Archive for the ‘garden’ category

first (and second) crop

April 13, 2010

On Friday afternoon, I cleared the small garden behind the house. Over the past few years, I’ve cut a lot of dandelion leaves for eating, and I’ve dug up a lot of their taproots to make room for my vegetables, but I had never tried eating the root, despite the enthusiastic exhortations of Euell Gibbons. This day, however, I determined to combine weed control with dinner preparation and sup on dandelion two ways. (I hedged my bets by also setting some focaccia to rise before beginning my work—I figured not only would the sweet carmelized onion topping balance the inevitable bitterness, but the refined flour could cushion my system for the plant’s powerful cleansing properties.)  

Uncle Euell’s recipe for the roots goes like this: “Slice them thinly crosswise, boil in two waters, with a pinch of soda added to the first water, then season with salt, pepper and butter.” My roots were much smaller than his, which he described as having several forks as big as your little finger, so I left them whole. After the first boil, I took a taste and was very pleasantly surprised. There may have been a very slight bitterness, but you had to know to look for it. And their taste—slightly nutty, slightly artichoke-y. Oh edible taproots, where have you been all my life?  As good as they might taste, their appearance leaves something to be desired:  I cooked a handful of walnuts in butter, and just as it was beginning to brown, threw in the chopped blanched roots and tipped a splash of wine from my glass. I cooked only long enough to heat and glaze the root pieces, then stirred in some chives. Still not beautiful, but so, so good. (The lovely red stuff is a survivor from last year’s mesclun patch.)

Leftover rootstuff with some fresh leaves for lunch the next day:   Saturday I moved on to the big garden. It gets lots more sun, so not surprisingly these dandelions were better developed. By now I trusted Uncle Euell unreservedly, so when I saw that most of them had tiny undeveloped blossoms in the center of their crowns, I looked forward to enjoying another one of the dandelion delicacies described in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. These three-food plants were even more trouble to clean and prepare, but eventually I had this: Supposedly the crowns take only one boil, but a quick taste told me this was wrong, wrong, wrong. I put them back on for another boil, then contemplated what to do. I had planned on serving them simply, but the thought of facing an unmitigated bowlful of bitterness and earth was not so appealing.  So I set some water to boil for pasta in one pot; in another, I warmed some olive oil with chopped garlic and red pepper.  The second swim did much to dilute the bitterness. I threw the crowns in the zingy oil for a minute or so, followed by the cooked pasta, then some romano cheese and fresh oregano. Success! It really was quite delicious. There is something satisfying about reaping what one did not sow, about the idea of gathering several meals for nothing. Of course, when you consider I spent several hours on the harvest, another couple of hours cleaning, and another hour or so on preparation, those meals were hardly free, even if one somehow figures in the value of clearing weeds to make way for vegetables. On the other hand, those hours were completely absorbing, full of more variety and fascination than many evenings I’ve spent in the theater at considerable price. I can’t even begin to assign a value to such education and entertainment as I experience in the garden, even before the intentional crops begin to appear. So… I win!

mob mentality

February 28, 2010

From today’s New York Times:

 The Crop Mob, a monthly word-of-mouth (and -Web) event in which landless farmers and the agricurious descend on a farm for an afternoon, has taken its traveling work party to 15 small, sustainable farms. Together, volunteers have contributed more than 2,000 person-hours, doing tasks like mulching, building greenhouses and pulling rocks out of fields.

 “The more tedious the work we have, the better,” Jones said, smiling. “Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together.”

In a rural hamlet like Roseboom, community and camaraderie are naturally occurring phenomena. One neighbor can be counted on to come by with his tractor and till up my plot in May; another is happy to share some old manure. Last year, I left town for a few days not long after planting some apple trees. When I got home my hose had been unspooled and stretched to their site; not knowing how long I was going to be away, my next-door neighbor walked across the lawn each day to give the saplings a healthy soaking. 

