While there is something to be said for the biblical admonition to enjoy each good food “in the season thereof”, I find something especially satisfying in indulging in the pleasure of feasting on greens and tubers that reach their penultimate goodness long after usual harvest times. A decade ago, when still living in an alpine environment at 7000 feet in the Wasatch Mountains, I took an almost perverse pleasure in pushing the early snows of winter away from backyard grow-beds to munch on leafy vines and buried carrots and beets, in open defiance of a calendar which spoke in discouraging terms of seasonal change. Nowadays, here in southern Utah I have the pleasure of escaping to a greenhouse, where even on a wet, cold and breezy day, I can bask in the lush presence of green and growing things.
Whether home-grown or store-bought, I never cease to rejoice at the beautiful crinkly exterior of a head of Savoy cabbage as winter winds blow, and I look forward to preparing this wonder of history and horticulture. Cabbages – in one variety or another – have been a part of human agriculture for at least 4,000 years, with a climate hardiness which makes them a year-round and vitamin-rich food source for many cultures. My absolute drop-dead favorite though is the Savoy, with its green-blue crumpled outer leaves and creamy-white and tender interior. Much milder and sweeter than its more common cousins, it lacks the sulfur after taste, and proves its versatility in dozens of culinary possibilities. I like steaming the large outer leaves until they are sufficiently soft to wrap around a prepared filling of sautéed onions, hamburger, garlic, cooked rice, chopped cabbage and tomato sauce, then to be covered with more leaves and slow-baked for a meal of stuffed Savoy.
Just this week, we enjoyed a favorite recipe for winter soup made from shredded Savoy cabbage with white cannellini beans and chicken stock, prepared with a mirepoix of minced onions, garlic, celery and carrots. Named for the corner of Europe where France, Italy and Switzerland meet, Savoy has earned its reputation as the “queen” of cabbages. (Here, I have to give a plug for FARMERS’ MARKET in LaVerkin, Utah whose produce managers seem always to find a way to keep this often hard-to-find vegetable on hand.)
Another cold-weather vegetable worth getting to know is the leek, a member of the alium family along with onions, scallions and garlic. Unlike the onion, the leek doesn’t develop a bulb at the root end, but a long thick mostly-white stem with a green wide-leafed top. It is milder, sweeter, and more flavorful than an onion, and a natural ingredient of great soups. It too has been a favorite in Europe and Egypt where its use dates back at least to the first century BC. So tied to Welsh history is the ancient leek that legendary kings required their soldiers to wear leek leaves in their head gear in battle. Even today, embossed leeks appear in some English royal heraldry.
The leek’s commercial popularity in the U.S. has been quite recent (except for those of us who love to cook, and therefore had to grow our own for years). Since it is the white portion that is most suitable for culinary use, growers commonly blanche the growing stalk by hilling earth and sand around it. After removing the root and trimming away the green leaves therefore, it is important to cut slits down the length of the leek to rinse away any remaining grit when preparing for use.
For “Leek & Potato Soup”, I use the white parts of three leeks, sliced in rings then chopped; three large potatoes, skinned and cut into ½ inch cubes; 3 stalks of celery, diced; 3 cups chicken broth; three dry bay leaves and ½ pint half-and-half. I sauté the leeks and celery in 2 tbs. butter until transparent before adding the potatoes, bay leaves and broth. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender, but not mushy. Add in the half-and-half without bringing to a boil, adjusting with some milk if the consistency is too thick. At this point, I remove the bay leaves (important) and blend into a puree about half of the soup, returning it to the mix so that there is a good combination of “chunky” and “creamy”. Salt and pepper carefully, garnish with chopped parsley and serve with hard rolls.
Savoy cabbage, leeks and potatoes represent a fine example of vegetables which are at their best in winter, and which, in numerous combinations, lend themselves to cold weather soup-making.
Given some protection from the harshest weather, over-wintering garden beds can be a source of leaf lettuce, kale, spinach, leeks, and such “in-earth” treats as parsnips, baby beets, and sweet-and-crunchy carrots. This garden bed of the author’s survived the first of winter’s storms at 7000 feet.