The Fat of the Land

Month: June, 2014

Sol Food

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When we think of sunshine foods, we default to adjectives like fruity, floral, and exotic. We imagine coconuts, passion fruit, and peppers rather than cabbage, lettuce, or kale. Though mango and pineapple do not survive this northerly climate, our own brand of sun-steeped harvests makes its appearance this time of year.

Falling between June 20th and 21st, the solstice represents more than opening day of summer shenanigans. Denoting the sun’s longest journey across the sky, the summer solstice is also known to gardeners as the time of endless greens—bottomless heads of lettuce, kale with wide paddles for leaves, unrestrained growth in every direction.

Though the solar calendar says it’s summer now, our climate tends to linger in the doorway a bit longer, extending spring showers and cool temperatures intermittently into early July. This oscillation of warm, sunny stretches and cooler, rainy days helps to check the growth of these greens, allowing them to take full advantage of mid-June’s extra long days.

Our lengthiest day of the year totals just short of sixteen hours of sunlight. To a plant’s physiology, extending day length is akin to increasing production hours. The chlorophyll in plant leaves is active in the presence of sunlight; the more sun there is, the more energy a plant is capable of synthesizing.

Plants invest some of the season’s surplus energy into creating more chlorophyll (and therefore more surface area, i.e. larger leaves), which in turn both creates an ability to manufacture more stored energy and a need for someplace to store it. In step luscious root crops like beets, radishes and turnips that seem to materialize over night as the solstice nears—the latter two transforming from tiny seeds to hefty bundles in under a month.

The whole garden is a rowdy place in June. What was freshly turned soil studded with seedlings becomes a bubbling quilt of colors and textures, plants touching shoulders with infectious camaraderie, vines tangled and climbing toward the sun that fuels them. Even slowpokes like carrots, potatoes, and onions seem inspired to catch up to their neighbors.

Perhaps the same spirit that infects the vegetables rouses the gardener as well, and perhaps some of the affection we have for this season comes from the sun’s penchant to party. We feel an urge to get out, to see, to commune and celebrate, to sit in the sun’s radiance. A garden in solstice is that urge made visible, and an appeal to find numerous and interesting ways to prepare a salad, to cook a turnip, to embellish kale or mustard greens or cabbage.

We are lucky to live in a place where we can grow tasty greens year-round, but I think solstice greens are the finest—tender and succulent in their freshness, glowing with the deep, verdant pigments of ample sunlight and water. No trials of heat or cold to endure, they open to their fullest, most vulnerable beauty.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by a garden, for the undesirables grow as quickly as the desirables, and I am often overwhelmed until a wave of summer heat tempers the revelry. But in that heat, I begin to miss those soft, sweet leaves and the lush, hulking garden that produced them. So I try to savor every bit of it now, weeding and eating my way through these long, exquisite days.

Persuading Pectin

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Fruit preserves have entered a certain level of ubiquity in our kitchens—topper of toast, peanut butter buddy or teatime trimming, jam is a sweet thing we eat because we always have. Some like it rife with proof of the fruit it once was, others prefer a smooth, refined spread without the seeds, please. All in all, jam seems a straightforward condiment that offers simple pleasures. That is, until you try making it yourself.

Standing over a steaming pot of fruit whose bubbles burst out in sugary magma, jam’s simplicity tangles into a thick briar of questions: Should I stir it? How often? Is it done? Why is it covered in foam? And when you pop open your first jar and the jam is spreadable or it isn’t, the fruit has held something of its delicate flavor and texture or it hasn’t, the gel has set too thickly or not quite enough, the questions multiply.

Jam truly is a balancing act, finding that place on a seesaw of fresh flavor and just-so gel where the two sit still and look across at each other for a moment, one holding the weight of the other; and from that spoonful of strawberry preserves in January, you can see right through to a summery spring day at the market when your arm was slung around a flat of fragrant berries.

To achieve that balance, a preserver must transform fruit while interfering as little as possible with its flavor and texture. The three basic tools at her disposal are sugar, acid and pectin. Sugar, in moderation, helps develop the jam’s flavor profile, activates pectin, and is a preservative, inhibiting bacterial growth by displacing water. Acids (usually lemon juice and/or rind) function similarly to sugar, though their preservative role is to lower the solution’s pH, which also halts most bacterial growth.

Pectin is jam’s most finicky ingredient, as it is (in truly great preserves) not an additive but something you coax. Though many know pectin as a white, finely powdered substance added to jams along with copious amounts of sugar, pectin is already a component of your main ingredient’s cellular structure.

A carbohydrate, pectin binds the fibrous components of cell walls and increases as the immature fruits grow. When a fruit begins to ripen, pectic enzymes break down the cement-like structure of pectin and allow the cell walls to soften and expand with sugary solution. Thus, fruits that are just under ripe (still a little firm) boast the highest amounts of natural pectin.

