Archive for June 2011

not on the breakfast menu at the cooperstown diner

June 28, 2011

Strawberries with fennel and black pepper cornbread

what [plants] want

June 26, 2011

Friday night I actually escaped work early enough to have dinner at home, but I found myself too tired — not too tired to cook, but too tired to eat. My intestines recoiled at the thought of digesting that last serving of  roasted beets/walnuts/arugula waiting in the fridge. I mentally tried on the idea of something simpler — say pasta with olive oil — but my salivary glands were unresponsive. And a lovely fresh salad from the garden — well, that seemed like a whole lot of chewing. I was tempted to just go to bed, but Saturday was the day off and I didn’t want to be prematurely pulled out of bed by an rumbling stomach. After pondering a bit longer, I knew what I wanted: a few walnuts, a couple of leaves of wild arugula, and a length of garlic scape pounded in some olive oil, eaten with the last of the bread.

Saturday morning I made a quick trip to the farmers’ market and then put on my grubby gardening clothes to see what I could do for this year’s garden tenants. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, talks about thinking like a plant, learning to give them what they want. “Once you understand what makes plants tick,” she writes, “you’ll understand what you need to do to help them grow well.”

One thing young plants want is a space clear of competition. Weeding is never-ending, and I have to confess, I kind of like it. Last month, with renovations on my kitchen way behind schedule, I took my rage out to the garden, patiently wresting the long, hairy roots from the soil. I really should have been attacking the layer of carpentry dust that covered everything in the house, but it seemed so pointless, with the work not done yet. Why waste my time washing dishes in a construction site when I could be clearing the soil for my summer grocery store?

Except: even if I possessed the skill, determination and luck to get every last dandelion completely out, down to the tip of its taproot — and I don’t — a soft breeze across the downy heads left in my neighbor’s yard will soon sully the soil again. In the garden, there is no such thing as finished. And the same thing is true in making a home.

The renovations are down to the last details now, and I’m able to keep the house pretty clean, but some part of me has continued to resist really inhabiting it — I’ve been waiting for the installation of those shelves, the arrival of that last piece of furniture before I finally put everything in its place.

One day last week, a couple of hours into a really thorough job of weeding the legume section, I made the mistake of allowing myself to take in the entire garden, rather than the single plant I squatted next to. Completely overwhelming. The only way to avoid despair was to bring my focus back to plant-by-plant hospitality — pulling weeds, pinching suckers, training tendrils to wrap around supports. I didn’t do any of these jobs perfectly, but I knew the plants were going to be much healthier — and more productive — because of my efforts.

Something about the work of tuning in to the needs of my little green tenants made me more attentive to my own requirements. When I was through in the garden, I went inside and moved a small chest across from the kitchen sink to stand in for the island that will not arrive for weeks.

Having that workspace — temporary and imperfect though it may be — has transformed my ability to operate in the kitchen. Yesterday, during a late morning rainstorm, I came in from the garden and worked on putting together meals for the next few days. I started out by roasting beets and fennel from the morning’s market. Since the oven was on, I threw in the last of 2010’s butternut squash (time to clear the pantry and begin making way for 2011).

I usually make squash stew with ginger and all kinds of sweet, warming spices. Since I didn’t have any ginger — and since I wanted something a little more green and summery — I dug up a small piece of horseradish from the garden and ground that to a paste along with some of last year’s coriander harvest, a garlic scape, a mint leaf, and a healthy pile of black peppercorns. I also made the stew somewhat thinner than usual, ending up with a soup that was both sweet and bracing. Somewhere along the way I toasted the seeds and tossed them with the beets and fennel for a salad of many textures. After a good night’s sleep and a day of work in the garden, my stomach was ready for it. Just what I wanted.

silver lining for a spring exile

June 17, 2011

Kitchen and bathroom renovations kept me away from Roseboom for most of the spring, so I got a late start planting. On the bright side, though, my pantry shelves are still well-stocked with last years’ harvest, something that isn’t usually the case this time of year: jars of shell beans, little bags of dried cherry tomatoes, a pile of potatoes and—wonder of wonders—a closet full of winter squash! (Turns out that, wrapped in newspaper, they really do keep for months and months.) Since June tends to be cold and damp in early summer, it’s been nice to have the fixins for comfort food on hand: White beans stewed with thyme and olive oil. Roasted tomato cornbread. Spicy butternut-peanut stew. Garlicky black beans with chilies and coriander. This is the kind of cooking that sticks to your ribs and sustains you while you work to make the ground hospitable for another years’ worth of food.

And now, in the third week of June, my newest green tenants are beginning to earn their keep. Actually, this weekend you could see the whole cycle of lettucey life in the kitchen plot. Last years’ kale survived the winter and, by last week, had bolted spectacularly. In the space next door, arugula seedlings are beginning to assume something resembling their grown-up form. The few loose heads at prime eating stage are random self-seeders, children of last years’ residents.

Gone-to-seed kale is not nearly so disagreeable as some of its relatives, so when I pulled up the all-but-spent stems, I made sure to strip them of their leaves. Waste not, want not. Whew! Greens season is why I went to the trouble of rescuing this monster sink.

And then the arugula. Last year I let a few plants stick around through their bitter old maturity so I could collect their seeds. For whatever reason—o me of little faith—I didn’t quite trust the little home-harvested beads to germinate, so I sowed them extra thickly. But as is apparent from the picture, I needn’t have worried.

Now, actually, I’m concerned about thinning fast enough to provide the growing plants with the space they need. So I find myself with a luxury of tender young arugula—which happens to make a delicious bed for hot potatoes.

Quite often, the garden is throwing off exactly what I want to eat exactly when I want to eat it. Cool cucumbers, bland squash, dripping tomatoes at the height of summer; earthy potatoes and dense shell beans as the weather turns colder. May and June tend to be a bit more challenging; the winter stores are usually dwindling by then, and much as I love the first astringent greens that signal spring, they’re just a little too wet and flimsy to sustain me through the cold, rainy season. But since the renovations kept me out of the pantry as surely as a row of crushed eggshells keeps the slugs away from the lettuce, I have the best of both worlds this year.