The Fat of the Land

Calabacitas

IMG_1693

For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)

Advertisements

Apricot Jam

IMG_8390

Though I grew up eating it, I never thought much of jam. Unaware that there was anything else, most of the jam I’d eaten until I was seventeen was the store-bought variety—overly jelled, painfully sweet—and I stuck almost exclusively to raspberry, on toast or a peanut butter sandwich. The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents took me to Europe. Our first stop was Paris, a city of which I was instantly enamored and where I first fell in love with jam.

The store was Fauchon, a luxury grocer whose shelves were lined with finely crafted sundries. We had come for the tea (my mom was a tea fanatic and had read about their legendary selection), but as I wandered the sparklingly exotic aisles, I found myself in front of a wall of jam jars displayed like fine crystal. A rainbow of jewel-tones, their labels read off flavors I’d never dreamed of: strawberry with rose petals, raspberry and litchi, bergamot marmalade, apricot and vanilla bean.

My mom found the jam, too, and picked up a number of jars to take home. I chose apricot and vanilla bean for our hotel breakfasts and picnics in the park. When trying a jam for the first time, you could do worse than to spread it on a Parisian croissant, as we did with that apricot jam. The texture was plump and saucy, not stiff as I was used to, and it dribbled into the folds of my croissant like honey. It tasted of sunshine, the sort that radiates from a field turned late-summer gold, vanilla’s woody nectar giving legs to the fruit’s buoyant acidity, all of which faded into honeysuckle sweetness that lingered in my mouth with the aroma of warmth and hay.

Each of the Fauchon jams we tasted were this way, like a story in a bottle whose prose we savored until we’d scraped every last bit from the side of the jar. I make my own jams now, but I had never come close to a Fauchon jam until this one. As I stirred its bubbling sauce for the first time, I found the fragrance vaguely familiar; and when I tasted a spoonful, I knew why. I was there again, sitting on the fire-escape balcony of a tiny Parisian hotel, experiencing a world outside of my own for the first time, bombarded by its sounds and smells and strangeness, completely mesmerized by its jam.

Apricot and Vanilla-Bean Preserves

From Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff

Makes about 5 Half-Pint Jars

3 pounds ripe apricots, halved and pitted (no need to peel)

½ cup rosé or white wine, or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1½ cups sugar

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

  • Prepare for water-bath canning*: Sterilize the jars and keep them hot in the canning pot, put a small plate in the freezer, and put the flat lids in a heat-proof bowl.
  • Cut the apricots into ¼-inch slices. Put the apricots, wine, sugar, and vanilla beans in a wide, 6- to 8-quart pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, then continue to cook until the juices are just deep enough to cover the apricots, about 5 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into a colander set over a large bowl and stir the apricots gently to drain off the juices. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the syrup is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Return the apricots and vanilla beans and any accumulated juices to the pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, until a small dab of the jam spooned onto the chilled plate and returned to the freezer for a minute becomes somewhat firm (it will not gel), 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and gently stir for a few seconds to distribute the fruit in the liquid.
  • Ladle boiling water from the canning pot into the bowl with the lids. Using a jar lifter, remove the sterilized jars from the canning pot, carefully pouring the water from each one back into the pot, and place them upright on a folded towel. Drain the water off the jar lids.
  • Remove the vanilla-bean pods and ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving a ¼-inch headspace at the top. Slide a piece of vanilla-bean pod into each jar so that it’s visible from the outside. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the rims of the jars, then put a flat lid and ring on each jar, adjusting the ring so that it’s just finger-tight. Return the jars to the water in the canning pot, making sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes to process. Remove the jars to a folded towel and do not disturb for 12 hours. After 1 hour, check that the lids have sealed by pressing down on the center of each; if it can be pushed down, it hasn’t sealed, and the jar should be refrigerated immediately.

* This recipe may also be bottled without water-bath canning for storage in the refrigerator (it will keep for about 4 weeks) or freezer (it will keep for a year).

Simple Food

grilled Romaine

Yesterday I spent three hours making beet burger mix. The said mix currently waits in my refrigerator for a busy evening when it will feel deliciously effortless to throw a couple patties in the hot skillet and sit down to a satisfying meal minutes later. What I know at this point is that those six patties took an average of thirty laborious minutes each: simmering the dry beans, cooking the brown rice just so, roasting then peeling then shredding then squeezing the beets, pulverizing oats to a fine flour, caramelizing then deglazing onions, processing some but not all of the beans, mixing the lot together in a bowl where it must sit (must!) for at least twenty-four hours before its burger magic can be activated. And although they come with many glowing recommendations, I don’t yet know how they’ll taste.

