The Fat of the Land

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The Onion Cleanse

 

Onion

 

When you picture a purifying post-holiday meal, you probably imagine clear, nourishing broth studded with vibrant greens. Perhaps visions of juiced vegetables dance in your head, endive and citrus salads, cholesterol-taming oatmeal breakfasts. But you probably don’t have a single fantasy about storage onions, that commoner we must resort to in the heart of winter when the juicy sweet onions of summer have withered away. Because the onion has been synonymous with the kitchen for so long—bound together by that time of day when you wander to the counter and begin slicing an onion before you fully know what you want to cook—it has become all but invisible.

Storage onions are so familiar, so basic, they seem squeezed of every last drop of intrigue. Yet they maintain the astonishing power to make (most of) us weep. For me, slicing an onion is nearly torture. About halfway through, my eyes sting so intensely I can’t see anymore. Once, while prepping an onion-heavy dish, a UPS guy showed up at my door—no time to wipe away the evidence, I answered with tears streaming down my face. He paused, I didn’t see the point in explaining, so we made our brief exchange with me looking like I’d just returned from euthanizing a beloved pet.

Still, I’d never given onions a serious thought until I tried growing them. I assumed that something so cheap, so unexceptional must be a piece of cake. But, no; from start to finish, onion cultivation requires finesse, experience, well-crafted patience.

For starters, their seeds are slow and, if you choose to go this route over buying onion sets at a nursery, they must be planted now—months (of watching and watering and coddling) before you will transfer them to the garden. Transplanting is pleasant enough if you are the sort that enjoys removing a hair from a wet finger, as fingers often are in an Oregon spring. And then, right when you think they’re safely tucked into the soil, a playful crow or scrub jay comes along some dewy morning and pulls them all back out, just for fun.

If you persevere—replanting, providing even moisture, keeping the soil cool with mulch, fighting back the weeds that will bully your babies into weaker versions of themselves—and those onion threads grow, finally, into succulent greens, you’re a third of the way there. From this point on, timing is everything: when to bend the tops over to prevent the growth of a flowering stalk that would deplete bulb quality, when to cut off watering to thwart fungal rot, when to dig the bulbs for optimum flavor and storability, how long to cure them, and, at long last, where to store them until you’re ready to let them toy with your emotions one last time on the cutting board.

Onion struggle, however relentless, is worth it. Whether your toil is seed-to-kitchen or simply the sort an unsuspecting UPS guy stumbles upon now and then, the humble onion pays back threefold. All onions contain a range of vitamins and phytonutrients (chemical compounds believed to be responsible for the low disease rates associated with plant-based diets), with the highest levels occurring in pungent storage onions. Sweet onions (think Walla Walla or Vidalia) contain about an eighth of the phytonutrients present in a storage onion. Quercetin, the onion’s most prevalent phytonutrient, is the object of studies investigating its promising ability to prohibit certain cancer cell growth and prevent some of the factors that contribute to heart disease.

Best of all, we know that these beneficial compounds, mysterious as they may otherwise be, aren’t damaged by exposure to heat. Roast away! Sauté your heart out! Put them in almost everything! Cooking tames their offending heat and brings out the sweetness that was waiting underneath. Since the phytonutrient content is denser toward the outer rings, peel conservatively and consider saving the skins (curiously, the most nutritional part) to steep in your next batch of soup stock.

Onions are rarely the star of the show, but this is perhaps their greatest attribute. The more onions you eat, the more benefit you get—in the form of vitamins and phytonutrients, of course, but also in the practice of preparing simple and satisfying meals. They are the first thing in the pot, the foundational ingredient that blends and balances and buoys. They are the kitchen’s best dancing partner, its most fervent soccer mom. And since starting with onions usually means building with other whole ingredients, they dare you—air filled with their enigmatic fragrance—to add more, to cook.

 

Caramelized Onions

Nothing transforms a pungent storage onion so completely as this simple recipe. Though there are many ways to char an onion, this low heat, hour-plus simmer will coax out and deepen all of the onions’ sugars, resulting in a surprisingly sultry ingredient that makes everything taste better: pasta, pizza, soups, sandwiches, omelets, bean dishes, polenta, you name it.

Makes 1 1/3 cups

Ingredients:

2 pounds storage onions (5 or 6 medium), sliced evenly to 1/4-inch thickness
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oil in a skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, turning to coat them with the oil. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until they have released their juices and begin to really sizzle against the bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes.

2. Turn the heat down to low or medium low, depending on your stove, and continue to gently cook the onions, stirring every ten minutes or so, while they begin to turn golden brown, then walnut brown, then deep chocolate brown. The cooking will take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how deeply caramelized you would like them to be. When the onions are done, splash the pan with a tablespoon of water (for more flavor, use stock or wine); stir until the liquid is reduced and season with salt and pepper.

3. Caramelized onions will keep a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen for up to three months.

Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.

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Holy Trinity

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When summer turns down the heat, when it can no longer cloak the edge of winter with its sweet, delicate fruit and easy freshness, we must remember again how to cook. Not that we haven’t cooked all summer—there have been sautés, fresh sauces, crowded grills—but the flavors have stayed so available, so forthright, we haven’t needed to add much more than salty cheese, a dousing of vinaigrette, a sear on the grill.

