EVEN MORE IN THE SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION, I AM SO PLEASED TO FEATURE A GUEST POST FROM STEVE MAYONE, MUSICIAN, SONGWRITER, AND SELF-DECLARED “O.H.” THANKS FOR PUTTING UP WITH ALL THE FRUIT FLIES. – SUZANNE COPE I … Continue reading
Tag Archives: gardening
On Pasta Sauce & Collaboration
I am so excited to be guest posting on the blog Aperture Appetite thanks to Dianna Sawyer, good friend and fellow writer and food lover. Please visit her site for many great recipes accompanied by beautiful photos taken by her … Continue reading
What I’m Learning
*The premise for this post was shamelessly borrowed from a dear friend and fabulous writer, Dianna (Calareso) Sawyer, who generously believes in collaboration among writers. It is only early September, but as I sit outside, writing, and all too aware … Continue reading
The Evolution of Kale
Kale I remember when I first encountered kale. It was a weekly offering sometime early in the season of my first CSA about seven years ago. I seemed to have some inkling of what it was and how … Continue reading
On Garlic and Patience
It was a banner year for garlic, in my garden anyway. Not that planting garlic is ostensibly hard – really the only thing to consider is timing: when the cloves go in and when to harvest. Yet despite that it has taken me three years to get a good crop. The first year was, well, a non-effort. I decided in the spring that I wanted to plant garlic along with my tomatoes, basil and lettuce. Why it never occurred to me to plant garlic earlier in my decade of urban gardening, I don’t know. It seemed… hard for some reason. There’s something comforting about watching plants grow bigger and taller; the ability to see the fruits widen and ripen seems like half the pay-off of a tiny urban plot. And the garlic itself seemed to yield no clues as to how it was grown. Add another item to my embarrassing list of food I had been eating all of my life (I am Italian after all) of which I could not picture how it grew. Even my first garlic scapes – a bag full in my first CSA seven years ago now – did little to shed light on this process. Although, like most of us, I really didn’t give it much thought.
That is until I continued to hone the mix of vegetables in my community garden. I received great advice: grow what you always want more of. Thus the dozen tomato plants and tons of herbs. After paying upwards of two dollars for a head of garlic (a delicious, yet very tiny head), I realized that I should start growing my own. So when I was ordering my seeds in the depths of winter, I tried to look for garlic seeds as well. Yes, well, these don’t exist. At least not in the way that other seeds do. Instead, as a kind friend gently advised, I should plant whole cloves in late fall for garlic the following year. Sadly, I resigned myself to wait another season.
That fall my husband was designated the garlic-planter. I had a crazy week at work and the days were too short to plant in the evening. A freeze was coming after a mild autumn, so he would have to take over the duties. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had never before been set loose on the garden without supervision. The next spring little sprouts of green could be found in random patches around the plot. Some had been planted so deep that they were preserved in the coolness of the dirt and I upturned them with my trowel at various moments throughout the summer, their shoots never finding their way to the sunlight. I wasn’t sure when to harvest them, so I waited until the tops had gone completely brown – perhaps waited a bit too long as some tops had disappeared, leaving no marker for where the jewel of garlic could be found beneath the soil. Our first harvest was little more than a dozen heads, which I dried in the sun for a few days and then braided, hanging the two tails from a bent nail in my basement.
Last year I was determined to get my garlic in the ground by late fall (but not too late) and plant them in neat rows. I had maybe ten heads of garlic to plant and hoped to increase my harvest five times that.
Come spring, I was thrilled to see their little green shoots pushing through the dirt well before last frost. A few months later, their stalks were tall and green, although no scapes emerged. My plot neighbor’s garlic had beautiful pigtails and were taller, more robust looking. Had I done something wrong again, I wondered? When she harvested, I pulled up one head. Still green. I would wait.
If there is one thing I have learned from my garden it is patience. Patience to wait until next year to remember to plant the peas sooner or mulch the carrots better. Patience to wait to plant the tomato seedlings just a few more days in case of frost. Patience to give that pepper – my only pepper, I’ve never been good with peppers – another week of sunshine before plucking from the stalk.
And so I gave my garlic another week. And then a week more. My neighbor had long since dried hers and had added some to stir fries and long made pesto with the scapes. A few scapes did finally emerge – I found out that only some varieties of garlic produce them, which made me wonder if these scaped crusaders were leftovers from the season before – and the stalks widened just a bit more.
Then finally, after ignoring the garden for nearly a week, allowing mother nature to do my watering for me, I returned. The garlic stalks were dying back. The few scapes had flowered and then gone to seed. It was time to harvest.
