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spring & fall

September 16, 2013

Yesterday I began taking down the tomatoes—not that they need much help from me. The heavy vines have been pulling their spindly “supports” down for weeks, sometimes ripping them right out of the earth. Greenery is browning fast, some branches shriveling to dusty nothingness while others, still juicy, play host to a dark creeping fungus. And everywhere, cracked fruits blacken, ooze, spill, stink.

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Tomatoland in early fall is not a very nice place to visit—so says the human. But if the plants could describe their ambition, this would probably be it. For this moment, the tender seedlings climbed toward the sky; they put out their modest yellow flowers to tempt the bees and butterflies; they dug deep, sucking water and nutrients out of the soil. All so the fruits could swell, burst, and spill their seeds back to the earth.

It’s all very lovely but, alas, I have to interrupt the cycle. Those ratty vines and rotting fruits can also harbor pests and disease that will re-emerge next year, so I drag the spent plants to the back of the property, then (ick) pick up bucketloads of liquefying fruits. Every few minutes I’m startled by the sound of a pinecone falling five, six stories from the tall trees on the north rim of my property. Across the street, someone tends a grave in the hamlet’s cemetery.

There are a few bright, unblemished specimens, so those go into the kitchen, but after a day spent among the dying I’ve kind of lost my appetite for tomatoes. Early summer—when I would tenderly pinch suckers on the way out of the house, then leave for work with the furry green scent of young tomato plants on my fingers—seems so long ago.

Except…in the shadow of the compost pile, for a late-starting volunteer, it’s still spring. Small green fruits have only just begun to swell on the vines, which show not a hint of decay anywhere. There are even a few flowers left on the plant’s shaded backside. Sitting with it is a nice way to restore the senses after a day of less-pleasant chores. But from a tomato’s point of view, this may be the saddest plant of all, as it will most certainly be cut down by a killing frost before today’s hard green spheres have a chance to swell…color…soften…crack…collapse…spill.Image

in its own time

April 29, 2013

These last weeks, I’ve been daydreaming what I’d find when I could finally quit the city and revisit my garden. Usually I’m able to make a few quick trips as the long dormancy ends and spring’s slow unfurling begins, but not this year. From some 200 miles away, I imagined the rhubarb and asparagus (asparagi?) poking their tender heads through the soil and slowly turning woody in my absence. I remembered the thousand coriander seeds dropped during last fall’s sloppy harvest, undoubtedly sprouted by now. I wondered if the strawberries had survived their first winter. I hoped the apple blossoms would not get nipped by this year’s late, late frosts. I accepted the inevitable march of weeds across the expanses I cleared last fall.

Finally, on Thursday, I made my move, only to discover that my mind had raced ahead of reality, as usual. Spring is only just coming to Otsego County. I had to brush some soil aside to find the pink, furled rhubarb heads. There’s no sign yet of the asparagus, or even the semi-invasive coriander. Since the apple trees are barely budding, there have been no blossoms to nip. Even the weeds are slightly disappointing.

I’d wanted to get the first seeds into the ground as quickly as possible, so the lack of activity seems like a good thing. But once I get a little closer to the dirt, I find that there are lots of things that need attention first. The weeds may be small, but they are already more plentiful than I’d realized. As usual, the earth has heaved up a new crop of rocks, which must be cleared. The creeping mat of daisies is edging into peony territory. And there are pleasant surprises that call for a grateful pause: The wild arugula is back, as is the lovage, sorrel, horseradish. A few “biodegradable” stakes, undegraded so far, can be retrieved and reused. Overwintered parsnips can be dug for dinner.

There’s also cleanup indoors. Most of the remaining storage onions have fed upon themselves to the point of collapse by now; I salvage three and compost the rest. Potatoes, too, have begun reaching their weird tentacles forth as they plan for the next generation; while they’re still edible, many of them will need to go back into the garden in a couple of weeks. A couple of winter squash have succumbed to mold, but 12 are pristine—I’m going to have to work hard to get through those before the garden starts really producing again. (Gnocchi, perhaps? And definitely fewer butternut vines in this year’s garden.) And there’s all the food in jars, but I seem to be making pretty good progress there. The many pickles will get me through the days of beans and rice, and sweet preserves make a nice accompaniment to morning oatmeal.

Yesterday evening, after several days of labor, I was finally ready to begin putting a few things in the ground: bunching onions, two kinds of greens, peas, radishes, beets, turnips. Overnight, a soft rain tamped them down into their clean new beds and created just enough muck to give me the day off. My mind continues to run ahead, but the garden will happen in its own time—as it always does.

