December 9, 2004:I’d read in gardening
manuals about the once-common practice of blanching celery
by hilling up earth around the developing stalks. Antique
varieties of celery were often more pungent and fibrous than
modern cultivars and they benefited from the blanching treatment
by becoming milder in flavor and tenderer in texture. Nowadays
the so-called self blanching celeries completely dominate
the market to the point where I can say I’ve never seen
celery that was blanched by “earthing up” for
sale on a produce rack. My curiosity about the blanching process
was piqued when I heard food snobs whisper dark rumors that
modern celeries are watery, fraudulent ciphers standing in
for the real thing.
So, one year I decided to grow an antique red celery and
blanch it to see if a market existed for “the real thing.”
The labor involved first in hilling up the celery and later
washing the harvested stalks free of soil caused me to blanch.
In that sense my experiment was a complete success; I learned
why I would never try to blanch antique celeries again. But
now it’s fall again. With the blurred days of the busy
season past and a more reflective period ahead of me for a
few months it’s time for another experiment.
For the last several years I’ve planted a couple of
rows of soup celery in early summer. Soup celery, or smallage,
is an old fashioned celery with slender stems that can be
cut several times like parsley. Our customers with a Greek
background enjoy this celery for its strong flavor and a few
restaurants buy it for their stock pots but this is one heirloom
vegetable that seemingly hasn’t got much market potential.
But what if I blanched it? No, I don’t intend to get
out a shovel and repeat my experiment of years past. Instead
I’m going to see if I can’t economically blanch
this thin stemmed celery by covering it with black plastic.
My first step has been to cut the celery to the ground. The
root system is already well developed, so the plants will
bounce back from their pruning promptly. I popped a series
of wire hoops fashioned from #10 gauge galvanized wire cut
into 10 foot lengths over the 40 inch wide planting beds.
I draped eighty inch wide black plastic mulch film over the
hoops and then pinned it to the ground with dirt clods. Outside
the black plastic tunnels the sun is bright, and the breeze
is bracing and Nordic. Inside the dark tunnels the conditions
are Hawaiian. To avoid cooking the plants I’ve cut air
holes at each end of the tunnels. If all works as I hope,
my experiment will prove I can grow tender, buttery yellow,
slender stems of flavorful celery for hungry, winter shoppers.
I have reason to hope; some of my experiments have worked.
Three years ago I decided to grow seven kinds of radicchio.
When Globe, a restaurant in San Francisco, asked me If I would
be interested in promoting a farm dinner in January where
all the produce on their menu would come from our farm I said
sure. But as an experiment in marketing I asked them if we
couldn’t put a twist to the concept by having every
single dish on the menu contain some form of radicchio. I
figured that a radicchio dinner was a novel idea even in sated,
jaded, Babylon by the Bay. For too many people radicchio is
still “radiculoso” or “red-yucky-o”,
the bitter red stuff in salad mixes that they push to the
side of their plates.
The concept was novel and the dinner was a success. Nothing
else was happening in January. Food writers hungry for a story
were drawn to the event to see if Globe could rise to the
challenge and base a whole meal around a bitter green. Cooks
came from competing restaurants to taste for themselves. There
was a buzz in the food scene that lasted well after the dinner,
though a couple of chefs were heard to grumble that Globe
had cheated by failing to come up with a radicchio-based desert.
Since people were still talking about the dinner, a year
later we held a second one. Though we could no longer promote
a radicchio dinner as an experiment, the second meal was a
success, and this time even the desert, a caramelized radicchio
gelato, was made with chicory. But last year we held no radicchio
dinner. People were asking about it but my inspiration had
gone south. Literally.
I had planted seven varieties of radicchio and the crop had
germinated well. I left the farm one Friday evening in early
fall and the long lines of tender radicchio seedlings were
already about an inch high. I came back to work on a Monday
and found every radicchio cropped to the ground. Where seedlings
had lined out the field only two days before there were bald
seed beds splashed with puddles of goose poop.
There is a pond at the back of our field. A migrating flock
of Canada geese on their way to Mexico had stopped over for
a meal that featured seven kinds of radicchio prepared differently
in every course from the canapés to the postprandial
cigar with radicchio-infused grappa. This year our radicchio
crop looks beautiful and I’m going to propose a culinary
experiment to Jason, the chef at Globe. I want to see if he
can cook up a radicchio dinner where, for a main course, a
bed of our bittersweet, braised Italian chicories serves as
a tasteful final resting place for a lovely, cooked Canada