The 12 month growing season in Georgia and my love for ethnic foods had me searching for a wide variety of vegetables I could grow all winter. After combing through many seed catalogs I discovered that some Japanese vegetables prefer cool weather – mostly those of the cold tolerant brassica family that are tastier with a touch of frost. They are delicious when young and tender in a salad, and terrific cooked when mature.
Since the vegetable bed area I installed is in the front yard, very close to the sidewalk, my goal was to make it look ‘pretty’ – I think vegetable gardens can be beautiful if one keeps in mind the leaf color, texture and size. I wanted my neighbors to see the food growing – and to consider where food comes from – and to also enjoy its ornamental appearance. Keeping it green all year was one way to make the garden look more presentable in any season. Cold weather greens fit the bill for taste, nutrition and presentablility. A big plus is that there are few or no pests to bother my crops!
My favorite green winter vegetable has become the versatile Mizuna. It is gorgeous in the garden, starting out with feathery light green leaves which can be used as a cut-and-come again addition to any salad. It is now frequently found in mesclun mix. It tolerates light frosts to about 28 degrees well – and as a member of the Brassica rapa family, frost actually improves the flavor. As the Mizuna matures, it has a thin pale green stem that is succulent stir fried. I no longer serve it raw at this point, although I cut it and it will come again if we have a few warm days.
This year I am trying Shungiku, an edible leaf chrysanthemum often called “garland chrysanthemum” or Chrysanthemum coronarium (syn. Leucanthemum coronarium). A few years ago I tried growing some shungiku in the summer, and was unsuccessful in hot weather. However, this variety with broad leaves from Baker Creek was very successful from a late fall sowing. The leaves of this vegetable are particularly pungent when used as a garnish in “hot pot” style soups – we enjoy it in white miso soup with a few mushrooms and some Shungiku.
Komatsuna is another delicious Japanese vegetable. Its leaves somewhat resemble Tatsoi in that they are spoon shaped, thick, glossy and dark green. However, Komatsuna has a larger leaf and stands taller. It’s another of the Brassica rapa family, and often called Japanese mustard spinach. Some varieties do well in warmer weather, some in cooler. Most often seed catalogs will tell you which weather they prefer. We use tiny komatsuna leaves in salad. They are so sweet after a light frost, and very frost tolerant. Once older, the plant forms a “bunch” with thicker, tasty stems which add a nice texture to stir fries if not overcooked.
Being a broccoli stem fan, I soon realized that many Japanese vegetables are grown partly for their stem. Taste is not always as important in stem as in leaf – it is the texture of the stem, which is often important to many different International cuisines. Stems brought me to finding Celtuce, who’s name alone raised my interest. Celtuce is really a Chinese vegetable, although it has been adopted by the Japanese. This strange looking “Stem Lettuce” has long, pointed leaves, which I use as lettuce when young. As the vegetable matures, a stem grows with the leaves poking out of the top. These stems can be cut to the ground because sometimes they come again. I peel them like I do broccoli stems, and add them to soups and stir fry at the end of the cooking process to add crunch and a mild flavor somewhat reminiscent of cucumber.
If you live in mild weather areas, cold tolerant Asian vegetables can really extend your growing season. They are incredibly nutritious and tasty, and quite easy to grow.