It was about the time that my hand was stained past my wrist in crimson beet juice, as I worked to release as much moisture as the recipe implored, that I had the thought of a simple hamburger (I am not vegetarian, though I do have a fanatical love of beets). My mind conjured the beefy kind of burger that has only salt and pepper mixed into its ground, maybe a few snippets of chives, then onto the grill it goes, onto the grilled buttered bun a few minutes later, a squeeze of mustard and a smear of mayonnaise, maybe a slice of tomato or onion, though all I really must have on my burger is pickles and a crisp lettuce leaf. How much better than that, I thought, could these beet burgers be?

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. For a vegetarian who likes beets, the appeal is obvious. For those who enjoy a grilled patty of ground beef, three hours of work to create an approximation, even for a beet lover, does seem to beg the question: why bother? Why not throw a few slices of lightly oiled and salted, market-fresh beets onto the grill, let their sugars caramelize in the smoky heat, and call it a night?

Without a doubt, I love elaborate cooking. I do not flinch at a recipe, such as my sister and I tackled last Thanksgiving, that requires many hours of peeling and processing roasted chestnuts just to make a little wisp of a cake that is devoured in less than thirty minutes. I love cooking all day, making it all from scratch, watching the minutiae of an extravagant meal unfold and relishing each step like the lines of an exhilarating book.

But summer makes me sluggish in the kitchen. It’s a good thing that hot weather and vegetable bounty come hand-in-hand, because even the thought of a simple soup has me hesitating, weighing the costs of discomfort against the gains of pleasurable flavor. Summer’s mostly sweltering kitchen (you may have already deduced that my house has no AC) adds to the cost, and the plethora of fresh, flavorful produce detracts from any benefit complex cooking may offer.

So it is with simple food that I while away my summer. Nearly half of our cooking takes place on the grill, our summer oven where we roast every kind of vegetable, cook flatbreads and pizzas, sear peaches or pork chops, and occasionally throw down a patty of ground beef, all without raising the temperature in which we must attempt to sleep.

Indoor cooking amounts to variations in chopping, tossing salads, simmering grains, steaming spuds, or briefly sautéing sweet chunks of summer squash and fresh onions. Summer’s flavors are uncomplicated and light. Too much flame or fuss makes their perky crunch go soft. My goal in the kitchen is not to transform, but to preserve—with the judicious use of salt and pepper, citrus or vinegar, and aromatics from the herb patch—all the delicate, inimitable flavors that the sun and soil and farmhands have already cooked up.

Simple Technique: Here’s a roundup of recipes to help you perfect the basics of simple summer cooking.

Grilling – Become a meatless grill-master with this A-to-Z guide to grilling vegetables

Chopping – Cook with your knife to make this refreshing Chopped Salad with Feta, Lime, and Mint

Steaming – Make a Summer Aoli Feast to celebrate the lightly steamed flavors of peak-season market veggies.

Sautéing – Master the art of the simple sauté with this easy to follow guide.

Pickling – Employ brine, your refrigerator, and time to soften and season your favorite summer vegetables. Check out this simple method of making fridge pickles without a recipe.

Raw – Stick with the flavors nature’s made, then ribbon, rice, puree, or toss using this basic guide to raw cooking.

(For those who’d like that beet burger recipe anyway, you can find it here.)

Volunteers

IMG_7873

As much as I love the controlled chaos of sowing seed pots—the desire to grow bridled by little plastic cubes that make my young plants so easy to pop out and place just where I’d like them—I must admit it isn’t nature’s way. Nature’s way is something like Darwin outlined: an intersection of chance, genetic aptitude, and opportunism. This is how the forest floor is gardened, how a meadow gets planted, or a rockface, a riverbank, the cracks of a sidewalk. As much effort as we put into making it otherwise, the same forces are at play in our own gardens.

Someone once told me, and I’ve heard it said many times since, that a weed is just a plant that pops up where you don’t want it to be. As all gardeners know, flora we intentionally plant may also prove a bit weedy for our tastes (foxglove, hellebore, many ornamental grasses, to name but a few). Even the vegetable plot sometimes gains a confidence of its own, sprouting seedlings without express permission. While a dandelion is almost always a weed, we often call these little upstarts “volunteers.”

