Miriam's Garden: The first glimpse of spring in the garden

As I write this, it's on the chilly side. This morning we had another frost. Thankfully, it appears the fruit trees are unharmed. The magnolia -- in full, fragrant bloom -- got only a little frost damage on the flower tips.

Even with the chill, we're getting ready for the season. My husband, David, is putting up a new screen door that he made. He's wearing long-johns under his jeans, topped with a sweatshirt and a heavy wool shirt. I grabbed a puffy down vest for my morning garden inspection, then instead wished I'd put on a jacket.

Still, the day's beautiful. Bright sunshine, blue sky. Redbuds glow violet in the woods, which leaf out greener every day. Breezes are light and variable. I sound like the weather person. They're calling for frost on this night but walking around the garden in twilight we breathe in the fragrance of lilacs and apple blossoms, newly burst open.

A portion of my garden is planted. Freshly tilled with our new bright-red tiller, which turned under the thick mat of winter rye ground-cover. There are five rows of onions, three rows of potatoes, a row of peas and a half row of radishes. The radishes look healthy, albeit a little crowded. I've been thinning them mercilessly. Onions are slightly weather-beaten, plus the cats have been playing around the little shoots, but they'll be plenty once harvest time comes.

As to the peas -- pleeze. I'll only say that I've called Johnny's Selected Seeds to get a couple more packets. Guess the weather's been too "variable."

The other week, while doing a little book-selling public relations, I visited the charming riverside town of New Bern, N.C. Spring is really happening there -- warm and flowery with show-off white and pink dogwoods and neon azaleas.

My trip included a tour through the kitchen garden at Tryon Palace, a historic site and the reconstructed colonial capitol of North Carolina. The herbs, fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are mostly heirloom varieties. They're used for the colonial-cooking demonstrations in the nearby kitchen office.

The garden itself, though designed from the past, gave me a glimpse into my garden's future. A little sparse now, but soon it will be busy and producing. Unlike the Palace's mannerly beds, I won't be espaliering any cherry or fig or apple trees against a brick wall, but maybe, I'll try cabbage once again. Tryon's mature heads of 'Early Dutch Flat' and pointed 'Jersey Wakefield' cabbage were majestic. Apparently, the cabbage bed also was used by the English governor as a hiding place for gunpowder, right before the Revolutionary War, in 1775.

There were tall rows of garlic, which tall gardener, Colby Griffin, posed with. Rows of colorful lettuce and Egyptian walking onions, capped with white pom-pom flower tops.

I marveled at the plump bulbs of fennel; they don't grow like that here. The garden's gray sandy loam and warm breezes aid these warmer-weather plants. They also nurture the purple and green artichokes growing fat on healthy bushes. Janet Loader, one of the gardeners and my tour guide, trimmed off a purple choke for me to take home.

In the tomato patch was gardener Hadley Cheris. She'd put in her plants the previous day. 'Brandywine,' 'Cherokee Purple,' 'German Johnson' and 'Black Cherry' are favorites. " 'Brandywine' has the taste that keeps people coming back," she said. To control aphids, she'll be tucking variegated nasturtiums around the tomatoes, something I'm going to try this year. Basil is going in, too. "Maybe it's not a companion plant," Ms. Cheris said, "but it tastes good and it looks pretty."

Here in sunny, chilly, changeable Greene County, most gardeners don't have their tomatoes in yet, but asparagus season has begun. At the Tryon Palace kitchen garden, asparagus is all but over. Ms. Loader snapped off the last spears and gave them to me, reminding me to rinse them first and eat them raw. I did just that later that day, enjoying every crisp bite.

When I returned home, our friend who grows asparagus had gifted us with a bag of his spears.

David worked on the finishing touches for the screen door. The bottom part has stronger mesh so the cats can't scratch through. He complained that commercial latches and hardware were not designed for hand-crafted doors. One size doesn't fit all. Then he nailed on a couple of pieces of trim, joining them at an angle. "It needed an elbow bumper," he explained. I just took notes and got dinner ready. We had this salad, made with our friend's fresh asparagus. Pennsylvania grown. Happy spring!

To learn more, visit tryonpalace.org.

Charred Asparagus Caesar Salad with Pickled Spring Onions and Toasted Pecans

PG tested

I enjoyed this salad at a wonderful restaurant. Chef & The Farmer, run by a husband-and- wife team in the small town of Kinston, N.C. Chef Vivian Howard, a 2011 James Beard Award semi-finalist, shared her recipe. I adapted it for home cooks. I am always thrilled to find a new and delicious way to prepare asparagus. There are several steps to this but you can pickle the onion, grill the veg and make the dressing all in advance. Any leftover dressing keeps for a day or so in the fridge.

Pickled Onions

  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup halved and thinly sliced knobby onion or sweet white onion

  • 1/4 cup water

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • Kosher salt

Grilled Asparagus and Mushrooms

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

  • 1 large bunch medium-fat asparagus, tough ends snapped off

  • 8 ounces firm button mushrooms, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

  • Kosher salt

Salad and Dressing

  • 1 egg yolk

  • 1 tablespoon warm (not hot) water

  • 1 tablespoon Champagne- or white-wine vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 1 anchovy fillet

  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled

  • 1/2 cup grapeseed or other neutral oil

  • 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 large head romaine or curly red-leaf lettuce, cut or torn into bite-size pieces, rinsed and spun dry

  • 1/2 cup toasted pecans

For Pickled Onions: Mix onions, water, lemon juice and big pinch salt in small bowl. Let stand 30 minutes. Drain.

For Grilled Asparagus and Mushrooms: Brush large grill pan or cast-iron skillet with 1 tablespoon oil. Rub asparagus with 1 tablespoon oil; season with salt. Heat grill pan over medium-high heat 3 minutes until hot but not smoking. Add asparagus, in batches if necessary, and grill, turning once, 5 to 7 minutes, until just crisp-tender with a little color, reducing heat if necessary. Transfer to platter in single layer, otherwise vegetables will steam, cautioned Chef Howard. Mix mushrooms with remaining 1 tablespoon oil; season with salt. Grill in single layer 3 to 4 minutes, turning once, until tender and golden. Transfer to platter in single layer. When asparagus is cool, cut on bias into 2-inch sections.

For Dressing: Put egg yolk, warm water, vinegar, lemon juice and mustard in food processor; process to blend. With machine running, drop anchovy and garlic through feed tube. Process until nearly pureed. With machine running, slowly add oil through feed tube, in slow, steady stream, processing until thickened and emulsified. If it starts to look too thick, add a teaspoon or two warm water. Add parmesan; pulse to mix. Scrape into bowl or cup. Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble: In salad bowl, toss romaine with dressing to coat well. Taste, adding more salt and pepper or lemon juice, if you like. Arrange asparagus, mushrooms, onion and pecans on top. Drizzle with a dressing and serve. Makes 4 servings.

-- Chef Vivian Howard, Chef & The Farmer Restaurant

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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