End-of-summer produce is a sultry lot; what was bursting with readiness is now reserved, its proteins and sugars turned meaty or starched in a way that implores the coaxing of a low flame. Our kitchens, too, are suddenly more habitable, their corners cooled by night’s deeper chill, asking, finally, for the symphonic perfume that comes from roasting. It seems right, this pair: a ready kitchen, vegetables seeking warmth.

What you can draw from one gently cooked vegetable—say a tomato, thick slices roasted into candy—expands exponentially when you combine it with a companion or two. These trinities (sometimes duos or quartets) live at the heart of almost every cuisine. They make the stitch between cooking and culture.

Take sofrito, paella’s backbone and the base of many Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American soups, stews, and rice dishes. Cajun and Creole cooks call their sofrito the Holy Trinity, a trio of onion, celery, and green pepper finely diced and cooked until they sit in their own luscious sauce, ready for the next layer.

They go by different names, but all of these trinities are holy in their own rite, balancing sour and sweet, aroma and spice in a way that may best be summed up by the Italian word agrodulce. A mix of agro (sour) and dulce (sweet), agrodulce, at its most basic, is a sauce made of vinegar and sugar. But it also runs through a sofrito, where the acidity of a tomato meets the sweetness of roasted garlic, onion, and red pepper. Add zucchini and eggplant and you have ratatouille. Take away all but the tomato and onion, add ginger and coriander, and you have an Indian chutney. Give that chutney a couple spoonfulls of peanut butter instead of coriander, and you are on your way to Tongolese azi dessi.

Some trinities are strongly aromatic, such as German suppengrun (literally, “soup greens”), where carrots and leeks lend their earthy sugars to celeriac’s musk; or the French mirepoix—onion, carrot, and celery—offering the root vegetables’ subtle dulce a clean, cutting bitterness in lieu of overt acidity. Italian soffritto is more like mirepoix than its Spanish counterpart, starting with the same onion-carrot-celery base and adorning it with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, or cured meats. Szechuan cuisine’s holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and chile peppers marries sour and sweet with spice, as does the simplest Mexican rajas—strips of poblano peppers and onions slowly cooked in oil until supple and melded.

This kind of submission is what makes a trinity holy—the melting away of individual identity to become something if not greater, than at least unmistakably different than the sum of its parts. It is a way of cooking that does more than pair compatible flavors; it transforms them. But don’t go looking for texture, don’t expect crust or crunch. A good holy trinity is about softness, about giving up.

And so it is with end of summer vegetables; after months of freshness, I yearn for something deeper, something willing to fade into the background. This year, my trinity of choice is eggplant, tomato, and onion. I stew them slowly in a Dutch oven on the lowest heat, salted judiciously, oregano or thyme for character, a pinch of sugar and a dash of white wine for body. And because it is the last chance (or nearly so) for many other delicious things, from that rich, silky base I build.

Perhaps I’ll strip an ear of late season corn, its sugar becoming starch, adding creamy thickness and a pleasing pop to the stew’s texture. I throw in peppers, sweet or hot, for their meaty softness; Romano or green beans, less tender now than a month ago, which hold their shape after an hour’s simmer, absorbing the sauce and giving back supple firmness, something to chew on. Maybe I’ll cube that zucchini, a little spongy in the center, all the better now to absorb, to give.

You can keep going, adding what you like. Give it a grilled fish, a plate of pasta, a mound of polenta. Dip flatbread in it. Smother it with cheese. Bake it under a blanket of oiled breadcrumbs. Spread it on a sandwich with salami, a sausage. Make a crazy pizza topping out of it. Try it on ice cream. It doesn’t matter, because it takes its perfection with it. You’ve made something whole and, dolloped here, spread there, it stays that way.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eggplant Sauce

(adapted from Plenty)

With the addition of onion, softened just before the eggplant, this is the basic sauce I can’t get enough of right now. I cook it longer than the recipe suggests, about forty minutes on a low flame for complete melding.

Serves 4

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)

6 1/2 tbsp water

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chopped oregano (or 1 tsp dried)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir with the eggplant, cooking 2 minutes. Then add the wine and cook another minute more.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar, and oregano and cook for an additional 10 or more minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce.

4. Serve on its own as a side dish, with pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan, or over a bed of soft polenta (feta–stirred into the polenta or crumbled on top of the sauce–makes a great addition).

Salad as Still Life, Revisited

GTF Lettuce

This month marks the start of my fourth year writing these blog posts. When I began, I hadn’t written anything substantial in almost ten years and it felt good to get out and stretch my creative legs in the realm of the garden, market, and kitchen, territory that had by then become as beloved and familiar as the books that initially inspired me to write. Discovering gardening and fresh vegetables through studying horticulture and working in the small farm community gave me the compelling muse I felt I lacked as an aspiring young writer.