Some vegetables are more likely to voluntarily emerge than others: tomatoes and cucurbits are common. In the height of summer, fruits drop; if we don’t pick them up, they rot, leaving primed seeds behind. Lettuces, brassicas (like kale or mustard greens), arugula, sunflowers, and cilantro are equally prolific if your harvesting habits allow them to reach seed-bearing stage. I’ve never dug up a potato patch without inadvertently leaving behind a few tiny spuds that inevitably re-sprout the following spring.

So it goes. If allowed, your garden would start gardening itself. Some gardeners suppress the garden’s urge to volunteer, others are charmed by it. Where you stand on the scale between methodical and improvisational is a matter of personal preference. I’ve envied both bountifully tidy garden rows and those described by Masanobu Fukuoka, a 20th Century Japanese farmer and writer who pioneered his own eclectic brand of natural farming. Fukuoka planted his un-tilled fields using seed balls, a method that capitalizes on the spirit of volunteerism. Seed balls contain a variety of seeds rolled into little clay globes that the farmer chucks into their fields at just the right time (when the cover crop has died down and weed competition is at its lowest). Those that land in an opportunistic place will, in theory, grow to be robust, drought-resistant plants.

Though seed ball planting is not necessarily the best choice for residential gardens (or any garden desiring specific levels of productivity), it’s a useful metaphor for what we are always doing when we garden—throwing our seeds into the ring and hoping they have a fighting chance. Volunteers are accidental victories, and because they made it through Darwin’s qualifying rounds, they deserve consideration. Not surprisingly, volunteers often end up being highly productive, vigorous plants. Unlike transplants, their roots never felt the shock of moving from one environment to another, nor were they ever stopped in their downward descent by the bottom of a plastic pot.

Equally unsurprising is that volunteers are unpredictable. Most tomato seeds will grow back true to type; volunteers sprouting where you grew that cherry variety last year will likely grow up to be the same cherry variety. Cucurbits, like zucchinis and cucumbers, often do the same, especially if you only planted one or two varieties the year before. However, in a few rare but notable instances a cucurbit will revert to its ancestral genetics, over-producing cucurbitacin, a bitter compound used by wild cucurbits to repel insects. If you bite into a zuke, cuke, winter squash, or melon that tastes unbelievably bitter, spit it out. Toxic squash syndrome, the name for what happens if you swallow that bite, causes gastrointestinal mayhem and can result in serious complications from dehydration.

Though not a human health concern, allowing volunteers to reappear in the same place year after year permits the buildup of soil diseases: onion and garlic grown in the same spot will cultivate damaging fungal communities, an everlasting potato patch will soon be host to many debilitating pathogens, even tomatoes (who otherwise don’t nutritionally suffer from repeated plantings in the same soil) will attract a population of blight spores that will eventually be powerful enough to take out a whole patch in two days. Once in the soil, these diseases won’t leave in a gardener’s lifetime, hence the oft-repeated advice to rotate your garden vegetables.

With some discrimination, volunteers can be good for the garden (and gardener). Wind-dispersed seeds like lettuce will move about the garden on their own. If you’d like to rotate tomato or cucurbit volunteers, throw a few fruits here or there in late summer. Naturally occurring variations and adaptations make the going fun. If you aren’t a stickler for specific varieties, seeing and tasting what your volunteers become makes your garden unknown territory and you the explorer. This, along with a general appreciation for a garden’s will to live, is the point of volunteer gardening—to discover.

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.

Tomato Fever!

Tomato Plants

For those of us with an inclination to garden, this time of year boils with excitement—we start more seedlings than our beds could ever hold, bring home bundles of baby plants, imagining how, with a bit of warmth and water, they’ll transform our little plot into a paradise. It starts innocently enough with things like kale or lettuce, a pea plant or twenty, but nothing sets the mind strolling down a summer lane quite like the sight of a tomato plant. They arrive in nurseries and farmers markets in early April, tempting our better judgment with their perky green stems and floppy leaves.

If you have the gardening bug, you probably won’t be able to resist them. Go ahead and pick out the ones that fit your fancy, take them home even, but do not plant them. Not in April. Not really even in May (without accessories). Not, that is, unless you want your tomatoes to delay their fruiting and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Tomatoes are a tropical species that evolved in the jungles of Central America; subjecting young plants to winter-chilled soil and damp, cool nights shocks them into dormancy, where they’ll sit, barely growing a centimeter, until they are assured by a long string of warm days and nights that the world (as their DNA understands it to be) has returned to normal.

