On a table in my house sits what most people, including my entire extended family, find quite bizarre, something they cannot align with what they know of me. After all, I pride myself on being an ecological gardener who tries to consider the impact of my actions on all the inhabitants of the garden, not just the human sort. I work to restore shrub-land bird habitat and wildlife corridors on the acres we steward, and in this column I yammer on and on about leaving the wild to the wild. And yet, there on that table sits an antique bell jar and inside that bell jar sit seven stuffed songbirds of Vermont. Go figure.
Indeed, the bell jar looks as though it belongs in St. Johnsbury’s Fairbanks Museum, not on my table—perhaps once upon a time, it did live there. I picked it up at an antique shop in Vergennes years ago much to my children’s horror and my husband’s disbelief. I am the oddity, they claim, and should be put under glass.
Okay, so it’s a bit odd. I keep the bell jar because it reminds me of the year I spent as a child prowling in wonderment through the strange collections at the university museum in the English city where we lived, a museum puffed with plunder hauled back from the four corners of the earth: necklaces made from tiny hummingbirds, clothing adorned by bones and feathers, boxes inlaid with butterflies and shells. It reminds me of lessons about imperialism and greed and human shortsightedness and willful ignorance. It reminds me to be fully aware, to look at the natural world every day in true wonder as though for the first time.
But truth be told, I also bought it because I have a thing for oddities in Nature—not for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not carnival freak show sorts of anomalies. Not for the distortions and aberrations of Nature gone awry—the big-as-the-moon double tomatoes or deformed eggplants much as I gape at them in The Garden Game photos. No, as a gardener I’ve collected and sought out the unusual within the usual, the extraordinary within the ordinary. I seek out varieties that seem strange simply because they are unfamiliar.
When I travel, I scour the food markets for what’s the norm there but new to me—at the San Francisco farmers’ market recently, I found all sorts of surprises from the Asian culinary world: leafy branches (the leaves are sour, an eager customer explained) and ridged gourds and vegetables and fruits I didn’t have the first clue as to identity or use. How intriguing! My first thought was whether I could grow them here and how I might use them in my cooking—what they would teach me about the wide world within the small space of my Vermont garden and kitchen.
To marvel and to learn is why each morning for the past weeks I’ve checked on the welfare of the new members of the cast of my garden characters: three striking Italian vegetables, curiosities only because I have never seen or even imagined bright pink cauliflower, a 45-pound torpedo of a winter squash or a supremely warty and weighty (25-pound) green pumpkin. Odd as they seem to me and to anyone who comes to my garden for a look, they are common in Sicily where my daughter’s boyfriend’s family gardens. When they sent me the seeds, I was delighted—something I have never grown or even seen! How would they fare? How would they taste? Could they add welcome, healthful variety to our New England table?
I stare at them, wondering if it’s “normal” to look like that. Wondering if our local bugs and critters will nibble at them. Wondering when I should harvest them. Wondering how you actually cook a 45-pound squash that is three feet long and nine inches wide. It truly is extraordinary—beyond belief: a sprawling plant to support a single gargantuan fruit that could play a starring role in a tale about hungry giants.
According to my research, my 45-pound zucca lunga di Napoli can weigh in at more than 30 kilos (!) and has orange, sweet and perfumed flesh rich in minerals and vitamin C. What’s not to love about that! Sold in slices at the Sicilian markets, it is used in ravioli, gnocchi, and soup —and so I will slice it up, cook and freeze it for kitchen sojourns to southern Italy all winter long. The dense zucca marina di Chioggia is also sliced, and sometimes grilled right in the open market, dressed with olive oil and salt and sold as snacks. How’s that for fast food? Its sweet, dry flesh is prized by the northern Italians, and now I have it growing in my northern New England garden! What’s more, it is known to be an excellent keeper—could these be my new favorite squash varieties? And the pink cauliflower? It is delicious roasted in the Sicilian way, mild tasting and retaining a bit of pinkness which looks lovely on the plate. It truly does.
Extending my repertoire this way keeps gardening a mystery, cooking an astonishment, and makes for some great stories. Now that it is October, I’m starting to think about which part of the world to travel to next year through garden and kitchen: Turkey? Laos? Ghana?—exploring without plundering, encountering the rich diversity of this astounding world without leaving home, collecting the oddities while tasting the treats.
