I Love Winter Gardening: Greens & Sausage Gravy

When I first started keeping a vegetable garden, years ago, I was mistakenly under the impression that you only can grow things in the summer, between the frosts.  Once I realized that you can grow vegetables year-round here in Northern California, I really fell in love with winter gardening.  There’s none of the concern about high temperatures and keeping everything watered,  and winter vegetables are quite happy to soak up the fog, rain and frosts, requiring almost no maintenance from me. There are a whole array of vegetables that have the potential to overwinter: all of the dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, all of the alliums….  Between all of these vegetables and the winter squash in the pantry, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to eat out of the garden all year round.

Here at our farm, we grow lots of dark leafy greens.   I like to harvest them very small, as mixed baby braising greens.  I’ve found that if I plant them out into the garden during September or October, they have plenty of time to get established and start growing before the days get really short.  I’ll keep planting through the whole winter, but greens planted in December or January won’t really do much of anything until the days get longer, maybe late February. A few of the Black Dog Farm Winter Greens, clockwise from top center: Wild Harvested Miner’s Lettuce; Blue Curled Scotch Kale from Baker Creek Seeds; Toscano Kale from Johnny’s Seeds;  Scarlett Frills from Johnny’s Seeds; Red Chidori Kale from Territorial Seeds; Red Russian Kale from Baker Creek Seeds

So yes, we have a ridiculous amount of kale floating around the farm for the winter months.  One of my favorite ways to use it is in this really simple, fast meal.  There’s nothing all that revolutionary about this; it’s just mashed potatoes, steamed braising greens, and some delicata squash, all topped with sausage gravy. If you’ve ever felt ambivalent about kale, though, this is absolutely the way to go.  I eat a lot of kale and every once in awhile, my stomach says:

Those people are right.

This is foul.

If I eat any more kale, I’m going to die.

All it takes is the teeniest smidgen of sausage gravy to make a huge pile of steamed greens go from boring and gross to the star of the plate and completely convince everyone at the dinner table that it’s worth eating.  The other reasons I like making this? It comes together in just 20 minutes, it uses very few ingredients so I don’t need to have 900 things in the fridge to make it, it uses seasonal produce from the garden, and it has a way of perfectly walking the line between feeling healthy and filling.  (Sure, you can serve this exact same meal with fried chicken, which is awesome, and I’ve done many times, but that’s another dinner).

I don’t really feel like necessary to write out full recipes for this, so let’s do it this way….

Greens & Sausage Gravy, or My Feet Hurt But I Still Want Something Good For Dinner

cook time: 20 minutes

The components of this meal:

1. Mashed Potatoes: I’m sure however you make them is fine…

2. Steamed Braising Greens: maybe with a crushed clove of garlic thrown in the pot.  I don’t steam them very long, maybe 10 minutes,  just until they’re tender.  If you’re working with older greens, or tough varieties like collards, you’ll obviously want to cook them longer.

3. A Side Vegetable From The Garden: that’s delicata squash up in the pictures, sauteed in olive oil, but in the summer it might be sliced tomatoes, or a cherry tomato salad.

4. Sausage Gravy: I already wrote out the recipe I use in this post back here, about grinding homemade breakfast sausage.  There are a bunch of pictures and instructions for how to make good sausage gravy if you don’t know how.  For a fast week night meal, the only notes I would add onto that recipe is that you can substitute milk for the stock if you don’t have it on hand.  (And that you don’t need to grind your own sausage for the gravy to be good, just look for a basic flavor of ground pork breakfast sausage, not something with…. maple syrup, or hot peppers in it.  That might make weird gravy).

Kale and White Bean Stew

We’ve been busy… planting zinnias, carrots and camelias, getting compost ready for May planting time, making orange marmalade and so much more.

grow!

This stew is the “holy crap I’m way too exhausted to cook anything elaborate but I really want to eat something healthy with vegetables and not just pasta” dinner.  If you have a lot of kale in your life right now, this is a good dish to make. Also if you happen to be short on time, energy or money.  It’s can easily be made vegetarian or vegan if you want. Such a simple list of ingredients, too: greens, broth, noodles, beans, cheese.