Three years after I wrote my first blog post, Salad as Still Life, I sold my first article to a print magazine, which draws on the same infatuation with spring lettuces, and the same metaphor. You can read an online version of the introduction and following lettuce variety descriptions, originally printed in the May/June 2015 issue of Rodale’s Organic Life magazine.

I still love the way this piece set the tone for the ones that would follow; because, in the words of one of my favorite garden writers, Wendy Johnson, when it comes to vegetables, “Beauty counts.”

Thank you all for reading, commenting, and encouraging me along the way!

The following is a reworked version of the post originally published on May 3, 2012:

Salad is an ancient meal. The modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from those baskets of wild leaves gathered in forests and meadows since before remembered time. Our tastes have expanded and contracted over the millennia; the iceberg faze of the mid-twentieth century being the most recent contraction, and the diversity of greens we see in today’s markets and restaurants the next expansion.

Salad has changed the way I see my own garden. Never quite the place I once intended it to be—neat rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, kale for soups or braising—it has become something akin to those prehistoric meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils, and, when they come, flower petals or whole blossoms.

Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with surprising complexity of flavor. Little Western bittercress, a common weed in early spring’s wet soil, is so delicious I fend competitors away from a few specimens to let them grow large, their tender compound leaves lending a lively blend of herb and pepper to the salad bowl. I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified foliage for a quick nudge of powerful flavor that acts as a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the meal I’ll make when I get home.

Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden is not without hazard. Be safe and look it up if you don’t know. I once spent an afternoon trying to discern whether the leaf I impulsively consumed was chervil, finally germinated months after I’d planted the seeds, or its close relative, poison hemlock. I would have rather conducted that research without monitoring for symptoms of impending doom.

Since I began seeing my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. With a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad components as a painter would her paints. I search for beauty in juxtaposition, so diverse my palette of flavors and textures has become: silky, curly, nutty, tender, mineral, crunchy, buttery, briny, muscular, juicy, bright, bitter, grassy, tangy, piquant. From the herb patch comes a whole spice cabinet of accents—anise-flavored tarragon, floral parsley, peppery or cooling mint, clove-scented basil.

And the colors—deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as pure as spring itself spanning all the way to green deep forest dark. From chard, shiso, amaranth and quinoa leaves, we get pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. Left to the whims of a curious tender, the garden becomes as diverse as a painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, supple flavors of greens grown in the cool sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside and collect at whim: small leaves from the bolting stalks of overwintered kale or broccoli, mache, baby arugula, mizuna, pea shoots, spring planted chard, miner’s lettuce, bittercress, and, of course, plump lettuces (crowns of the spring garden) with names like ‘Red Earred Butterheart,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ and ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt, a few cracks of pepper, and a good toss will have you on your way, leaves glistening and bare, to museum quality.

*A quick note on bitter, the flavor in the garden perhaps most difficult to love. In my experience, there are two main categories of bitter: the one that fills the mouth with a hard, pungent taste that lingers the way skunk musk persists over a patch of road, and the one that starts like the first but finishes sweet, a deep hint of caramel at the back of your mouth that makes you reach for another leaf. I used to go for nothing bitter, and now the second category, with its alluring sweetness, has become something I rarely want a salad to be without.

Kings of Winter

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We don’t think much of cabbage these days. It’s there; we buy it, shred and dress it into slaws, add it to winter soups, boil it for St. Patrick’s Day. As vegetable eaters, we generally gravitate towards lighter fare—tender salad greens or frilly kale. But cabbage, in all its juicy heft, was once an indispensable crop, especially in winter, when these nutrient-dense heads fed families and their livestock through a time of year when fresh vegetables were threateningly scarce.

Cabbage belongs to an extensive vegetable family known as the brassicas. Ranging from leafy kales and spicy mustards to geometric Romanesco and many-cabbaged Brussels sprouts to root crops like turnips and radishes, brassicas make up a good deal of all but summer’s vegetable patch.

They are varying degrees of hardy, some (mostly kales) able to withstand deep cold tucked away in a snowdrift. Many more brassicas tolerate our mild, if soggy, maritime Northwest winters. The sort of cold we do get generally improves winter brassicas—each drop in temperature instructing cells to infuse their watery interiors with sugar. Since sugar solution freezes at a lower temperature than water, the plants avoid ruptured cells; we get sweeter greens.

Farmers plan for January and February harvests in July and August. Winter requires strategy because few vegetables are able to grow at a rate that allows continuous harvest once day length drops to ten hours or less (early November through early February at our latitude). What a farm field will lack in regenerative ability farmers must make up for in volume, planting much larger patches of winter greens than they would of the same greens intended for spring harvests, and early enough that they are nearing a harvestable size by November.

Cabbage adds another layer of strategy to the game, especially in colder regions where it must be harvested before the first hard freeze. Tightly packed heads of thick, waxy leaves keep for weeks, even months, in optimum post-harvest conditions. In bygone eras, that would have been a root cellar: cool, humid chamber where the air circulates slowly and the earthen floor absorbs condensation. Today’s farmers use walk-in coolers or insulated storage rooms. At home, we have refrigerators. I’ve successfully kept whole cabbages, patted dry and enclosed in a plastic bag, for two months or more, opening them occasionally to prevent spoiling by toweling off any condensation built up inside the bag.