I took a small shovel and dug around each one, giving a full six inches of space or more to lift the dirt around the head and not slice through it. I stacked them up as I dug around the perimeter of the garden, where I had planted them as a border on two sides. They totaled fifty heads when I was done. It had taken nearly three years of trying but I had finally grown fifty beautiful, perfect heads of garlic. My patience was rewarded.
The First Day of Summer at the Community Garden
Last night, on the eve of summer, our community garden had its first happy hour of the season. As the sun set, we shared locally brewed beer, sliced apples and strawberries, pie from the bakery up the street and my first attempt at goat cheese. Besides congratulating a newly married couple, and toasting another gardener’s birthday, we talked ideas: a pizza oven modeled after a community dining experience my plot neighbors’ had in Martha’s Vineyard, a shared chicken coop (or Group Coop as I dubbed it), a bee hive. How many of these might come to fruition and how quickly was unknown, but we knew anything was possible: we had coaxed food from the barren ground together, year after year. As the light waned, I thought about how much I appreciated this community of neighbors who might never have met had it not been for our shared green space.
Our gathering also helped me reflect on the growing season thus far. I had been visiting the garden most days to water or weed, and more frequently to start harvesting, but hadn’t given much thought to how lush the garden had gotten in the past month or so. It took my community of gardeners, taking collective stock of our individual spaces on the last day of spring – asking questions and offering advice – to help me realize the miracle of growth that we had experienced in such a short time.
The above picture was taken in the past week, and shows the very lush horseradish in the foreground. The edible root is underground, but I have read that the leaves can be eaten as well and I intend to try them soon. The horseradish leaves became very huge very fast, and I decided to take advantage of the shade they would provide by planting my lettuce beneath and around them. Even since this picture was taken they have grown enough to start harvesting. Behind the lettuce is fennel, kale, chard and tomatoes, most grown from seed and all days or weeks from harvest.
The picture above was from mid-May and shows the garden from the perspective of a different corner. The small (probably) squash seedlings are in the foreground next to the always prolific mint. I say “probably” because these sprung from composted dirt in pots in my backyard. They looked so healthy that I thought I would transplant them to see if they might make it – it is now a month later and they are doing very well. This also shows the healthy strawberry plant in the center-back of the plot, which has already produced a few quarts of berries and will likely keep going for another week or two. This plant was another “volunteer” from a few seasons ago that I couldn’t bear to pull up, so I’ve left it to mature and this is the first year that I have gotten a real strawberry harvest. Which was a nice reminder that it pays to be patient with plants. I’ve been exercising that same patience with rhubarb plants in the back left corner that have taken two seasons to flourish and should be producing enough for a spring harvest next season.
And lastly, a picture taken around the first day of spring. The sprouts are garlic, planted last fall. This is taken from the same perspective as the top photo, as a nice comparison (and reminder) of how much can happen since the start of spring. I remember the day I took this photo – it was an unusually nice day for March, maybe fifty degrees. I recall being excited for my first glimpse of my plot for the year; that was the moment that I could finally imagine that the especially cold and snowy winter might be behind us.
It is now that I realize that even then I was thinking of the garden as a group. We all had survived the same winter and would start to look to each other for cues on what to expect next. Even if our paths did not physically cross until last night on the eve of summer, I felt my community’s presence: I could see my neighbor’s garlic sprouting alongside mine and shared extra seedlings in the designated spot alongside the shed. While from one perspective the season of bounty is just upon us, in other ways I realize that it had never ended.
Eating: It’s A Family Affair
I tend to take the holidays off from eating locally. Not that I ever claim a 100% success rate, but when I return to my hometown a day or so before Christmas Eve I quickly realize that I would starve and/or alienate my Italian-American extended family by NOT eating the oyster stew, sausage bread, carbonara, cheese & sausage, veggies & dip, cookies etc. that populate my mother’s home. Eating, you see, is a family affair. To eat (and to cook) is to show love. If it weren’t for this reciprocal action, our familial emotions would probably be quite stunted.
Regardless, I did have a few revelations about our collective consumption this holiday, and despite my mostly NOT local eating, I feel pretty good about the decisions I make overall and how they might be helping others think a bit more about their food choices.