Next to these sweet habits of small-town life, the internet-based pop-up communities of today’s fashionable farmophiles might appear vaguely artificial. But this is the time in which we live, and it’s as much a part of our ecology as the climate in which we garden. The smart farmer gets to know his dirt and works with it, not against it. 

This weekend a big snowstorm hit Roseboom, so I stayed in New York. (We had snow here, too, but I didn’t have to drive in it.) And yesterday–via facebook–one of my neighbors offered  to pick up her shovel and attack the pile of snow at the end of my driveway. Good fences may or may not make good neighbors, but good communication is key, and we’re lucky to have so many ways of doing it.

black, black, black is the color

December 30, 2009

Ever since my college days, I’ve had an appreciation for dried beans—at a dollar or so a bag, they provide a creative outlet for a cook AND a week’s worth of meals.

After growing them myself, I’ve moved on from appreciation to something more like reverence, and not just because they taste better when they’re only a few months old. Now I look at a 1-quart bag and I see not just a staple foodstuff but an entire row of beans that has been cultivated, harvested, hulled.

When I think of the times when I didn’t finish a bean pot before it turned—or before I just got tired of it—I’m astonished. It’s taken me this long to break into this year’s harvest because some part of me has been waiting for a special occasion—as though dinner is not occasion enough.

This is my third year planting Cranberry Beans. I also added Marfax Brown, an heirloom variety that’s supposed to do well in rough northern climates, and—on a whim—Black Turtle Beans. I didn’t expect much from the latter, as black beans are so associated with southwestern cooking. But they turned out to be my heaviest producer of the summer.

The problem with black bean soup is that the inky beans turn any other vegetable an unappetizing gray. I suppose this is why so many black bean soups in restaurants are pureed. But somehow pureed soups seem too fancy for Roseboom. I considered supping on beans alone, but then I found some purple potatoes in my pantry… the perfect solution!

While I was in Baton Rouge for the holidays, I raided my Granny’s backyard kumquat tree. (Yes, Virginia, there is citrus to be picked in Louisiana this time of year.) I used these to make a kind of chutney of sliced kumquat, onions, coriander, honey—just right for brightening all that dark earthiness.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung

December 30, 2009

This time of year, there isn’t a lot of tenderness in this landscape—vegetation tends to either toughen or collapse in the hard, cold air. We know from experience the greens and pinks will return, but if you look around and try to imagine this happening, it takes a mighty effort to suspend your disbelief. Cyclical or not, the coming of spring is pretty incredible if you stop to think about it.

Gardening is full of little miracles. I had been in my house two summers when a funny-looking sprout appeared in the narrow bed along the front of my house. Something about it looked distinctly non-weedy, so I decided to let it go and see what happened. The next time I looked, it was not only unlovely but large and forbidding. If I were not so lazy, that would have been the end of that experiment, but I just wasn’t prepared to put on my gloves and dig out the thorny thing that afternoon. Or the next or the next or the next. Which is a good thing, because when the next year rolled around, the messy mystery plant revealed itself as a rose. 

Furrows be glad, though earth is bare,

one more seed is planted there.

Give up your strength the seed to nourish

that in time the flower may flourish.

After spending the last year or so getting up close and personal with my dirt, I’ve been hyper-aware of botanical content of so many Christmas and Advent carols. Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. Winds through the olive trees softly did blow.  Then down came the tallest branch—it touched Mary’s hand. And the first tree in the green wood, it was the holly. The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit and always green.

For department stores and five-year-olds, Christmas 2009 is already a memory, but according to the liturgical calendar there are a few days left to enjoy those once-a-year tunes. Here’s one of my favorites.

hitting refresh

September 9, 2009

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I started working for a summer opera festival while still in college, and have organized my professional life around this summer idyll—if such an intense period can be properly called an idyll—ever since. So I’ve never lost touch with the back-to-school feeling; September, much more than the new calendar year, always feels like a fresh beginning to me.