Cabbage stores even longer as sauerkraut, the result of a fermentation process that utilizes salt to draw moisture from shredded leaves, creating brine that essentially pickles them. Fermented cabbage takes on salty, sour, sometimes buttery qualities, keeping for months in the refrigerator. An ancient technique discovered independently by the Chinese (as long as 6,000 years ago) and the Romans, sauerkraut as we know it today was likely introduced to eastern Europe by invading Mongols. Europeans adapted the ferment to indigenous cabbage varieties and their preferred seasonings, and sauerkraut was born.

Cabbage flavor is dominated by two compounds—raw cabbage’s spicy bite comes from glucosinolates and the sulfurous flavor and odor of cooked cabbage from hydrogen sulfide gas released when the leaves are exposed to continuous heat. Glucosinolates, present in raw, cooked, or fermented cabbage, are the subject of much scientific investigation; preliminary studies show an ability to reduce some types of cancerous growth on rodent organs. Whether or not it prevents cancer, cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins C and K, as well as dietary fiber.

Cabbage may be medicinal, but it doesn’t have to taste like it. Avoid the sulfurous side of its flavor spectrum by keeping down the heat. Hydrogen sulfide increases dramatically between the 5th and 7th minutes of high-heat cooking (boiling). If you must boil cabbage, cut it into strips and do so for less than five minutes. Alternatives that keep away cabbage’s potentially off-putting stink include stir-frying, roasting, shallow simmering or braising. Splashes of citrus and vinegar help hide all of cabbage’s strong flavors, as do powerful spices like caraway, cumin, black pepper, ginger, and hot peppers.

Winter is prime time for cabbage, as cold weather and ample moisture help moderate the production of sulfurous compounds, and sugars built up during repeated frosts smooth out the raw leaves’ bite. Let yourself be seduced by a beautiful winter cabbage, let it compel you to take it home, even if you’re not sure what to do with it. And know that it will wait, tucked safely in the fridge, until the right time comes for you to discover it.

(To start, check out these seven different—and delicious—ways to prepare cabbage: https://food52.com/blog/5454-7-ways-to-make-cabbage-sexy)

Feast

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If you grew up in the United States in the past 130 years, you’ve heard the story of a 1621 feast shared by English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives to commemorate peaceful relations between the two communities and to share in the abundance that is a New England autumn. They ate wild turkey and venison, corn and cranberries, pumpkin, fruits, and root crops freshly harvested from their colonial gardens and the surrounding wilderness. On the other side of history, we have canonized the meal as symbolic of our nation’s origins. At the time, it was a welcome gorge preceding a long winter, an accidental union of two disparate cultures’ values.

Certainly the Wampanoag viewed such a feast through the eyes of thanksgiving. Holding a sense of thanks through all stages of the year’s cycle, planting, childbirth, harvest, and the hunt were tasks performed with deep gratitude to the powers that made them possible. Likewise, the Pilgrims’ spiritual tradition placed thanks at the center of their religious and daily life.

Feast is the opposite of famine, a dichotomy enshrined by the Puritan Pilgrims that colonized Plymouth Rock, who landed on that challenging shoreline in an effort to find a place to freely practice their unconventional version of Christianity. Staunch minimalists, the Puritans distilled the sum of their annual celebrations down to those that provided the fewest distractions to accomplishing work and observing the power of their god. The Puritans had abandoned Christmas, Easter, and all other Catholic and Anglican holidays before leaving England, celebrating two “holidays” outside of the weekly Sabbath: Thanksgiving Day and Fasting Day.

In line with the natural order of things, Fasting Day fell in spring, when the Puritans, who used fasting as a form of prayer, would hold a special day of fasting when the larder ran low and the seeds, so delicate and small, were placed in the coarse, unpredictable soil. Fasting Day commemorated the request for a good growing year, for relative fortune and health among their community. Thanksgiving Day was Fasting Day’s opposite, when the garden’s bounty (and another year of health) was gazed upon in the form of an indulgent spread, as if to say, “Look, we made it!”

The harvest has long held a singular place of reverence in temperate-climate cultures. Acknowledging that plenty is neither a constant nor a given, harvest time is the most exciting, the most culinary diverse, the wealthiest time of the year. Larders full, game fattened and plentiful, we can relax and tell stories, gather family and neighbors to share memories, thoughts, and thanks. It’s a time of year imbued with a sense of the spiritual; being an interval with the fewest external threats, the world (and our mind) opens itself to magic.

We call that meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag The First Thanksgiving, though they, and two centuries of their descendants, didn’t see it that way. Our contemporary Thanksgiving came about through a mingling of the Puritan’s tradition of a religious Thanksgiving Day and regional harvest celebrations, and didn’t crystalize as a national holiday until the 19th Century. Its late November observance (a month or two off mark from the New England harvest season) is explained by the influence of a third holiday (or lack thereof): Christmas. Having given up the Catholic (and in their eyes, inappropriately indulgent) celebration of Christmas, the Puritans slid Thanksgiving back to winter’s parlor, shining that bright, festive meal onto the dark, cold days ahead.