#1 – I actually do a pretty good job of eating – and shopping – locally. I rarely enter a major supermarket and haven’t bought meat NOT raised by someone I’ve met since sometime in 2009. Sure, when I’ve been at friends’ houses or out for a meal I haven’t been so careful. But in general I can find the farm that produced most of the products in my home on a map of New England (and stretching a bit into upstate NY). I feel really good about that. (Of course then I have to try very hard not to judge when my mother has maple syrup or honey that COULD be easily sourced locally, but isn’t.)
#2 – It’s about quality not (ok, sometimes and) quantity. Food I ate with abandon in the past doesn’t interest me. A few years ago if I was offered scalloped potatoes sprinkled with Doritos (who knew my NASCAR-loving step-brother was such a semi-homemade cook!?) I would take a helping with a smile. But this time I took a forkful to be polite and moved on to something else. Sugar-free cookies or fat-free muffins? I appreciated the cook’s resourcefulness, however I couldn’t stomach the aspartame or processed non-fat butter substitute. As often as I could this time around, I chose quality small-batch cheese over store-bought hunks eaten mindlessly. And I tried to bring the ingredients I cared about (see aforementioned “fancy” cheese) and stuck to items that I felt good about eating – even if I ate them immoderately.
#3 – Despite some incredibly sugar-laden and super-processed foods being eaten with abandon by the dad’s side of my family, in some ways they are inspirational as the original locavores. Grandma featured home-grown, -canned and -cellared pickles, sauces and roasted veggies on her Christmas buffet alongside the misnamed whipped topping and candied fruit salad “ambrosia”. Recognizing the mutual interest in local and minimally processed food – albeit for different reasons – has helped us find a way to connect. My grandma has lived in the same house for the last 50 years and didn’t finish the ninth grade, but she and I can talk for hours about how late beets can be harvested and how the caterpillars are predicting a cold start and finish to the winter.
#4 – Much of the extended family (on my mother’s side) cares about humane, local and/or sustainable eating as well. My mom’s two brothers shared a locally born and bred cow this past year (named “D” for “Delicious”) and most of my cousins, their spouses, my aunts as well and my mom and I all grew at least some of our own food and canned local vegetables, pickles and jams this past year. My cousin and step-father both hunt as well – although not exactly to decrease their carbon footprint. We had a locally caught and smoked fish on Christmas Eve and a platter of pickled and canned veggies for Christmas. This attention to local, sustainable and healthy eating by no means originated with me: my oldest cousin has long worked for a non-profit environmental agency and her sister is a vegan blogger. And while our approaches to healthy and humane eating can be quite different, what we realized over a glass (or three) of local wine was that we all want the same thing: for people to be more conscious and thoughtful about what they eat.
And that is my continued goal for the new year.
Caramelized Tomato Tart
The tomatoes keep coming. I have canned three separate batches, froze some sauce and now have a third bowl that I must deal with before I leave the house today. These tomatoes were given to mother and me by my aunt on my recent visit to Western New York, and are some of the most beautiful I have seen this season: medium-sized tear-drop shape, deep red and very sweet. When home, I was inspired to use these beauties to make a tomato tart (from a Bon Appetit recipe a week or so ago) and I was pleasantly surprised at how it turned out. I do plan on tweaking this recipe a bit, but it disappeared rather quickly, so I won’t change it too much – here are the details!
In a cast iron skillet I melted a quarter stick of butter and a 1/4 cup of sugar and let it all melt together and start to turn brown. I drizzled about 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and let that reduce for a minute. I tossed in a few leaves of torn basil and a teaspoon of salt. Next I filled the pan with those gorgeous tomatoes, cut in half and placed cut-side down, letting these cook down and caramelize for 15 minutes or so, stirring every so often. Once the tomatoes were soft, I placed a round of pie dough on top and tucked in the edges around the tomatoes. The original recipe (which I’ve deviated from quite a bit) called for puff pastry, which I didn’t have, and might work better. I baked this until the pie dough was browned (about 20 minutes) in a 425 degree oven. Once I took this out, I let it cool in the pan for 5 minutes or so and then loosened the dough, put a plate to the bottom of the skillet and inverted the whole pan. In truth, some of the tomatoes stuck a bit, but it was easy to recreate and looked quite beautiful – especially drizzled with a touch of high quality balsamic and a few more torn leaves of tomato.
Is it a dessert? A side dish? An appetizer? I don’t know. But it was all delicious.
I Love Tomatoes! Canning Whole and Diced Tomatoes
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love thee in a caprese. I love thee in a marinara with garlic and fresh basil. I love thee straight from the vine. I love thee with fresh mozz atop a pizza. I love thee so much that I cannot imagine the long, cold winter months without a taste of your summer sweetness. Thus: I spent yesterday afternoon preserving thee in jars for those chilly days that would come all too soon.