Kale and White Bean Soup

Cooking Time: 30 minutes minimum, but you can let it simmer longer

Serves: 6

  • 1 slice of home cured bacon or pancetta, diced (store bought is fine too, but it sure seems like there are a lot of people curing there own bacon these days… you could absolutely omit the meat altogether if you don’t have any in the fridge that day)
  • 1 tsp. butter or olive oil
  • 2 medium bunches or 1 very large bunch of kale, rinsed and roughly chopped (any variety will do; feel free to substitute chard, collards, mustard greens or even dandelion greens, taking care to adjust cooking time for the specific greens that you choose)
  • 2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 cans cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 oz. shaved parmesan or romano cheese
  • 8 oz. of uncooked chiocciole noodles available from Bionaturae (substitute large macaroni noodles)
  • salt and fresh cracked pepper

1. Bring a medium sized pot of water to boil for cooking the noodles.  Season the water with salt.

2. In a large soup pot, melt butter on medium heat. Add diced bacon and saute for 4-5 minutes, or until it begins to brown. Add the chopped kale into the pot and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the kale begins to wilt. Pour in the stock and bring the stew back up to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, or until kale is tender. If too much stock cooks off, add some water to thin the stew out again. Gently stir in the beans, and cook on low for 10 more minutes to bring the flavors together.  Season with salt and pepper.

3. While you are cooking the kale, cook the noodles separately in the pot with boiling water (I cook them separately to avoid overcooking the noodles and ruining the consistency of the broth). Cook to al dente, drain, and set aside.

4. To serve, put hot noodles into soup bowls, ladle the stew over the top of them, and give a few stirs to mix everything together.  Top with a liberal amount of shaved parmesan cheese.  Sweet potato biscuits or sourdough bread are great with this if you’re feeling extra inspired, and maybe a beet salad.

Happy eating and have fun out in the sunshine!

UPDATE: 10/26/11

I wanted to update this post with a local source for my favorite beans in the universe. West Side Renaissance Market in Ukiah sells heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, a farm in Napa. They grow the best beans I’ve ever tasted- they’re meaty, rich, flavorful, and delicious simply simmered in some stock with few or no other ingredients.  Up until recently, I thought you could only buy their beans closer to the Bay Area, and when I discovered them at the WRM,  I bought a pack of their Cannelini beans and made this recipe.  The cannelini beans from Rancho Gordo are huge, the size of lima beans or butter beans. I don’t always follow the proper instructions for cooking with dried beans, but it never seems to matter. If you want to add dried beans instead of the canned beans the original recipe calls for, here’s the instructions:

Cooked Cannelini Beans

Soak dried beans for two hours. Drain. In a large stock pot, combine beans with a lot of water. I never measure…  I would estimate a ratio of about 1 part beans to 5 parts water. Keep an eye on the pot, if the water gets low you should add more water to keep the beans from burning. Add a liberal amount of sea salt and a few sprigs of fresh herbs like bay leaves or thyme.  Simmer the beans on very low heat for about 4 hours, or until they are completely tender but not falling apart. Drain, and set aside until you’re ready to combine them with the other ingredients in the stew recipe above.

The pound package of beans yields more than the two cans of beans called for in the original recipe, so I added another bunch of kale and a little more broth. Just eyeball it for whatever you’re in the mood for, though, and it will be fine.  If you don’t want to put in the full amount of beans, the Rancho Gordo website suggests puréeing the leftovers with some caramelized onions to make a spread for crostini, which sounds pretty divine. P.S. While I’m raving about Rancho Gordo’s amazing beans, I have to also recommend their Yellow Indian Woman Beans.  J. and I love making a huge stock pot of homemade chicken broth (the full deal, with bones, carrots, celery onion, leeks, and parsley) and then using the broth to make a big pot of the Indian Woman beans.  A nice loaf of bread and a salad from the garden complete the dinner, and we eat the leftovers with hot sauce and sunny-side up eggs the next day.