Now entirely secular, Thanksgiving has become the quintessential American feast. Though most of the Americans that prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal today have not harvested or hunted its ingredients, they adhere, by tradition, to a seasonal spread of mostly indigenous foods: squash and pumpkin, turkey, beans, cranberries, corn, and potatoes are New World foods that, in this particular configuration, still symbolize a sort of prosperity wrought from effort.

Thanksgiving today is less a sigh of relief for an agricultural season well played than the kickoff to an exhilarating (and often exhausting) holiday season, yet we maintain an emphasis on gathering with family and friends. And though outside forces (creeping Black Friday sales, football, and takeout, to name a few) increasingly compete with another era’s version of Thanksgiving, it remains in our time a cook’s holiday, venerating the traditional and innovative alike (just look at any cooking magazine’s November issue to see that the line between the two is walked carefully by our collective imagination).

Likely, someone in your life has prepared you a delicious feast on this day. Perhaps you have returned the favor. If you have been so lucky as to do the work or watch it, to smell the sacred rite of plenty, to let your mind slip into a starch-induced journey through memory or musing, then you know Thanksgiving’s least cynical secret: that food, as it is given and received, is a pure expression of love.

Fennel

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Feathery leaves and hollow stalks reminiscent of dill, succulent celery-like stems, fennel is one of those vegetables that seems to exude domesticity: a creature of the garden too well-designed, too perfectly shaped to have come out of the wild. In some ways this is true. Ancestral fennels did not have softball-sized “bulbs” at their base, nor did they likely taste so strongly of anise, but this hybrid vegetable-herb did once scatter its own seed around the Mediterranean coast, born of a family tree of fennels rich in aromatic compounds and powerful phytochemicals.

Fennel’s native range still hosts a variety of fennel species, notably among them the impressive giant fennel (Ferula communis). This towering (up to 10ft), central-trunked curiosity boasts no edible qualities. However, its thick, hollow stalk, once dried, makes for good, slow-burning tinder—a characteristic recognized by Greek mythology. In the classic story depicting how humans were given fire, Prometheus pilfers a spark from Mt. Olympus by hiding it inside a fennel stalk.

Asafetida (Ferula assafoetida), a stinking giant fennel indigenous from Iran to northern India, is unpleasant eaten fresh, though its seeds and powdered resin are widely used seasonings in those regions. The resin tastes similar to onions, and makes a good substitute for pungent onion flavor in Vedic cuisine, which prohibits consumption of alliums.

Even more mysterious is silphium, a likely extinct species of antiquity whose exact botanical taxonomy is not well understood. We know of silphium today because of its great importance in ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians and Minoans had special glyphs to represent the plant. A Greek colony called Cyrene was established in silphium’s native range (modern-day coastal Libya) and its wealth was built on the trade of Silphium; so valuable a commodity was it that a stylized image of both the plant and its seed were depicted on Cyrenean coins.

Though silphium was used culinarily, its commercial value likely hinged on its medicinal properties. All members of the parsley family (apiaceae) have small amounts of phytoestrogens, compounds created by plants that function like or interact with estrogen in animals. Though it is uncertain why a plant would go to the trouble of creating a hormone it doesn’t use, one theory suggests phytoestrogens are a protective device: by producing hormones that work like birth control in forage-eating animals, the plants prevent population explosion and, thus, overgrazing.

Silphium appears to have had particularly potent phytoestrogens in its resin, a quality that suited the hedonistic Greeks and Romans, fonder of sex than of family life, and that most convincingly explains silphium’s commercial appeal and eventual extinction. In their zealousness to exploit silphium as a contraceptive, the Romans decimated wild populations of a plant that was never successfully domesticated. Pliny the Elder describes silphium as a bygone species of giant fennel, the last specimen of which was given to Emperor Nero as a curiosity.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, ancient people enjoyed the culinary properties of a milder fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Though this fennel was short on contraceptive compounds, it was tender and juicy as celery, with an anise-scented sweetness. Gardeners cultivated this fennel, selecting less fibrous, swollen stem bases over stringy stalks, eventually resulting in what we know today as a fennel bulb.

Fennel requires little fuss in the kitchen. A cool-season vegetable, thinly sliced fennel is traditionally paired with winter-harvested citrus and a drizzle of good olive oil. On the stove or the grill, fennel’s sugars caramelize to a smooth, rich umami dressed in nothing more than a coating of oil and salt. Its stalks or seeds can be sprinkled over cooking coals to impart their fragrant oils onto fish or mild vegetables. Tucked into an autumn soup or braise, fennel melts into the broth, turning translucent and soft without disintegrating.

Many cookbooks instruct you to cut out the core, though I’ve never understood why. In grilled or braised fennel, the core is the most luscious part, silky as a roasted carrot when done. Since a fennel bulb is no more than the layered bases of the leaf stalks, the central core is what holds them together, making for neat wedges if you slice it so that each piece contains part of the core.