In the meantime, the path to tomato greatness that started in a posh greenhouse spa—where their seeds were cajoled into germinating with the help of heated mats that warmed their fluffy potted soil to a perfect 75-degrees, and their young shoots were encouraged to grow because a shelter of stretched plastic kept the cold dew from reaching their panic button—well, all that fine work has been undone. A tomato plant gone into cold dormancy has a hard time recovering even when it does spring back to life. You’ve given it reason to hesitate, you see, to doubt its boundless trust for the world (a trust all tropical plants have, living completely without caution because, in constant warmth, in a crowded jungle, they don’t need it). In its hesitation, it becomes weak.

So do this instead: bring those jolly little jungle babies home and find a place under an awning, under an overhang, even under a tree, where they can wait for summer in some semblance of shelter. If the day is sunny, take them out to bask in it (unless you have a sheltered spot that gets sun, in which case, lucky you); but when night falls, don’t forget to bring them back. It seems counter intuitive, but the roots of a tomato plant, tucked neatly into a plastic pot, will fare better in above ground temperatures this time of year, which warm more readily than the soil in spring’s on-again-off-again sunshine. That little overhang, pathetic as it may seem, does moderate night temperatures somewhat, buffering your tomato plants from the wider temperature swings happening just a few feet away.

If you feel you must plant your tomatoes directly into the garden when you bring them home on an unseasonably warm spring day, be aware that (to avoid cold dormancy) they will need some protection—a tool to increase their site’s soil temperature, moderate nightly drops, and, for bonus points, keep their leaves dry when the rain inevitably returns. Plastic sheeting—draped over a tomato cage, or even a couple of sticks, held down by something that will keep the wind from blowing it away—accomplishes all three. After wrestling with plastic sheeting a few times (it must be removed on sunny days to prevent “burning” the delicate young plants), you’ll begin to understand the allure of a greenhouse.

Another nifty tool involves a ring of plastic tube-like sacks with which you encircle your plant. Once in place, you fill the sacks with water to create an instant, if strange, protective dwelling. This wall o’ water, as one brand has christened it, capitalizes on water’s ability to moderate temperature exchange, holding some of the day’s warmth well into the night. And, once you’ve managed the awkward task of filling it up, you don’t need to touch it again until summer is here and it’s time to take it off.

Despite all the hoopla, tomatoes are as uncomplicated as a delicious annual fruiting plant could be. By mid-summer their jungle disposition becomes obvious—those suckers grow like crazy and seem, to gardeners who try to tame them, unstoppable. Their persistent nature will reward you with at least a few tomatoes even if you throw them in the ground willy-nilly and occasionally splash them with water. However, to succeed, to get the tomato plant of your dreams, you must start dreaming like a tomato.

Tomato Planting Tips:

  • Wait to set tomato plants out in the garden until the nighttime and soil temperatures are firmly and forever above 50-degrees (generally this isn’t until June in our area).
  • The bigger the plant, the better the start: Hold your tomato seedlings above ground until they are 10- 15-inches tall, robust and flowering, or even setting fruit. The plants will grow more vigorously in pots (so much so you may have to transplant them to a larger pot before putting them in the garden, but only if the pot it came in was quite small or you feel like really going for tomato glory this year), which helps bide your time while you wait for that soil to warm. Planting larger starts also means you can bury them more deeply. Clip the stems and leaves from all but the top third of the plant and dig a hole deep enough for the root ball and the lower part of the plant to fit underground. Once exposed to soil and moisture, the buried portion of the plant will begin to sprout roots, increasing its stability and expanding its ability to collect water and nutrients.
  • Tomatoes need specific nutrients to produce exceptional fruits. In our region, winter rains leach minerals from the soil, lowering their pH. Along with a complete (and, I would recommend, organic) fertilizer applied at the rate the packaging suggests and mixed, for best results, with the soil at the bottom of the planting hole, also treat your soil with compost and garden lime. The compost will increase the soil’s water and nutrient capacity, and the lime will adjust the soil’s pH, making more nutrients available to all of your plants’ roots. For tomatoes, lime brings an extra boost of calcium, which, along with regular watering until ripening initiates, will prevent blossom end rot.
  • Choose a site with eight hours of sun (six if you must, but expect less fruit) and some protection from the wind, being cautious not to place them in a low or wet spot that will encourage the cool/damp sort of diseases that strike tomatoes. And make sure their roots have room to stretch downward—as much room as you can give them. Tomato roots grow over twenty feet deep, when allowed. If you are planting directly into the ground, your work in this department is finished. If you are planting into raised beds, for best results, be sure there is no barrier between the bottom of the box and the earth below it. If you are planting in containers, a warning: some container gardening books depict tomato plants in things like repurposed olive oil cans. While this combination makes a cute picture, it will result in a harvest of zero to three tomatoes and cost you more than it would to just go buy zero to three tomatoes at the store. Use the biggest container you can find and keep in mind that anything smaller than five gallons just isn’t worth it.
  • A note on staking: Tomatoes without a jungle full of things to climb on need support. Tomato cages work alright, in a flimsy, caged-in kind of way. There are a plethora of products out there to make trellising your tomato plants prettier, funkier, “better,” or more “professional.” They’re all good in their own way; how you stake your tomatoes is more personal preference than proper technique. For minimalists like myself, you can just use a bamboo stick or three (made into a tripod) set firmly into the ground to which you tie your growing tomato plant using string or twine. I end up needing to prune my plants a bit more than when I’ve caged them, but I like the way the bamboo becomes camouflaged and the mature plants seem hold themselves upright—unbound and heavy with fruit.