 

all in the timing

May 16, 2012

If I could choose the growing season’s opening crop, rhubarb would not be it. Not that there’s anything wrong with rhubarb — I’m quite fond of it — but to my mind the whole point of having a garden is to enjoy variations on the best recipe ever, which involves gilding perfect produce with a bit of olive oil and salt, heat optional, maybe a squeeze of lemon if you’re feeling fancy. This recipe works on just about everything that comes out of the ground, except for those stringy stems of oxalic acid that are the first thing to appear on my plot every spring. They require cooking. They require sweetening. Worst of all, they usually require a recipe, one with actual measurements and timings and temperatures. This is not the way I prefer to cook. While I love to tuck into a rhubarb pie, I’d rather let someone else be in charge of the baking…

But a few months ago I came across this recipe, and I’ve been looking forward to rhubarb season ever since. After gathering some rhubarb and cilantro yesterday, I thought about toying with the spice mixture but then decided, just this once, I would try the recipe exactly as written. Well, almost exactly — I love Mark Bittman’s tendency toward simplification, but I find it really does make a difference if you sizzle your spices before adding them. It was not too much extra effort to pop the mustard seeds in a little oil before proceeding with the recipe.Image

The rhubarb dal went so well that I thought I’d try another recipe (two in one day!). I’ve been reading a great cookbook called Bean by Bean, and I imagine I’ll be making many concoctions inspired by the recipes therein once we hit bean season. For now, though, I’m really glad to have come across a recipe for injera, the Ethiopian flatbread. Injera serves as a base for stew-like foods, as well as a simple utensil. As it turns out, it couldn’t be easier to make: 1 ½ cups water, 1 cup teff flour, 1 teaspoon yeast, left to ferment for 12-48 hours and then griddled. For breakfast this morning I had injera spread with leftover dal, garnished with last year’s onions, pickled with beets, maple syrup, cardamom and ginger. Yum.Image

Rhubarb appears like a gift in early spring, after a winter of neglect, but then requires some serious attention to get it from the plot to the plate. It’s just as well, really, since I have plenty of time to mess around in the kitchen at the moment. The ground is still too wet to work, the weather still a bit too cool to plant most summer vegetables. Once those crops go in, they will require a sustained effort to bring them to harvest, but once picked, they’ll need only the simplest of preparations. Thank goodness.

Perhaps rhubarb’s appearance is better timed than I realized…

project grapefruit

December 20, 2011

When the kid came by selling fruit, I was happy to do my part to support the school band. I went for the large box of grapefruit, at $30, not really paying attention to what “large” meant.Turns out large means three dozen, at close to a pound each. (See those jars in the lower left? They are half-gallons.) That’s a lot of grapefruit. For the past couple of days I’ve been on a two-a-day diet. Last night, I rolled up my sleeves and began the real attack. First, I prepared the peels (saved from fresh consumption) for candying.These went into a sugar syrup to simmer while I began the marmalade. My research had turned up two basic techniques. One involved a laborious separation of outer rind and pith (ugh) while the other counteracted bitterness – and retained pectin – by boiling the fruits whole for a couple of hours, then chopping everything together. Obviously I chose this one.

After their scalding soak, the grapefruits looked like the saddest dodge balls ever.

A recipe of marmalade called for two grapefruit, which seemed hardly worth the trouble, so I planned three batches, each spiced differently. My mom is big on savory applications for marmalade, so I had her in mind for the first, which included a heaping teaspoon (each) of cracked black pepper, crushed coriander seed, minced ginger, and salt. The remains of the ginger (probably about two tablespoons) went into pot #2. The last batch simmered with the crushed contents of 5 cardamom pods; at the end, I added a few glugs of rosewater.

The tedious peel-separating recipes call for you to boil the marmalade for a couple of hours. In the version I chose the long pre-boil meant that, once assembled, this recipe required only about 20 minutes in the pot. So by the time I got the last one ready, the first was gelled and ready to can.

Last but not least, I was hoping to make some version of an Indian lemon pickle, but using grapefruit. After studying several recipes I couldn’t really figure out the logic. Julie Sahni has one that uses a ton of sugar and one that uses no sugar; neither use terribly much salt. I found some with oil, some without. Most were packed with spices simply not available in Cooperstown. (Aside: I had hoped to make a batch of marmalade with Campari, but that’s a little too exotic for my local liquor store.) In general it’s a bad idea to experiment with preserving, but since grapefruit are way below the safe pH for botulism, I felt brave. I ended up using the proportions of salt and sugar in this recipe, but devising my own spice mixture to complement grapefruit’s floral quality: into the mortar went 1/4 cup (each) of peppercorns and coriander, plus a few shards of cinnamon. I topped off the jar with some lemon juice… we’ll see what happens.