We have our own version of wild fennel in temperate regions—bronze fennel sold as an ornamental reseeds easily, soon populating even cracks in the garden path. Sweet garden fennel itself can get out of control, searching for its wilder self by stretching into shrub-like towers when left to seed, and setting tenacious roots if allowed to go a second season. In my garden, I tempt fate and look forward to the yellow flower umbels of fennel plants that bolted—each perched atop its stalk like the sparkling flame of a torch—adding them to fall arrangements or nibbling on their warming, anise-flavored seeds.

Fall

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If summer is the extrovert and winter the introvert, fall and spring are the seasons when all bets are off, when every corner of our lives seems charged with purpose and possibility. Though we know fall is the beginning of the end in terms of tender garden plants and abundant vegetable harvests, it is so laden with bounty we may be forgiven for missing the first signs.

Before we called it autumn, this segment of late summer was known in English simply as ‘harvest.’ In an era without big box stores or large-scale farming, harvest was the portion of the year when that was all one did. For weeks on end, t’was the season to gather from the garden, the orchard, the fields and forests. Birds and squirrels in my garden follow the same age-old tradition of compulsive collecting, fattening themselves and their larders for the harsher days ahead. Their busy, sometimes irritating work enlivens the autumn garden with a sense of urgency.

And while the general trend in fall is a movement inward, to the outside observer, the world flares with color and exuberance. High and low pressure systems oscillate, bringing rain and wind one day, sun and crispness the next. Summer’s dust and haze are washed into wonderful focus. Deciduous leaves turn shades of yellow, red, orange, or brown, painting the ground with pools of color and filling the air with their chattering percussion.

Likely a shortening of phrases like “the fall of leaves,” and “the fall of the year,” fall is an old name for the season, one that came into common usage in the 1600’s as “harvest” phased out and “autumn” (of French origin) phased in. The terms fall and autumn followed colonists to the New World and remain interchangeable names for this season. Back in England, autumn took furtive hold, and ‘fall’ fell the way of ‘harvest.’

I’ve always liked to say fall—verb as season, like spring—as if through the trimming of our language we embraced the equinoxes’ transformative nature. Fall is a decline into winter, spring the rebound from it. Plants and leaves fall to the ground, the year falls to its close. And the gardener, too, wants to fall from the relentlessness of a garden in its prime.

And yet, when it comes time to cut back the summer plants, I always hesitate. Inevitably, there are tomatoes left unripe, basil with a few more leaves, pole beans still sputtering out pods. In my small garden, if I want to have winter vegetables, I must make a choice; to wait until the summer crops’ natural end means winter plants would start too late. So, in the span of an hour my summer garden falls into the compost, leaving bare soil and the certainty of seasons changed.

Though it appears that autumn brings death to the lushness of summer, its nature is more contractive than destructive. Leaves fall from the trees not because of sickness or frailty, but to preserve nutrients. When day length shortens to a certain number of hours, the woody stems of deciduous trees and shrubs begin to seal themselves at the point of attachment, cutting off nutrients to the leaves so they may keep a store of energy for spring growth.

Though the leaves are still attached, they no longer have access to the materials necessary to produce chlorophyll. As the leaf uses up its supply, its green begins to fade away. Orange and yellow carotenoids, present throughout the summer underneath chlorophyll’s pigmentation, suddenly become visible. Purple and red anthocyanins synthesize in the leaf’s changing chemistry, creating spectacular, glowing hues. Eventually, the leaves drop around the base of the tree and break down throughout winter, returning their minerals and nutrients to the soil and, over time, back to the tree itself.

Our lives go in as well. Like a tree, we gather what we can and leave the rest to winter’s decomposition. In spring, we look forward to abundance, imagining our bare gardens laden with food. Once the garden’s branches have been laden for a while, we imagine them gone, the work done, the squash roasting and a good book on the lap.

Table Seeds

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Resourceful gardeners (and in times past, every gardener) think to save a few seeds of their favorite vegetables each season, keeping their stock fresh and selecting for traits they desire: early ripening, flavor, color, size. Not all seeds are savable at the home scale because they require too much separation distance to keep their genetics pure. Others, like tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce, will come true most of the time even from two different varieties growing side-by-side.

It is satisfying to save seeds for next year’s garden, weighty harvests contracted down to feather-light parcels tucked away for winter. Beyond a hard won sunflower or chewy-roasted pumpkin seed here and there, we rarely think to eat the seeds we grow. They are so small, so insubstantial, and so often unfamiliar that we don’t consider most seeds worthy of garden space in their own right.

I grew my first seeds by accident: fennel that got away from me, bolted and flowered while I was concerned with some other part of the garden. By the time I took notice, they had already developed their green seeds in pretty little umbels I didn’t have the heart to cut down. Once they’d dried, I put a few in a jar mostly as a way of capitalizing my loss: no fennel bulb, but a stash of concentrated fennel flavor. I don’t use much fennel seed and promptly forgot about it, but a year later when I found it again, in need of some for a pickle brine, I was amazed at the full fennel fragrance that greeted my nose when I opened the jar.

