If you have made good use of your greenhouse for starting off winter vegetables last spring and summer you will be feeling pretty smug about the so-called veg crisis right now. Even me saying ‘so called’ is pretty smug, but as all good gardeners know, this is not really a veg crisis at all but a ‘summer veg that we want to eat all year round without a break’ crisis. Courgettes and iceberg lettuce in February? Brrr… No thank you. We gardeners know better than to attempt to grow courgettes in the depths of winter, the very idea is ridiculous. Greenhouses are good, but not that good, without vast inputs of expensive power and lots of trouble. And why would we bother? There is no cavolo nero crisis, or spring greens crisis, because they are adapted to grow in the cold months, and so a cold snap isn’t a major problem to them. Those that were started in greenhouses in little pots and plugs in April or July are now sitting happily out on our plots unprotected and providing beautiful deep green leafy veg, for frying in butter to mix into creamy mashed potatoes to make colcannon, or to chop into hearty ribollita.
Though purple sprouting broccoli in particular needs a long growing season, it is not time to sow it yet. Sow too early and it will hit its stride in autumn amid all of the rest of the bounty, rather than holding off until these lean post-Christmas days of cold and crises, when it is so welcome. So plan to sow in March for planting out in April or May, and sow a few each of early and late varieties (usually called just that, no fancy names) so that the season is spread out. Sow cavolo nero and other kales in April, May and June for winter long crops. Spring greens can be left until a little later and are sown mid- to late summer for planting out in early autumn. Growing vegetables for winter and for the hungry gap that comes along when all autumn stored produce has run out is a year-long job, but not a particularly tricky one. Just keep the cold months in the back of your mind all through summer and take to the greenhouse to tend to them occasionally.
And it is also a good idea to get a few hearty brassica recipes under your belt for winter, so that when you start hankering for spiralised courgette and there are none to be found, you have a lovely, warming, winter-brassica-rich dish to fall back on.
This Italian winter soup translates as ‘reboiled’, and traditionally it is made one day for eating the next.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
400g can chopped tomatoes
250g cooked cannellini beans
250ml water or stock
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 slice white bread, ideally stale
A few handfuls of cavolo nero, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Small handful of chopped parsley
Heat the olive oil in a pan and gently fry the onions, carrots and garlic until softened and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, beans, water or stock, and oregano and bring to the boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the crust and tear up the bread and add it to the pot, along with the cavolo nero, and simmer for another 20 minutes. Season well with salt and pepper and serve. Drizzle each serving with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley. Or follow tradition and leave overnight to let the flavours marry together, then reheat and serve the following day.