Firsts

DSC_3641_2

Seed pots came first—a windowsill full of them that I started with the preschool class I was teaching at the time. We’d planted with abandon, filling egg cartons and yogurt cups for the fun of it. A complete novice who’d kept no more than a few planters on the porch, I had purchased cheap soil and cheap seeds, not expecting much to happen. We watered them with spray bottles and waited, the kids enthralled.

Like magic (and at the time, I could explain it no other way), nearly every seed sprouted and we soon had a windowsill full of infant plants—beans, corn, sweet alyssum, sunflowers, squash. I was proud to send each kiddo home with a box of garden starts at the end of the school year. A few forwarded pictures of corn stalks or sunflowers towering at the edge of their backyards later that summer. I was hooked.

That unexpected experience was followed by another: a summer spent working on a friend’s garlic farm, enjoying the quiet company of plants and good people. By mid-winter, I enrolled in a two-year horticulture program. Four years later, I found myself in a place my preschool teaching self couldn’t have predicted: standing in a field, sowing tray after tray of seeds (confident now that they would grow), preparing for my first attempt at small farm entrepreneurship.

I was on leased land, owned by a woman whose rural plot had more back yard than she needed. Two other women had farmed the site before me, developing the acre parcel into a spare but functional farm. When their lives shifted, I (and my soon-to-be-husband that I dragged along with me) became their successor. The opportunity arrived when I was ready and willing to give up my day job, so I took a chance, spent much of my savings, and found myself standing there, unsure of everything I thought I knew but happy for the fresh air, the possibilities, the view.

Most of the seeds I planted that day were eaten by mice who left a calling card of empty husks and ample droppings. From that point forward, nothing about the farm was simple. The view quickly narrowed to a list of tasks that lengthened exponentially with each day. Every action invited reaction from the field and its inhabitants, rarely in my favor. It was only an acre, but that field grew fiercely in spring, faster than I could till or mow. With mostly hand tools, a twice-rented tiller, and a frequently failing mower, I was ill prepared and outnumbered.

We never even got to a quarter of the acre that summer; kale, collards, leeks, and white clover left behind by the previous farmers grew towering seed heads. Weeds, unshackled, exploded into a dense, four-foot jungle around them. The blizzard of thistle seeds that poured from that feral patch in late July—onto the freshly turned soil of my winter garden, and over the fence into neighboring pastures—still triggers a wave of panic when I think about it.

Though my days that spring increasingly read like a detailed manual on how not to farm a small plot, the vegetables grew. After three new belts and a trip to the repair shop, I could finally keep up with the mowing. Almost everything went in late, but it all got in—last of all the irrigation tape, which wasn’t fully installed until late June, a milestone that allowed me to quit hand-watering and start hoeing. It was too late, of course, to catch the weeds at a manageable size, and among them I found the first free gift that field gave me: scattered between lettuces I’d grown for opening market day were dozens of mustard plants I hadn’t planted—gorgeous purple- and fuchsia-splashed leaves with wide, pale green petioles. I let them stay, knowing I wouldn’t have much else ready for sale in two weeks.