I soon discovered that cilantro does the same thing, deviously racing into seed development only a week or so after much foliage appears. When they first form, the green seed heads are a tender, pungently citrus addition to curry pastes or they can be eaten whole—raw or pickled. The mature, dried seed heads are too woody to eat whole and must be ground before use as a seasoning.

Dill, a relative of fennel, follows a similar trajectory. As with coriander, the fresh seeds of dill and fennel are bright, fragrant versions of their dried flavor. Nearly effortless to grow and easy to harvest (just pinch them off when dry, or hang their clusters upside-down in a paper bag and shake once the stems are brittle), you simply need to sort out any plant debris (sifting and winnowing in front of a fan, with practice, still works), and store them in an airtight container. Just like all garden harvests, their freshness is obvious and will find its way into your home cuisine the more you experiment.

Last year I grew my first purposeful seeds. Impulsive catalog purchases, I chose cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and kalonji (Nigella sativum). The cumin never went very far; though I got meager germination, the few transplants I put in suffered before being overtaken by weeds (what you get when you combine plant and gardener indifference). The nigella flourished in a profusion of delicate blooms whose shape recalls a (albeit restrained) passionflower: wide opened petals displaying showy rings of pistol and stamen.

From the center of this fanfare grows an urn-like seed capsule, segmented into vertical pods that hold a dozen or so seeds each. When the whole capsule is dry and the seeds have released themselves from its walls, it rattles when shaken and the seeds spill out easily when the pods are split open. Looking like a rough-hewn black sesame seed, kalonji have a lemon rind bitterness that quickly becomes floral allium fragrance in the mouth (hence another name for them: black onion seed).

Kalonji is a common spice in Pakistan, Bengal, Turkey and parts of India, used widely in dal, as one-fifth of the “five-spice” seasoning panch-phoron, and to top flatbreads and rolls. They also make a pretty, though modest, garden flower that has culinary applications. Had the cumin thrived, it would have offered similar services, gracefully filling in space between the more showy garden flowers while developing capsules to refresh the spice cupboard.

Though I cannot personally vouch for them, poppies are touted as a painless home seed crop. The same variety that produces handsome capsules of delicious seeds also happens to have showy pink and lavender blossoms. Next year I’ll be planting a variety called ‘Zair,’ selected for its especially sweet, blue-gray culinary seeds. And for a real challenge, I may try sesame, a seed for which our climate is not ideal. A tropical native, they desire a long, hot growing season to reach maturity. If next summer is anything like this summer, a home harvest of sesame seeds may be the silver lining.

Find kalonji (listed as Nigella ‘Black Cumin’) and Poppy ‘Zair Breadseed’ from the regionally local Uprising Seed; Cumin and Zair Poppy from Fedco Seed; and sesame from Nichols Garden Nursery or Kitazawa Seed Company.

Pollinators

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As gardeners, we tend to think in terms of outcome, working to create an abundance of nourishing food, beauty, color, fragrance, liveliness, or serenity. We give to the garden in the form of compost, amendments, time, and water in order to receive again. It is a well-practiced agreement, one that stretches deeper into our history than written language. Underlying that bargain, or perhaps punctuating it, is the clause of partnership.

Numerous are the hazards that await a newly sprouted seed. As all creatures of the earth, it must struggle and endure, fitted with a biology prepared for some of the hardships that may come. Even so, destinies are not always attained, and those that are owe their victory, in part, to the efforts of others.

Pollinators seem the perfect metaphor for the everyman: one vote is all she gets, one voice of action. And while the pollinator is rarely glamorous or exceptional, his collective work has great influence. From the perspective of our species alone, pollinators are vital to our food supply—75% of food crops rely on pollinators for fertilization, while 100% benefit from the efforts of predatory or parasitic insects.

Known as ‘beneficial insects,’ these myriad species invisibly protect our fields and gardens. Syrphid flies, a fly in bee costume also known as a hover fly, snacks on pollen and nectar as an adult and hatches larvae that eat aphids, thrips, and other soft-bodied plant pests. Ladybeetle larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids, which the adults maintain at a slower but steady pace. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on sap-sucking insect bodies that their larvae parasitize, eating the insides as they grow, leaving behind empty aphid husks as they pupate.

Such humble work is invaluable to any gardener, especially one wishing to avoid chemical pesticides. And for those that desire their trees to bow with branches heavy in fruit, for their squash patch to proliferate, or their berry harvests to boom, pollinators are irreplaceable partners. Diversity of pollinators means more bodies carrying pollen around the garden or field, and translates to increased yields of higher quality fruits.

Outside our cultivated spaces, the same results apply. Although we tend to think of honeybees when we talk nectar and pollen, native insects account for 80% or more of a given area’s total pollination. Honeybees, an introduced species, are useful for their colonizing habits. We can keep them in controlled hives and transport them from field to field in the orchestrated pollination of large crops. But in our gardens and natural areas, native pollinators do the lion’s share of the work, maintaining production as they maintain plant species diversity.

This arrangement reveals a compelling law of attraction. The equation is simple: what you give to eventually wants to give back. To nurture those who nurture you is a smart move on the evolutionary scale, one to which we have given a name and that we carry on in our own human terms: kindness.