Which takes me exactly 1/3 of the way through my giant box of citrus. I guess I know what’s for breakfast…

in the bleak midwinter… and still eating local!

December 19, 2011

During my first Roseboom winters, I was pretty excited to have a freezer full of pesto. These days there is a lot more going on…

ruby kraut, burbling

ruby kraut, sharing a plate with potatoes and kale

butternut bisque, topped with "russian relish"

Are you wondering if every meal is going to include beets? Here’s what happened: During the last week of harvest my neighbor, who is a real farmer, called to me from his field of beets (which is, in my book, a very close relative to a field of dreams). Anyway, he had more than he could deal with, so he invited me to pull as many as I could handle. I took 20 pounds. I should mention that I had already put up a large haul of beets, pickling them with coriander, black pepper and ginger. But what’s a few more?

Of all the preparations, Russian relish is my favorite. At Thanksgiving, the cranberry bowl stayed full while everyone dove into this. It is a sweet not salty preparation that includes diced beets, cabbages, onions and horseradish. Since I don’t own a food processor, it was easily the most labor-intensive preparation of the summer… but I would do it again.

The ruby kraut is a simple lacto-fermented mix, with 2/3 shredded beets and 1/3 cabbage.

Not pictured, but also delicious, are maple-pickled beets and onions, spiced with ginger and cardamom.

"hank's x-tra special" shell beans, with kale and garlic

And here is a meal without beets.

breakfast potatoes, with homemade spicy ketchup

And another.

the stuff of soup

soup with toasted cornbread

peanut-butternut stew, with sriracha and arugula

garbanzo crepe, with yogurt, russian relish and bitter greens

goat cheese, with spicy greens and olive oil

pesto rice, with a side of pickled beets

Lots of new entries in my winter pantry, but pesto is always welcome!

september: fade to brown

November 27, 2011

(Just came across this unposted draft, which I completely forgot about; must have been too busy with the harvest!)

Hard to say when “harvesting” nudged “nurturing” out of the top spot for garden activities. One day I went out with my weeding fork and came in with a handful of tomatoes — next thing I knew I was too busy bringing in the fruits of my labors to even pay attention to weeds, save the ones coming into season and threatening to spray their seed all over the soil.

The shift from summer to fall is more subtle. One by one the plants slow down as they reach the end of their annual cycle. There’s usually one last, meager harvest before I wrestle them out of the ground and into the waste heap at the back of the property. Then I do what I can to leave the the site just a little bit cleaner than it was at the start — dig out the few dandelions that eluded me during the frenzy of harvest, pick out a few more rocks, rake the soil smooth.

I spent most of Sunday digging up potatoes. This year’s crop was not too plentiful, but the individual tubers were unusually large. I wounded a few with my clumsy shovel — these went into a bucket in the kitchen for immediate use. The same day I dug the potatoes, I divided a clump of chives and marched the smaller bunches across the back of the garden, in hopes that they’ll discourage some four-footed pests. Before digging up the slender aliums, I lopped off their tops, as recommended by some web site or other. Rather than dump them on the compost heap, I improvised something pesto-like, using funky-sweet ground cherries to cut the sharpness, some almonds to smooth it out, and a shot of sriracha just because.

The result was interesting, but not delicious enough to repeat.

Other harvest-remnant recipes:

last-cuke lovage cup

squashed lemonsquash fritter

potato pancake with sriracha swirl

final-tomato focaccia

Some garden plants go gracefully, but not tomatoes. Their cracking stems lean away from their supports as their leaves blacken and leaves collapse. At their feet is a rotting pile of cracked and oozy fruit. It looks terrible and smells worse. Yesterday I began the ordeal of cleaning up their sickroom, pulling up the plants and scooping the slimy remains from the ground. Despite their squalid state, the cherries are still producing a few clean, ripe fruits each day, so against my better judgement, I left a couple. They’ll peter out soon enough but for now they can stay. It’s the hospice section of the garden.

Cukes and summer squash were not quite done, but the winter squash is hungry for space and light, so I pulled their brethren to let them have the run of the cucurbit section. Besides, I’ve had more than enough squash and cukes this summer.