On that first harvest day, as I plucked heads of lettuce and bundled greens, sprayed the dirt from radishes and salad turnips, and sliced bags of baby arugula leaves, I felt like an archeologist: from those unruly rows, those four months of thankless toil, emerged artifacts of authentic beauty. I was in awe of them, spread out on my modest market table, in awe of the customers who were drawn to them, smiling, who returned week after week for my field’s glowing vegetables.

We never made any money. The work didn’t really get much easier. We grew tired of the commute, and lasted only one more season. I’m back to a tiny urban garden with tight, infertile soil. The field is back to pasture. But its secret has been revealed: even when you can’t see the vegetables for the weeds, they’re still out there. Having tasted them all but assures that in some other field, some other version of me will give it another go.

Water

IMG_7686

I just got back from a road trip to Tahoe, that stunning mountain lake straddling the California-Nevada border in the high Sierras. It’s spring, a time by which winter storms have historically filled lowland reservoirs and capped the high country with deep snowpack. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not the case this year. We drove by nearly empty seasonal lakebeds whose only chance of realizing their full-lake potential is right now; even Tahoe, the second deepest lake in North America, is so low that boat docks loom above sand and rock instead of the clear, sapphire-blue water for which the lake is famous.

And that color (which is still there despite the lake’s low water) is, to our eyes, water’s dream of itself—sparkling in its sequined gown, clear as a soprano’s C. Water so astoundingly blue electrifies the imagination, sends it diving toward rocks clearly visible meters below as if water was sky and our thoughts birds. But to water’s eyes, it is chameleon: hidden in underground reservoirs, it is no color at all; frozen in ice sheets, it is polished steel; flowing through plants, it glows green; rising as steam or falling as finely-cut flakes, it is white as the midday sun.

To a farmer in the Willamette Valley, water’s finest color is chocolate: fertile soil moistened to perfect smoothness—not the dry clods and dust of late summer, not the slick mud of winter, but the bouncy chestnut-brown of living, breathing, humus-rich soil. It’s a color they can see without even breaking through the crust: in the way the weeds explode into life, the way the seeds sprout without doting, in the color of the crops as they glisten a thousand shades of green.

We live in a land of water, and also a land of drought. In emerald spring, it’s easy to forget how the grass will dry down a couple months from now. Historically, our annual summer draught is moderated; though surface water recedes well before the summer irrigation season is over, snowmelt makes up the difference. Climate change threatens to unravel that neat symmetry. Tenacious droughts in the Southwest and California increasingly appear less anomaly than foreshadow of our own not-too-distant future as we repeatedly watch the Cascades’ snowpack dwindle (this year to around twenty percent of its historic average). Maintaining the status quo, we will undoubtedly reach the point of requiring much more water than we have.

On the residential end of the water-use spectrum, there are many straightforward ways to conserve: only run full washing machine or dishwasher loads; don’t water your lawn or, better yet, tear it out and plant a food garden that utilizes drip irrigation, or a xeriscape garden that will eventually require no supplemental water; water your garden with soaker hoses or drip tubing, or (if you insist on hand-watering certain plantings like I do) overhead water in the morning when the least amount of evaporation will occur; fix leaky faucets; install low-flow emitters and appliances; and, for the truly dedicated household, adopt an “if it’s yellow let it mellow” policy (toilet flushing accounts for nearly 40% of residential indoor water use, and averages 3.5 gallons per flush).

Beyond all these important behavioral adjustments, as individuals we can join another powerful collective voice in the conversation. Sourcing the majority of our annual groceries from small, local farms and producers can have a tremendous impact on water conservation. Agriculture is the single greatest waster of the world’s water resources, statistics pumped up by large commercial farms’ mass irrigation systems and focus on cash crops (many of which have particularly high water needs). Smaller farms mitigate those inefficiencies with labor and more expensive materials (such as the installation of drip irrigation tubing), dry farming techniques, and careful variety selection (choosing vegetables and animal breeds adapted to drier conditions means the same good food with less water).

Making observations on the ground instead of from the cab of an air-conditioned tractor, working with soil instead of petro-chemical fertilizers, these farmers will also be the source of adaptations and innovations that follow and respond to the shifting climate. Their research is collective; it echoes the desires of our communities and the features of our landscapes. Supporting their work now means investing in the knowledge (and good food) they can bring to our future.