Entering this positive feedback loop and being kind to your pollinators means planting the food they are accustomed to and providing the habitat the need. Many native bees nest in the soil, so leaving some undisturbed ground and plant debris (think sticks and leaves) means protecting nests. Native insects have evolved to eat native plant nectar and pollen; growing these species in clusters large enough to be noticed will attract native pollinators into your garden. Keep in mind that native pollinators are active all but the coldest months of the year; providing blooms spring through fall means feeding a diverse range of species with different hatching times.

There are many online resources from which to learn more about serving native insects by adjusting your gardening practices. A good place to start is the Xerces Society, a local organization that performs research, writes books and free publications (including plant lists and tips for gardeners), and advocates for these necessary species: http://www.xerces.org

Kitchen Dispatch: Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are the darlings of the main-season garden—their aromatic foliage smells fervently of summer, and it is from that radiant tangle our favorite fruits emerge in colors and combinations seemly without limit. In truth, tomato plants grow like weeds, flopping and out of control. While we struggle to hold them to their trellising, they take their time setting green fruits that hang for what always feels too long before the first hints of ripening appear. Slowly, with a storyteller’s patience, they become our imaginings—a mythology months in the making that we pluck, relishing its smooth realness all the way to the kitchen.

What a show they put on, grandly occupying vast stretches of small gardens from May to October, only to offer relatively minor bounty (especially with the larger heirloom varieties) compared to a succession of root and salad crops. Some years I must forego tomatoes in my tiny backyard garden for the sake of rotation. But the tomato summers are always my favorite, and it is always worth their theatrics for this meal: a just-picked tomato carried in the gardener’s hand; zesty foliage and fruit’s rich perfume mingling.

Summer is ripe when tomatoes line the kitchen counter, spoils of market or garden awaiting transformation. Few countertop residents cause as much anxiety—truly vine-ripened tomatoes arrive already plump and soft, needing action. We know how to slice and dress them with basil and oil, slabs of fresh mozzarella. We know they make effortless sandwiches (now is the time for BLT’s), salads, and pizza toppings. We know they are perfect unadorned save a bright pinch of salt.

When we have done all that and the curiosity wants to stretch further, find new territory, tomatoes not only await, they demand our ingenuity. And what is more versatile than these sweet and savory globes? Melting or meaty, sour or satiny, their flavor easily concentrates or thins, and resonates with nearly anything the garden can throw at it. Like an agile partner, they know the tunes, they have the moves; we simply need to turn on the music.

Tomatoes respond well to low heat, their moisture reduces, sugars develop, without wiping out all of the fresh fruit’s complexity. Slow roasted tomatoes are delicious simply atop a slice of fresh bread, but hold their own among heartier dishes like braised lentils, grilled meats, eggs, or buttery tarts. Paste, plum, seedless, or ox-heart type tomatoes are best for cooking—their dense flesh and few seeds means they contain less watery juices that would dilute their cooked flavor.

To roast tomatoes, pick an afternoon where you have tasks around the house and set your oven to its lowest temperature. Drizzle halved or quartered tomatoes (depending on their size; thick slabs also work for larger tomatoes) generously with olive oil. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer, cut side up, and sprinkle with salt; a small amount of sugar adds surprising fullness, and seasonings like thyme, oregano, or black pepper add depth. Stick them in the oven and forget about them until the smell becomes irresistible. Take a peak. Roast them until they are shriveled, softened, their color deepened, anywhere from 2-4 hours. Store covered in oil in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Tomato sauce can be a daylong project, or an impromptu supper, depending on your resolve. Home-preserved tomato sauce is a great treat in winter, and a long project in the heat of summer. If you do choose to go that route, consider saving the skins you’ve so painstakingly removed and dry them, as Amanda Hesser suggests in her book, The Cook and The Gardener, in the oven (again on its lowest setting) until they become dehydrated but pliable. Chop and use as a punchy garnish, or save in a sealed jar to add to the stockpot down the line.

Never completely savory or sweet, cooked tomatoes always end up a combination of the two. Tomato jam, an unctuous preserve for scones, tarts, or even sandwiches, displays this quality well. Made with sugar, like any jam, it is luxuriously sweet; underneath is a base strikingly green, harkening back to the florescent scent of the garden’s tomato brambles.

Fresh tomatoes are perhaps the sweetest form of all, especially those selected for this quality: cherry, pear, grape, and zebra-striped varieties make for syrupy mouthfuls without any embellishment. Or, Deborah Madison offers this simple preparation in her book, Vegetable Literacy, using cream to play up the fruit’s natural sugar:

Warm four tablespoons of heavy cream on low heat with a clove of smashed garlic and a fresh basil leaf until it comes to a boil. Set aside to steep while you peel a selection (about ½ pound) of fresh sweet tomatoes by dropping them for ten seconds in boiling water to loosen their skins. Place them directly in ice-cold water to stop them from cooking and slip off their skins. Slice and add tomatoes to the cream and bring to a bubble for 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper and salt (she recommends smoked salt) and serve covered in breadcrumbs or over a slice of toast.