The Fat of the Land

Month: October, 2012

Gardens, Unrealities

When we cultivate a patch of earth and sow the seeds of a garden, we feel a sense of control. To mold the soil and lay our best intentions on it is both a leap of faith and a prophetic act. We imagine what the garden will produce, how our kitchens will dance with its bounty. We dream of success and fear failure. We expect.

To a new gardener, success seems mainly a product of cleverness. In search of a magazine-cover style payoff, new gardeners I work with are eager to know my best garden secrets: sound bites to hurtle them on to vegetable glory. I remember this impulse from my own first attempts at growing vegetables. I felt like I just needed to sniff out the best amendments, the best tools, and, most importantly, the best techniques to accomplish the garden I dreamed of.

What I have learned through many successes and failures is that a garden is too complex a system to have a singularly ‘best’ way. Certainly there are good ways, even reliable ways, but nothing wears the crown of being right every time. I tell my new gardeners, to their consternation, that there are many ways to garden well. That gardening is less a system of rules than one of observation and experimentation. Over time, the garden teaches you much of what you need to know.

New and seasoned gardeners alike mark the seasonal cycles of the garden with expectation. In late winter, we gather seeds and make plans. Every year there are new varieties to try, something alluring in the catalog, something spotted at the farmers’ market or tasted at a local restaurant. In the spring and early summer, we busily sow and plant. Unsure of what sort of summer we’ll have, we err on the side of abundance, cramming in a few more here or there as insurance. Through early summer, we watch and dote, primping the garden, gazing at it longingly. Soon, we celebrate the first stir-fry of peas, the first homegrown salad, the first buttery zucchini or silky green bean, and we nearly drown in ecstasy when we taste the first tomato slice. The garden, bug-chewed holes and all, feels like a richly flavored paradise.

But a few weeks into harvest, it’s green beans every night, tomatoes heaped and near rotting on the counter, bolting lettuce: the garden, we learn, has its own timing. By early fall it is bombarding us with bounty, unsympathetic to our other obligations or schedule. The excitement of preservation turns to desperation, anxious attempts to prevent spoilage. (My new favorite desperation preservation technique is to freeze tomatoes whole. Just rinse and dry, throw them in a freezer bag and call it a day. Defrost as needed; the skin slips off and their meat awaits your culinary whims, nearly as perky and flavorful as a fresh tomato.)

In fall, the roles reverse. We are controlled by the garden and technique becomes just staying in the game. This time of year, most gardens start to go wild: weeds fill in the spaces, tomatoes sprawl and bow against the weight of their fruit, broccoli heads stretch into bouquets of yellow flowers. This, too, is a garden, and likely a productive one, but it is not the one we imagined or aspired to. We accept it out of exhaustion or waning interest.

This is perhaps the most authentic garden, the one that slips out of our control. Its aliveness is electric. Rather than try to shape or tame it, we begin to move with it. Our expectations yield to actuality. Rotting leaves are no longer disastrous but inevitable, tomatoes surprise us by ripening in the rain, beans march on, whether we pick them or not, until the weather turns too cold. We get what we can and forgo the rest. The kingdom of our garden becomes a wilderness and we the forager.

As our gardens slip and the dreams we planted in spring vanish beneath the weeds, we can either resist or accept them. There is joy in their sprawl and compassion in their abundance. Their timing is awkward and presses upon our lives. Saving the produce is an effort. But when we turn the corner, empty the counter and fill the last jars of tomato sauce, we sigh a deep sigh and thank the garden for its lessons.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, October 18, 2012)

A Fall of Squash

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Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity, and are harvested in September or October, we call these starchy Goliaths winter squash, a nod to the strong, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the leaner months. Delightful in their diversity, fall harvested squash are the perfect vessel for our transition from fresh produce to storage foods. Like painted gondolas, we let them carry our imagination to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven roasted squash fills the air with opulence.

I saw a girl who looked to be about ten years old stop with a gasp at a winter squash display one recent market. She grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her over to point at the different shapes and colors, touch the gnarled scabs that decorated one variety. She lingered at these dry, giant creatures as if peering into a tide pool, marveling at their differences, choosing a favorite.

As a gardener, what draws me to growing squash is not their aesthetic (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their heft. There is something endearing about a fruit that must be hugged to lift, whose flesh resists all but the largest knives. Arriving at the end of a string of demanding harvests that must be used with tireless immediacy, it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.

Most squash grown in our region not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though the squash selection grows in abundance with each fall market, it is not until winter that many will be at their prime. These squash require curing, which amounts to setting them aside in a quiet corner of your kitchen or pantry, to convert the starches in their meat to sugars. This conversion deepens and sweetens the squash’s flavor and increases its nutritional value. Fall harvested squash belong to three botanical categories, each with different storage characteristics. It behooves us to know which is which when managing the pantry.

True fall squash, the pepo subcategory (Cucurbita pepo) cure quickly and do not store well. This group includes Delicata, Acorn and Spaghetti squashes. Once harvested, they only need to cure for a week or two before they are ready for eating, and can hold their peak flavor quality up to two months. The thin skin of the Delicata variety, though poor at keeping the flesh inside from aging, is perfectly edible. I keep the skin on and sauté thin slices in oil or butter for about fifteen minutes, making for one of the quickest squash preparations I know.

Less available in our area, save for one notable exception, are the moschatas (Cucurbita moschata). This group requires more heat and a longer growing season than we are endowed with in western Oregon. Butternut squash belong to this category, and are grown here because of their popularity. Most squash recipes call for varieties such as acorn and butternut, and as a result we tend to limit our usage to this narrow spectrum.

For true winter squash, the kind that age like fine wine well into the heart of the rainy season, we must turn to the maxes (Cucurbita maxima). Maxes can be grown with relative success in our climate, and comprise the majority of varieties that come to market, including Banana, Kuri, Kabocha, Hubbard, Turban and Sweet Meat. An Oregon heirloom, Sweet Meat is particularly successful in our region and is my personal favorite max variety for its thick and delicious flesh. Max squash varieties need at least one month of curing before they are ready to eat, and many benefit from further aging. Depending on the variety, maxes can keep their flavor quality up to six months in proper storage. (For a more in depth discussion of Sweet Meat and other squash varieties suited to the our climate, consult the squash chapter in The Resilient Gardener by local grower, Carol Deppe.)

Limited by space and experience, I have yet to fully incorporate squash into my garden repertoire. I have grown a few years’ worth of Delicatas, and this season my first Sweet Meat, with limited success. But good things are worth waiting (and practicing) for. Those I have harvested felt like trophies stacked on the pantry shelves. For me, winter squash have become symbolic of a true food garden, an anchoring presence in the field as well as the kitchen. Though most vegetables I grow do a good job of feeding me, these hefty fruits draw the eye down, point my gaze to the soil where they rest. And when the leaves shrivel away to display their painted loaves, the fairytale transformation becomes evident: seed becomes vessel of nourishment.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, October 4, 2012)