Seeds of our discontent
Flash in the Pan
Dear Chef Boy Ari,
I have a shaded garden plot that gets partial sun. According to my packet of broccoli seeds, the plants should be fine with that much sun, but they are already starting to flower—having skipped the tasty head stage. Is there something I can do to prevent it from flowering? What gives?
—Gone to Seed
Dear Gone to Seed,
Your broccoli plants want to make as many seeds as they can, and under good conditions they will grow as big as possible before flowering. A larger plant will make a larger “pre-floral organ”—AKA, “head,” the part you eat—which leads to a larger flower, and hence more seeds. Your broccoli went to seed—or bolted—early, probably in response to some kind of environmental stress.
If the plant gets a sketchy vibe from its environment—too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too long in a tiny pot before transplanting—then it hits a panic button of sorts, sounding a systemic alarm that says, “Now or never boys, let’s go!”
Unfortunately for you, once its mind is made up, that broccoli plant’s determination to release its pollen rivals the average teenager’s, and no amount of pruning will change its mind.
But don’t stress out, Gone to Seed. Broccoli is a cool-season crop, which means you’ll get another chance this fall. Plant more seeds in July, and this time, treat them right.
Dear Chef Boy Ari,
I was lazy last fall and didn’t get much garlic in the ground. So this spring I found a few sprouting cloves in my cupboard, said “what the heck,” and planted them. They’re doing really well, but I wonder, will I actually get any garlic this season?
Dear Late Bloomer,
While your behind-schedule garlic plants might be quite robust, I’m sorry to say they won’t be so impressive underground, where it counts. But you can eat the stalk—kind of like a skinny leek. Roast it on the grill, sauté it in a pan, and forget about getting a big head of garlic.
Instead of trying to play catch-up against impossible odds, better to start planning next year’s garlic patch. The ground should be ready for planting by October. I like to cover a part of my lawn with a piece of black plastic in the heat of summer, and leave the plastic there until fall. By then, the worms have taken care of any trace of sod roots in the dirt, which turns over like newly fallen snow. Your garlic will love it.
Dear Chef Boy Ari,
This year I planted my first crop of cabbage, hoping to harvest heads bigger than my own and give me an excuse to buy a fermentation crock and whip up large batches of sauerkraut to go with my bratwurst (I also want to make the occasional batch of kim chi). Unfortunately, my cabbage plants’ leaves look like Swiss cheese. Inspecting them, I found a little green worm—just one, and he didn’t seem hungry enough to cause that much damage.
Is my cabbage doomed? What can I do to ensure I’ll have fresh kraut in time for tailgating season?
Dear Holey Cabbage,
That little green “worm” was probably a cabbage looper larva, or caterpillar. If it was alone—and I’m skeptical it was—it’s probably because its buddies have already metamorphosed into those white butterflies you might see flittering around your garden, scouting a good place to lay the next generation of caterpillar eggs. And if they weren’t eying your cabbage leaves for this purpose, well, then they wouldn’t be called cabbage loopers, would they? And by the way, cabbage loopers will also happily settle for kale, broccoli, and other members of the mustard—AKA Brassica—family.
Commercial organic growers spray their Brassicas with “Bt,” short for Bacillus thuringiensis, bacteria that destroy the guts of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), and then dies. But on a small scale like yours, you can skip the biological pest control and do it manually.
First, kill every green worm in your cabbage patch. While hunting those worms, turn over every leaf and inspect its underside for tiny orange eggs. Yank any leaf with eggs, and dispose of them carefully—ideally to the chickens, but otherwise bury them in the ground, or put them in your trash. DO NOT put the leaves in your compost pile, unless you promise to turn it right away—otherwise, the contents of those eggs will have a shot at hatching and finding their way back to your would-be kraut.
As for that fermentation crock, I say, “Easy tiger.”
Definitely, you should make sauerkraut, and to ensure your tailgating success, go get some cabbage at the farmers market soon rather than later, and start practicing. And consider learning this art by making smaller batches in glass canning jars. Leave the rings loose while it’s fermenting, and then tighten the rings when it stops bubbling. (For more specific kraut recipes, write me and ask, or look online).
And if you’re serious about kim chi (which is kind of like Korean sauerkraut), then you’ll be needing a different kind of cabbage—less of a hard waxy European model, and more of a Chinese or Napa cabbage, which are more crinkled, succulent, and generally better suited are for the Korean-style art of fermented cabbage.