By Gail Vanik
Vic has become known in this area for his outstanding broccoli. Sweet, delicious and nongassy, his winter broccoli is fabulous.
Hungry for some great veggies and tired of buying things at the grocery store throughout last winter, we tried a crop of spring broccoli this year. It grew well and looked great, and we eagerly awaited the time when it would be ready to cut and take home to eat. But there was one little problem. When we cut and steamed them, the taste was nothing like the very same variety that we had grown in the fall. We used the same plants, the same soil mix, mimicked the growing conditions.
So what happened?
As many farmers know, there is a difference in fall vegetables, and many of them simply taste better after a frost or two. Although it’s not rocket science, it is food science, and there’s a reason.
Often called “cold crops,” many of these vegetables simply grow better during cool weather. When the temperatures drop, they react to cold conditions and frosts by producing sugars. If this particular vegetable was bitter, like Brussels sprouts or kale for instance, after a frost or two, their flavor will sweeten and be much more palatable. Hence the reason our spring broccoli didn’t taste anything like the fall crop!
Called “cold sweetening,” this phenomenon occurs when plants break down the starches they have stored over the summer, after a few cold nights, into sugars. Sugar is basically energy and once it appears in the plant’s cell structure, it makes it less susceptible to freezing. It works the same way road salt keeps ice from forming on the roads in winter.
The same holds true with root vegetables, particularly parsnips and carrots. Cold temperatures will cause these otherwise starchy veggies to convert those starches to sugar which is why carrots you leave in the ground and pull closer to Thanksgiving will often taste better. Call it Mother Nature’s antifreeze.
The benefit for the plant is that it doesn’t freeze, of course. The benefit for us is that it makes the vegetables sweeter, and often, as in the case of kale, much better tasting.
Which vegetables are specifically affected? Cruciferous vegetables are among the superstars of this phenomenon. Think about broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower, but there are more as well. Some of these, like kale, can survive temperatures down to 10 degrees, so leaving them in the garden way after you have harvested other crops is no problem. In fact, the colder the better for kale – it will just become sweeter.
Rutabagas, parsnips, and carrots will also taste better when harvested and eaten after a frost. These root vegetables thrive in cool weather and can be easily grown in our area. If you live in an area that usually receives a great deal of snow, cover these with a layer of mulch, straw or leaves raked from your yard and then simply dig into that layer when you wish to harvest. However, be sure to mark where your plants are so that you can find them after the snow begins.
Mustard greens, collard greens and Swiss chard also do well and taste better once we have had a frost or two. Cabbage and kohlrabi are two more superstars in this lineup of easily grown winter vegetables.
While I won’t go into the beneficial properties of each of these veggies individually, most of them are outstanding in terms of nutrition, cholesterol and cancer fighting compounds, vitamins and minerals. Eaten raw, steamed, stirred into soups and stews, they are an important part of your winter diet.
So if the memory of your ripe, juicy summer vegetable garden has begun to fade, take heart because winter vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are right around the corner. After the spring crop flavor failure, I know at our house we are looking forward to some wonderful broccoli!
Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.