Over the past few days, I’ve been emptying and scrubbing closets and cabinets. You have to be in the right frame of mind for such a task. The rules vary according to the object—a bag of dried chiles is one thing, a blazer another—but if it has gone unused for too long, whatever that is, it has to go.

Unless it can be used immediately. Saturday I found lots of half-bags dried fruits and nuts, plus a half-can of oats, so I made granola. The basic technique comes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the idea of using some olive oil comes from something I read in the New York Times, the ingredients and proportions were dictated by my pantry, and the seasoning… well, that was just me.

Savory-sweet granola

1. Toast a scant cup of steel-cut oats in a baking pan set over two stove burners.

2. Once they begin to color, add 2 cups slivered almonds and 1 cup walnut pieces. Stir until these color as well.

3. Mix together about a tablespoon each of honey and olive oil, then drizzle over nut mixture.

4. Lightly crush about 2 tablespoons fresh dried coriander, and distribute this, along with some salt, over the nut mixture.

5. Combine so that nuts and oats are slightly sticky all over. Hands are the best way to accomplish this.

6. Bake in a 300-degree oven for 20 minutes.

7. Stir in about 2 cups of random dried fruit (I had cranberries, cherries, golden raisins) and several grinds of black pepper. Taste—maybe a little more salt? pepper?

8. Let cool in pan, stirring occasionally.

Fall cleaning is one way of marking the change of season. The Cherry Valley Harvest Party is another. And since it’s a potluck, it’s yet another opportunity to rid yourself of some excess. It’s tricky, though. Decluttering your garden for a potluck does not offer the easy virtue of packing up your unwanted stuff for Goodwill. For Goodwill, not only is the donator (of Dan Brown novels bought in an airport, of rayon dresses with colossal shoulder pads) anonymous, the recipients are theoretical: someone will surely be very glad for that coat with the enormous lapels. Surely.

At a potluck, no one is anonymous.  It is a performance, and for your neighbors—those who have always had their doubts about you, anyway, as well as those who have shown you so much kindness and generosity that if you sacrificed your few non-blighted tomatoes, it still wouldn’t be enough. If you’re going to get rid of squash in this forum, it better be good.

 Potluck Pasta Salad 

1. Pick all the summer squash that are ready to be picked (this year I have green scallop, along with the regular oblong yellow). Slice, salt, and sauté in olive oil. You only want one layer in the skillet, so you will probably need to do this in several batches. As you remove each batch, place in a bowl and tear lots of fresh basil on top. Continue layering warm squash and basil.

2. Start some water boiling for pasta. Put in a handful of peeled cloves of garlic, as well as some salt. When the water comes to a full boil, fish out the garlic cloves and throw in the pasta. The pasta shapes should be about the same size as the squash pieces.

3. Chop the garlic roughly, then use a fork and some salt to mash to a paste. Scrape into the bowl with the squash and basil. (If you like your garlic extremely pungent, use it fresh, without boiling. If you want it even more mellow, you can leave it to boil with the pasta… good luck finding it, though.)

4. Drain pasta. Add to bowl. Give it a stir. If everything isn’t nice and shiny, add a little more olive oil.

5. I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but I have a nifty pot with a strainer that fits right inside. So I can lift out the pasta and keep the boiling water for the next step. OR you could just start boiling the corn water at some earlier point. OR you could put another pot under the colander when you dump the pasta…. in any case, throw a few ears of fresh sweet corn into salted boiling water, then let it come back to a boil, then drain. When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels and add them to the bowl.

6. Stir, taste, adjust. If your party is tomorrow, put it in the fridge. If it’s in a few hours, leave, covered, on the counter.