Some fruits contain enough natural pectin to avoid adding a supplementary source at all. Apples, quince, cranberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums and citrus rind will generally gel without added pectin. A traditional technique for attaining naturally gelling jam is to use one-quarter under ripe fruit and three-quarters fully ripe fruit to split the difference between flavor and pectin availability. Blends of high and low pectin fruits are another old-timey trick, such as adding tart apples to cherries or raspberries to increase their gel.

Citrus rind and apples (or crabapples) are such a great source that commercial producers isolate pectin from them using refining techniques. However, to activate commercial pectin, you must add large amounts of sugar. This alters the end product’s flavor by masking its subtleties with sweetness and watering it down, as the commercial pectin solidifies excess water rather than evaporating it.

Pectin is composed of long chains of sugar molecules that, if properly cajoled, bond with each other, forming a net-like matrix that binds liquid into gel. Pectin has a slight negative charge in water, and naturally resists bonding. Acids help diminish that negative charge, but water-attracting sugar is also necessary to decrease water content and act as a bridge between pectin molecules. Boiling further reduces water through evaporation and provides the magic temperature (221-degrees Fahrenheit), at which pectin and its saccharine mediator connect and create a gel.

Getting a good ratio of these three components is both science and art. It’s important to follow a recipe in detail, without cutting sugar or other ingredients, until you have a firm grip on which ratio produces jam of a consistency you like. This ratio will be different for each kind of fruit you preserve.

Savvy preservers also avoid the need for refined pectin by making batches of green apple pectin concentrate with the fall’s first harvest. Freezer stored pectin concentrate will wait at arm’s reach for the first fruits of summer that compel you to seduce them into a jar.

Let Us

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We eat salad without a second thought; so ubiquitous has lettuce become in our restaurants, groceries and home kitchens we might never guess at the peculiarity of its path from wild food to pantry staple. Nor could many consumers of lettuce conceive of the myriad forms it can take. Until I began my own kitchen garden, I knew lettuce as green or red, ruffled loose leaves or crispy-bland iceberg. It turns out that lettuce is capable of infinite variation in flavor, color and texture.

Native to the Mediterranean region, lettuce’s wild origins were as a weed-like leafy annual that released a milky sap when cut. This “milk” is actually a kind of latex, and the basis for lettuce’s binomial nomenclature: Lactuca sativa (“lac” meaning milk, “sativa” meaning sown or cultivated).

The Egyptians were the first civilization to leave a lasting record of their reverence for lettuce. Often depicted in reliefs alongside the fertility god, Min, lettuce was a symbol of sexual stamina and represented Min’s formidable talents. This association may perplex modern lettuce eaters, but the lettuce of ancient Egypt was a different sort of plant than what we are familiar with today: starting as a rosette of narrow leaves, the plant would rise up from the ground on a thick stalk that could reach three feet in height. Egyptians discarded the bitter leaves and ate the succulent stem—a rarity among the flora of their desert clime.

The ancient Greeks also cultivated lettuce, though they appear to have selected their varieties more for leaves than stalk, and ate something likely similar to what we know now as Romaine lettuce, a name given by the French in homage to lettuce’s next curator, the Romans.

In ancient Rome, lettuce became more or less what we think of it as today—a leafy vegetable notable for its combination of sweet and bitter flavors, useful both as an appetizer to encourage hunger before the meal, and as a post-meal digestive aid. In answer to the question of whether one should eat salad before or after dinner, the Romans split the difference and advised both. (As a side note, the word salad comes from the Roman’s preparation herba salata, “salted leaves.”)

Lettuce traveled with the Romans as they charged to northern Europe, each culture that received it making it their own, beginning a trail of diversity whose proliferation we still benefit from today. A true eccentric, lettuce’s genetic library exhibits a high degree of variation. And because lettuce is self-pollinating, it is among the easier vegetables to breed at the home garden scale.

Such is the story of Frank Morton, a Philomath-based seed breeder who sells his innovative lettuce varieties under the name Wild Garden Seed (and shares land with vendor Gathering Together Farm), who got his start tinkering in his own lettuce patch. Morton’s catalog reads like a love letter to lettuce, and his numerous original varieties achieve the vegetable consumer’s holy trinity: beauty, flavor and nutrition.

Today we organize lettuce into five broad categories. The cos or Romaine group with their thick midribs, mild and sweet flavor and sturdy leaves; the crispheads with their crunchy, juicy leaves and often blanched inner heads (think iceberg); the butterheads with their floppy, silken leaves and intricately folded heads; the looseleafs, spacious and open in their growth habit, wavy or densely ruffled or lobed like an oak leaf; and the celtuce, lettuces almost exclusively found in Asian markets that, like the ancient Egyptians’, are grown for their thick, mild-flavored stalk.