Gilding the Chicken

Lialias roast chicken

I have grown used to berries that cost almost $4 a pint, eggs that teeter between $6 and $7 a dozen, ground beef or lamb that rings in around $5 a serving. I exclusively seek out (sometimes) pricy farmers market vegetables, not because of their expense or any illusion of status it implies, but because I so deeply crave their exquisite freshness I’m reluctant to settle for the same item from even the best grocery store. I’m not rolling in expendable income (I work for a farmers market!), but I choose to weave these sometimes-extra costs into my monthly budget, giving up other luxuries (cable TV, a car from the 21st century, good wine), for the ability to transform the abstract numbers of my bank account into the tangible wealth of authentic food.

For all my acceptance of higher food prices (which one could—and should—argue are closer to the real cost of food), I still gasp at the price of a pasture-raised chicken. Knowing that the chicken was happy and free, fed good food and allowed to nibble on forage and insects while roaming under the nourishing sun, that it was compassionately slaughtered and minimally processed to arrive in the cooler at my feet with as much flavor and nutrition as possible, just doesn’t completely remove the sting of its $30 price tag. I want to buy it, but the penny-pinching core of me rejects it, wonders why it costs so much and how it could possibly be worth it.

Life is about tradeoffs. Even within the terms we set for ourselves, we reach a limit to what we’ll accept: maybe pasture-raised chicken is mine, though I suspect it’s not that simple. Chicken holds tightly in our minds to its status as the everyman’s protein: healthy, abundant, and cheap. It has not, in recent history, held distinction in mainstream American culture, as does a prime cut of beef or a filet of salmon. Rather, low-priced chicken has begun to feel like something of a birthright to most meat-eating Americans, myself, apparently, included.

Almost all of the chicken purchased in the US is the product of factory farms, warehouses packed with upwards of 20,000 birds, too crowded to do much of anything in their short, filth-ridden lives than eat antibiotic-laced food that keeps them well enough to survive to a decent slaughter weight. In a factory farm scenario, it takes about two pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken meat. Contrast that with the four pounds of feed (and extended growth period) for one pound of pasture-raised chicken meat, or the seven pounds of feed required for a pound of beef.

The motivation behind the last century’s unprecedented rise in mass chicken production is not difficult to see. Through factory farming innovations, chicken became a protein we could efficiently produce, that found the sweet spot every industry aspires to: good return on investment and a market demand that grew with production capability. As factory farms got better at churning out huge numbers of chickens, consumers were happy to buy them (and, because of their lean muscle, health experts were eager to advocate for them), driving the price of chicken staggeringly low (in the early 2000’s, the average price per pound was around a dollar, now it’s usually double that, still $3-$7 less per pound than its pasture-raised counterpart).

Cheap chicken production comes with hidden costs: environmental costs in the form of heavy pollution near factory farm sites, ethical costs when we must mistreat an animal in order to increase the economic return of raising it, social costs from the loss of family farm diversity and contracted workers tangled in a modern-day form of indentured servitude. And the chicken this system produces is dangerous. Consumer Reports recently conducted a survey that found raw chicken from all major brands had moderate to high levels of food pathogen contamination, including many strains known to be resistant to antibiotics. Even when properly handled and cooked, public health experts estimate that such chicken, still inside its packaging, can potentially transfer enough trace bacteria to make you sick (read more here).

Yet, fear and distrust of one product doesn’t necessarily create desire for another, as with my aversion to $30 chickens. I don’t buy the $8 chickens, either. Perception of value creates desire for a product, and that is a hurdle many well-meaning consumers still need to cross. For starters, we must forget almost everything we thought we knew about chicken—that it’s cheap and abundant and that we deserve it to be so, that its meat is soft and flavorless, that it comes in boneless, skinless segments from which we can no longer identify it as an animal.

We need to rediscover chicken as a whole-animal food, one with depth. Covered and slow-cooked, the firmer muscles of a pasture-raised chicken baste in their own nutritious fat, resulting in tender, flavorful meat and golden-crisp skin (if uncovered for the last ten minutes of its cooking time). The cartilage-rich carcass (especially the feet, if you’re not ready to eat them outright just yet) creates one of the most sultry broths known to the stock pot, rich in minerals and nutrients. All of the chicken’s major organs, save the liver (the bulk of which usually arrive in a neat, if mysterious, packet inside a good quality chicken cavity), enrich the broth or, if cooked as their own simple stock and added to the pan sauce, make delicious gravy.

What chicken needs is ceremony, the sort that changes how it appears to us at the market and on our plates. It comes out of a skilled cook’s oven gilded and steaming aromas as thick and rich as a velvet robe, right there before our eyes, but we have stopped recognizing its royalty. Maybe that $30 price tag is just the sort of stake we need in the game. Maybe less for more is also—when it comes to flavor, food and environmental safety, human and animal welfare—just plain more.