Snap beans outlived their useful life long ago — they were first plants I pulled. Now the shell beans are beginning to dry on the vine — no small feat in this wet weather. Not sure what will be ready for harvest first, the beans or the winter squash. I do know what will be last—the row of parsnips in front and the patch of kale in back. Both plants enjoy the frost, or should I say we humans enjoy what frost does to the taste.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now it is the slow work of clearing out, watching the small section of empty brown soil slowly overtake the areas that were so recently lush green.

the kale stands alone

November 27, 2011

After a meal of many hands and many calories, I was looking forward to a weekend alone in my country kitchen. Festive meals are fantastic, but there is also something to be said for simpler, quieter repasts.

Looking at the garden — now mostly bare but for a clump of kale — one would think of this as the lean season. But instead I find myself overwhelmed with choices in a way that I never do in the summer. Then, the answer to “What’s for dinner” is inevitable as the tides. The wave of summer squash crests just as the tomatoes begin to roll in. It is a matter of keeping your head above water as one crop, then another, spills over the countertops.

The late crops, the storage crops, are much less insistent. The buckets of potatoes and shelves of winter squash aren’t going anywhere. Ditto the dried beans. The shredded beets (aka “ruby kraut”) will continue to ferment, their acidity rising as the months pass. I have more than enough garlic to get me through, plus a few giant leeks contributed by a friend. There are also dried apples and tomatoes; flat frozen slabs of pesto; and more multicolored jars of pickles and preserves than I care to think about.

Then there’s the kale, bushy and green despite having endured a few snowfalls and more frequent frosts. It’s not really alone in the garden, of course — up front there are still a few parsnips to pull, and along the back are a few rows of garlic thumbed in last month. And every time we have a run of warm days, leaves of self-seeded lettuce will emerge; some even live to survive a few mild frosts.

I do miss the tomatoes, I confess, but I wouldn’t trade this season of quiet, not-so-needy abundance.

late summer supper

September 6, 2011

ground cherries

fresh goat cheese with olive oil, herbs, lemon zest

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sliced tomatoes with wild arugula

pesto eggs

lemon squash stewed with tomatoes, olives, oregano

green beans, kale, and potatoes with creamy walnut-garlic-thyme dressing

*

strawberry-rose jam tart with almond meal crust, served with fresh goat cheese

ginger tea

Someone once told me that “packing takes the time allotted,” and it’s absolutely true: if start planning two weeks before your trip, preparations can easily consume that fortnight. On the other hand, I’ve set the alarm just a little bit early on the morning of departure and still managed to somehow throw a few things together and make the plane.

On Sunday I started dinner quite early — it was to be a hot day, so I planned a dinner of cool things that could be cooked in advance, giving the kitchen plenty of time to return to a comfortable temperature. I started with the baking: punched down the bread dough I had put together the night before, then made the pastry for the jam tart. After I put it in the fridge to chill, I walked out to the garden to do some grocery shopping.

I was able to congratulate myself on the awesomeness of my life for about half an hour before things started to go wrong. The first jam tart burned. The purple potatoes turned gray and mealy when boiled. The blender went on strike after I filled it with basil, oil, garlic, almonds. I did find another route to the one experimental preparation on my menu — a dish in the shape of deviled eggs, but flavored by mashing the yolks with pesto — only to find that yellow yolks + green basil = unappetizing gray-green paste.

A head start saves no time in packing, and the same is apparently true in the kitchen: this simple summer supper was going to consume my day. I went back to the potato pile for something waxier. I thawed the pesto I had put away a few weeks earlier. When it turned the yolks gray, I tucked basil sprigs and nasturtiums between the eggs and made bright-green basil oil to drizzle over before serving. I started again with a new jam tart. In the spaces between I blanched some beans, shaped some bread, picked and cleaned the various herbs I’d need to finish each dish.

The squash — the last thing on my prep list — was the only thing that proceeded according to plan. (Melt and brown finely sliced onions. While the onions are cooking, peel and core tomatoes. Remove onions from pan. Add squash in batches to brown, then return onions to pan with tomatoes, pitted olives, a few smashed cloves of garlic, and a pile of oregano. Stir occasionally and swoon.)

I had started cooking early, but by the time I was done prepping and cleaning and putting things away, the day was almost gone.

And then the electricity went out. Which, in a house supplied by a well, means no water. It thought about calling my guests, but the phone was out too. So they came, and we sat, and candlelight was enough to find our forks and converse by.  No one could appreciate the many colors of tomatoes in the pretty green serving bowl — but then, no one noticed the gray eggs, either.

not on the breakfast menu at the cooperstown diner

June 28, 2011

Strawberries with fennel and black pepper cornbread

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.