeds in January for transplanting about six weeks hence.

We are growing a "generic" leek from Knoxville's own Mayo Seed Company that we have had good success with for years. I sow the seeds rather thickly on the surface of moist grow mix in a 6-inch square plastic pot, cover them with about a quarter inch of vermiculite and water them in. I keep the pot in the garage, and move it under artificial lights as soon as the first seeds break the surface. When the plants are an inch and a half tall, I begin watering with soluble fertilizer once a week. They will need six to eight weeks to reach a suitable size for transplanting, about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter at the base.

Onions can be started from seed in the same manner. Many gardeners prefer to start bulb onions from sets, but if you want many plants, seed is much cheaper. I will be doing sets this year, for red "summer" onions.

Our overwintered leeks survived the bitter cold of the Polar Vortex without much noticeable damage. This variety, 'King Sieg,' was developed specifically to overwinter from fall planting for the earliest possible spring crop. Last season, they were the best leeks we grew.

It is worth noting that the onion family, in general, is probably the best possible use of your garden space during winter. When spring or summer crops have been cleared, garlic, shallots, perennial onions, leeks and scallions can move in. Leeks can be transplanted any time, although they fare worse during July and August. Scallions will grow throughout the season, but they are at their best in cool weather. Garlic is typically planted in July, shallots in October, and perennial onions in November. Fall planted leeks and onions are transplanted in September for overwintering. All of these crops, with the exception of scallions, keep very well after harvest. Leeks need refrigeration, but garlic, shallots and perennial onions should be stored dry at cool room temperature, about 60 degrees.

Unless you have a coldframe, the month of January offers little in the way of harvest. Parsley usually overwinters and can be picked when it isn't frozen. Some other herbs, like rosemary, struggle along. This is a great time to turn to frozen vegetables from last summer. Here's a recipe for corn pudding that is made from "cream style" corn. That is corn that was scraped, rather than cut, from the cob, producing a mixture of smashed kernels, milky juice, and whole kernels. That is how I prefer to freeze it. You can also use commercially frozen corn, mixed with a small can of cream style corn, for approximately the same effect.

Southern Style Corn Pudding

2 cups frozen cream style kernels from homegrown corn, thawed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
pinch of cayenne pepper or a dash of Tabasco
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an eight-inch baking dish with a teaspoon of the butter, reserving the remainder. Place the thawed corn in the dish and dot with the remaining butter. Drizzle with the cream, distributing it evenly. Sprinkle with the cayenne, salt and pepper. Bake until golden at the edges, about 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

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