7. Just before leaving the house, give the dish another stir, and taste. Do what needs to be done. The basil will have fully infused the squash by now. It will also be wilted and blackish, so add some more fresh green leaves, along with some crumbled feta.000_0920

When I dropped off my stuff at the Herkimer Goodwill, the guy accepting it shook his head. “I don’t know how people do it.” To my mute question, he replied, “Give away books.” Yeah, I don’t know either. For a moment I found myself rethinking my choices—but then I walked away. I had that same flash of the hoarder’s instinct when I tasted the squash—but then I picked up my Pyrex and off I went. Turns out that between the barbeque and the beets and the brownies, I didn’t even have room for my little masterpiece on my plate. And I didn’t miss it one bit. Let the new year begin—I got everything I need!

transitions

September 4, 2009

After a summer of being pulled in many directions, I’ve finally had the luxury of spending a week mostly at home. And after months of yearning for some relaxed time to putter in the garden and kitchen, I suddenly found myself craving foods some distance from the ground. I made macaroni and cheese (more than once). I enjoyed assorted pastries at the coffee shop. Coconut shrimp. Grilled cheese with bacon. An ice-cream sandwich with neon green mint filling.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, at least once in awhile. But what of my beloved garden? Was I just getting bored? (It is, after all, the season of squash…)

I think it’s actually something more complicated, something not unlike the semi-conscious self-protective distancing that can come to summer romances when participants fear a terrific new habit of being will not survive the winter. I know, of course, that I can maintain some contact with my soil in the cold months ahead—there will be shell beans and potatoes and winter squash, and if I get my act together there will be a freezer full of pesto, gleaming jars of beets, and who knows what else. But there will be no more lettuce growing outside my kitchen window. I’ll have to find my elbows and learn to shop at Fairway again. This is not a bad thing, but it is a little sad. As all transitions can be.

But why anticipate the chill ahead? Yesterday evening I determined to devote myself to the garden, and what began as mere duty immediately felt both comfortable and thrilling.

Time to bring in the coriander.000_0904

The green beans don’t produce much anymore, but I’ve left the plants because they provide an occasional slim, sun-warmed pod for snacking. As for the shell beans, there are dried pods on just a few of the plants, but I went ahead and brought those in, too. Starting the bean-bowls makes me feel better about the winter ahead.000_0905

Brussels sprouts still aren’t ready, but they’re fun to monitor.000_0899

The beets and carrots are thriving, but they can be left for later. The squash, on the other hand, cannot. I grilled a pile of them in the shadow the sunflowers, which are finally coming into their own, then layered them, warm, with lots of basil and a feathery fennel-tasting leaf that is part of my patch of salad greens.000_0908

Summer is on its way out, to be sure, but all the more reason to fully embrace its last days.000_0888

how much of what we did was good?

August 27, 2009

Gardening, like life, involves making choices, and often information pertinent to important choices comes to light later than we would have liked. In Roseboom, I am fairly isolated from major media outlets, and though I had heard a bit about the blight from my neighbors, I didn’t realize the scope of the problem at first. By the time I started looking up articles in the New York Times, it was midsummer. I had taken out a few of the hardest-hit plants, but overall I had adopted a laissez-faire attitude: if a plant had more green than brown, it stayed where it was. Then I began to read how the recent upsurge in amateur gardening might have actually contributed to the problem; novice gardeners, not recognizing the warning signs, actually provided incubators for the plague to gather strength and then hop to the next neighbor. I read this about the same time that a bucket of unsullied green tomatoes, brought inside after being plucked from an infected host, collapsed into slime in just a couple days time. And so, it was time for drastic measures. My remaining plants were in various states of health, but not one was pristine, so out they all went. No mercy. Feeling very responsible, I piled them in the farthest back corner of the property and forgot about them, mostly.  But not long ago, among the withering stems, I noticed a few bright spots. Not only had the yellow cherries failed to succumb, they were ripening fast, even as the plant they grew on shriveled to nothing. (Although it had spent a couple of weeks among corpses of the afflicted, it seemed bothered less by the blight than by being severed from the soil.) It recalled an image of a plump baby attached to the breast of a grey, gaunt woman somewhere in rural Appalachia. I’ve probably harvested about 50 little tomatoes at this point, and I’m glad for every one of them, but I can’t help but wonder what my windowsills would look like if I had left that poor plant’s feet in the ground.000_0875