The Kale Effect

IMG_5787

Nearly twenty years ago, I landed my first wage-earning job as a cashier at my small town’s natural foods co-op. A high school sophomore, my qualifications for the position were that I wanted spending money and I had an in with the manager, a family friend. The only items in the store that I knew much about were the processed and packaged ones—blue tortilla chips, carbonated fruit juices, “natural” mac and cheese—that were my family’s translation of the mainstream products I’d spent years coveting in friends’ lunchboxes.

The whole foods were unknown to me; filberts, adzuki beans, bee pollen, Swiss chard, kale, quinoa, and other exotically named ingredients made for a steep learning curve that had me bluffing my way through many an afternoon shift. A year in, some semblance of understanding began to form, though mostly from a spectator’s perspective; I wasn’t a cook and retained my childhood aversion to most vegetables. In the back of the store there was a small vegetarian deli that slowly began to change all that.

Called Pearl’s Kitchen, this literal hole-in-the-wall churned out sandwiches stacked high with fresh vegetables, vibrant salads sold by the pound dressed in boldly flavored vinaigrettes, and a handful of vegetarian entrees. Pearl, the sole-proprietress, was a soft-spoken woman whose narrow, smooth face cracked with radiance when she smiled. Her sandy, fine-textured hair cut stylishly short and her tasteful clothes gathered at the waist with a long canvas apron, she exuded a casual sophistication the Birkenstock-and-jeans-wearing co-op staff and I couldn’t match.

It was the mid-1990’s and in my part of the Midwest, hummus was still counterculture; greens like arugula, mustard, and kale were downright mysterious to the average small-town Wisconsinite. It was Pearl’s cooking alone that got me to cough up some of that newly-earned spending money for things like bok choy salad, BBQ tempeh, or wraps filled with spiced lentils. My mom’s influence and instruction are what made me a cook, but Pearl’s Kitchen and the Whole Earth Co-op planted the seeds of my palette. By the time I left for college, I was a dedicated vegetarian with a hotplate intent on cooking most of my own meals atop my dorm room desk.

Still, I didn’t try cooking kale on my own until I was two years out of college. Those rigid, waxy leaves, that unavoidable greenness, had always seemed too extreme. I’d come a long way from my processed-food-coveting days, but I didn’t think I’d come that far. Armed with a recipe card from the produce aisle and a sense of adventure, I brought what seemed at the time to be an enormous bouquet of frilly greens home and set to work.

The recipe was ridiculously simple: clean the kale, cut away the fibrous stems and tear the leaves into pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan; throw in slivered garlic, then the torn leaves, water from washing still clinging to their corners. Stir to coat and cover.

When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, briny steam warmed my face and I stared in disbelief at how the pot, overflowing to the point of absurdity when I’d covered it, was now less than half full of shimmering, dark green leaves, looking like a pile of beached kelp. I was even less sure now, but I finished the recipe, cooking off any remaining liquid and tossing the steaming leaves with a healthy dousing of sesame oil and a pinch of salt just before scooping a small serving onto my plate.

The flavor was nothing like I expected—green, yes, slightly bitter, perhaps, but also richly sweet and deeply satisfying, cloaked in nutty sesame oil dressing. Much to my surprise, I ate the whole pot.

Kale comes from a world that knew nothing of mac and cheese, natural or otherwise. The people who brought kale in from the wilderness and nurtured it saw (or tasted) its potential as a nutritious food. And, after years of careful selection, Kale became an important source of fresh flavor during a time of year known as the hunger gap—those desperate months when the cellar stores ran low and the weather did not allow much in the garden to grow.

We joke about kale now, its ubiquity and cult-like following. Kale is over, we say, ready for something bolder, less familiar. But in our country, kale filled a different kind of hunger gap, one in which produce came from the freezer or the pantry, where lettuce was crunchy and white and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Heirloom seed-saving, organic farming, seasonal eating—kale was a compelling, if unlikely, ambassador of these movements. Something deep in its cells still charms us into believing our lives will be improved by eating it.

I, too, am always eager for the next thing. I’ve tired of kale salads and chips and am ready for new flavors. Even so, a pile of garlicky sautéed kale still seems to go with almost anything. I never tire of that trick—the one where an impossible mound of tough, bitter leaves melts into complex mouthfuls of yielding, ageless nourishment.