Farmers’ markets are the best place outside of a backyard garden to experience lettuce diversity at its finest. That plain old ruffled green from the produce aisle is as predictable as it is reliable. Iceberg is still the most-consumed vegetable of all other vegetables combined. These, along with Romaine, used to be all the choice we had, but we live in the midst of a lettuce renaissance. So let us choose to explore its magnitude, walk the length of its vast kingdom, discover new flavors and the health benefits that come with them, and ease that nutritionally destitute iceberg off its throne for good.

 

Pictured above, three of my favorite lettuce varieites. From top to bottom: Cardinale, Reine des Glaces (Ice Queen), Flashy Trout’s Back.

The Wild Garden

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It has taken me years to begin seeing difference in natural ecosystems—a bare ridge and a shaded forest are dissimilar enough, but one forest and another easily blur together. A horticulture degree and years of pouring over native plant ID books helped, but it was the intangibles that truly made the difference.

Looking is a slippery act: look too closely and you miss the web of connections, look too broadly and you ignore the enriching details. Look for one right way to look and you miss the boat entirely. And though I am still (and always) a student of looking, what has taught me, more than anything, how to observe the natural world is my own fumbling imitation of it. Hours of planting, weeding, watching, and loving my own cultivated spaces have taught me how to sit in a wild garden.

Anyone who has battled a weedy plot knows the power of ecosystem succession. As gardeners, we focus on curating a space of beauty, fascination and function. Meanwhile, the plants in our garden are engaged in a constant struggle for access to light, water and nutrients. We help by placing them in an auspicious site, weeding out competitors, feeding and watering them. Yet, even with our limbs and affections as allies, they sometimes fail.

The first time I entered an old-growth temperate rainforest and knew I was in an old-growth forest, I was awestruck. The gardener in me wanted to know how such fragile beauties lived in profusion there—trillium, orchids, lilies, and many others I couldn’t yet name—arranged in artful clusters on mossy stumps or as glorious trailside specimens, growing as any plant would in a weed-free utopia.

But old-growth forests, and other undisturbed ecosystems, are not utopias, nor are they static in their achievement. What impresses us in such a forest—its vaulted ceiling, open stillness, mossy softness and handsome plants—is balance, accomplished over hundreds of years of struggle similar in spirit to that which we deploy against our weedy garden beds. Such balance never stops to rest or admire itself, and it is its centered harmony, one it runs its bow back and forth across, which mesmerizes us so completely.

Forests that have been disturbed by logging, fire, landslide or other calamity grow back somewhat like our own gardens—thick and ferocious with life, specialists exploiting their particular skills, vying as individuals and as species to either capitalize on their moment in the limelight or eventually win long-term standing in that more open, tranquil place, where the may stretch into idyllic versions of themselves.

As gardeners, we are more disturbance than balance. We fancy ourselves balancers, concocting careful strategies to allow our gardeners to thrive, but each scratch of the soil is like pressing a reset button. Embrace it, for the struggle it brings is why we garden and how we earn any sense of accomplishment in our work.

Out on a rocky ledge, breathing the fresh mineral air, sitting in the white sunlight, I try to bring as little disturbance as possible. It is in such a place that my favorite type of garden grows. Alpine rock gardens, fragile and resolute, offer spectacular wildflower specimens and fabulous views to boot. The contrast of macro and micro is endlessly delightful to me—a neat foliage clump shooting out stems of brilliantly colored flowers can, with a quick shift of my gaze, give way to a long drink of conifer-covered mountains, rocky outcroppings, maybe a snowy peak.

June and July are the season for wild alpine gardens (higher elevation sites flower later than those at lower elevations, rewarding persistent hikers with many weeks of show-stopping blooms). What looks at first like a bare slope reveals itself to be a museum of highly adapted species; the alpine garden’s specimens, spread widely among cracks in rock faces and loose gravel, demand close looking and reward the careful observer with an eclectic diversity of shapes, textures and colors.

Rocky alpine gardens are not everyone’s ideal—most gardeners certainly prefer the fantastic blooms and foliage that dazzle us (and me) at nurseries and botanical gardens. Yet the sense of awe I feel in the alpine garden is as a student in the presence of a masterwork. Many alpine species are notoriously difficult (or impossible) to grow in cultivated gardens. Up on the ridge, they sit in effortless arrangement, embodying their breezy perfection in what seems like an impossible home.

Here, the wild garden teaches me to un-garden, to witness instead of act, to sink into the inimitable and shifting balance of wilderness left to its own devices.