I didn’t think I’d be devoting my afternoon to this endeavor, but 1/2 bushels of tomatoes were only $18 at the local farmer’s market so I readjusted my plans. I would so much rather have my own tomatoes to use for sauces and stews in the winter than buy cans from the grocery store – the flavor was so much better and I knew exactly what I was ingesting. Plus, I tend to use tomatoes as a base for many of my deep winter slow-cooking braises and soups that I never seem to have enough on hand, so I figured I could spend a beautiful summer’s afternoon indoors.
Once home I dug out my quart jars, washed them with soap and water and got my large canning pot filled with water and heating on the stove. The sterilizing and then sealing of the jars in the boiling water are by far the most time consuming steps in the canning process. I put the jars I was going to use (today’s batch would be 7 quart jars, which will use only about 2/3 of my half bushel, but my canning pot can only hold that many jars at one time and I didn’t feel like standing over a hot stove deep into the evening) into the water bath to sterilize for ten minutes once the water started to boil. I also put the lids that I would need into a pan on the stove and covered them with water. Once they boiled for a few minutes I put the pan aside for later use.
Next I washed and de-stemmed the tomatoes while boiling a second sauce pan (more wide than deep) half-full of water on another burner. I also prepped a large mixing bowl half filled with ice and water. Once the water on the stove top started to boil, I placed my tomatoes into the pan for about 30 second each, next moving them to the ice water for 1 – 2 minutes, and then finally to a colander to drain and finish cooling. At this point my kitchen had water and tomato juice covering most surfaces.
I was dreading the skinning step, but it was even easier than I remembered from the last time I canned: once the tomatoes were cool, the skins really did slip right off, with only a few so stubborn that I needed my paring knife to fishing them off. I was trying to come up with a creative use for them, but helping out in the compost was the best that I could summon.
Next, I placed about half of the tomatoes back into the (cleaned) sauce pan with just enough water to cover them and turned the heat on medium high, waiting for them to boil. Luckily I realized in time that some of the tomatoes would be too large to fit into the jars whole, so I halved and quartered the bigger fruits.
By now the jars had been sterilized so I carefully, only burning myself slightly, pulled them from the water and got them ready for the tomatoes. In each jar I put 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid (lemon juice can also be used) and a teaspoon of salt. The former is to balance the ph for storage, the latter is for flavor.
Once the tomatoes and water had boiled for two minutes I filled the quart jars, leaving about a half inch headspace. I used a plastic knife to release any air bubbles, cleaned the rim of the jars and then put on the lids, only screwing on the rings loosely. These jars all went back into the canning pot and boiled for 45 minutes to finish sealing.
Sure my kitchen floor was damp and my towels were stained with red juice. But I knew when I pulled those jars from the cupboard months later, when there might be snow on the ground and no leaves on the trees, that I would remember this day, the sweat dripping from my brow (more from the humidity than the exertion), and the satisfying pops I heard as the jars sealed in the taste of summer.
Upside Down Tomatoes
I love tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they might be my favorite food in the entire world. Unfortunately the ones purchased from the grocery store so rarely (if ever) have the same trancendental flavor. Thus I must get my yearly fix in the few short weeks that they are available locally during the harvest season – perhaps late July (at the earliest) through September. I have a good deal of plants at the community garden, a half-dozen varieties ready to be staked up to old trellises one they are big enough. And to maximize my harvest, I have a perhaps another dozen lined up in large pots in the sunniest sliver of my backyard.
This year, however, I devised a plan to use the last few square feet that might get enough sun to support life: I made four upside down (inspired by the “seen on tv” infomercial for the topsy turvy garden’s friend) tomato planters to hang along my small back porch.
The construction was simple and, at about $20 for all materials including the plants and dirt, cheap. First I bought 4 white buckets about a foot high and maybe ten inches in diameter. I cut a hole in the bottom (using a drywall saw was relatively easy) about 3 inches wide. Next I devised plant holders: one could hang them from screw hooks secured along the edge of a back patio, but I chose to have a 2 x 4 cut into four 18″ long segments and screwed them to the floor of my small porch so that they hung over the edge, about 5 feet from the ground. They key is that the location gets good sun, and the plants can grow about five feet from the planter.
Next I carefully threaded the seedlings through the hole, broke up the roots a bit, and watered them before adding dirt to fill the bucket. On top of the bucket I planted herbs. I hung them up and watered them again. Ta da!