Winter Squash Rosemary Pancetta Pizza
Use your favorite store-bought dough or try this simple recipe. You’ll need to make it several hours before the pizza cooks. A pizza stone is helpful, though not necessary.
- 3-4 cups unbleached, organic flour
- 1 TB active yeast
- 1 cup hot (but not scalding) water
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 2 TB olive oil
Directions for Making Dough
1. Mix one cup of flour, the yeast and hot water in a large bowl, stirring until well mixed.
2. Add the olive oil and salt. Stir well.
3. Add flour, half cup by half cup, stirring until the dough begins to hold together in a clump.
4. When it is no longer possible to mix with a wooden spoon, turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead with the heels of your hands, lifting, folding over and turning the dough a quarter turn after each pressing out with the hands. Knead for 10-15 minutes until the ball is smooth and silky elastic.
5. Place in a well-oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave the dough to rise for at least until it has doubled in size, and up to all day. I like to make the dough in the morning and let it rise most of the day to add flavor and texture.
6. One hour before cooking the pizza, place the pizza stone in the oven, if you’re using one, and preheat the oven to 450º.
7. Ten minutes before putting the pizza together, cover your cookie sheet with parchment paper, or a large board if you are going to place the pizza onto the hot stone in the oven.
8. Lift the plastic wrap off the dough bowl and press down on the dough with your fist, deflating it. Work the dough back and forth between your hands, slowly, gently stretching it until it is a circle about 10 inches in diameter. Place on the parchment paper and with your fingers press it out until you have an even, thin disk about 12 inches in diameter. You can also make smaller, individual pizzas.
9. With your fingers or a pastry brush, smooth a thin layer of olive oil over the dough. Cover with a tea towel and let it rest while you prepare the toppings.
- 2 pounds roasted, thinly sliced winter squash (A dense, nutty variety such as buttercup or red kuri. Acorn will not do at all; you can use butternut in a pinch, but it’s a bit watery and flavorless compared to the others. Roast it in olive oil and, if you like, throw in a few cloves of unpeeled garlic.)
- ¼ cup thin matchsticks of pancetta (make sure the slices are more meaty than fatty)
- 2 TB minced fresh rosemary leaves (an additional tsp reserved)
- 1 medium onion, peeled, quartered and sliced thinly
- ¼ cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
- ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup grated Italian fontina cheese, if you can get it; if not, use Italian provolone
- sea salt
- hot pepper flakes
- olive oil
1. Sauté the onions and pancetta and rosemary together in a pan over medium-low heat until they have collapsed into one another, but do not brown them.
2. On the prepared pizza dough, scatter the cheeses, leaving a rim empty around the edge of the pizza.
3. Spread the pancetta mixture on top, and then arrange the squash slices over that. Sprinkle the reserved tsp of rosemary and a few pepper flakes if you want a little spice (you can also let people spice up their own slices) and add the tiniest bit of sea salt to pull out the flavors (be careful, though, as you do not want to make the pizza salty).
4. Place it in the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, checking frequently! Mangia!
Sicilian Roasted Cauliflower
My family, not a group of cauliflower lovers, loves this dish. Imagine it made with a pink cauliflower!
- One medium head cauliflower, broken into bite-sized florets
- ¼ cup dried currants
- 2 TB pine nuts
- One medium onion, quartered and sliced into thin quarter moons
- 1 TB fresh parsley minced
- ¼ cup fine bread crumbs
- 1 TB finely grated lemon zest
- Optional but recommended: 1 tsp anchovy paste (or 2 anchovy filets mashed and minced)
- 1 dried Thai pepper crushed into tiny flakes (you can also use hot pepper flakes)
- sea salt
- 2 TB olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400º.
2. In a small bowl, cover the currants with hot water and let them sit for 5 or 10 minutes to soften up (and to prevent them from burning in the oven). Drain and set aside
3. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and add the onion, cooking and stirring until caramelized, about 15 minutes. Add the hot pepper flakes and anchovy paste if you are using it and stir well. Take off the heat.
4. In a shallow baking pan or rimmed cookie sheet, toss all the ingredients until well-mixed and distributed in an even single layer. Use salt sparingly (not at all if you have used anchovy paste). Cook in the hot oven until the cauliflower is crisp-tender and browned, about 10-15 minutes—you will need to check often and toss a couple of times during the cooking process to keep it from burning! Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and a quick grinding of pecorino cheese, if you like.
Published in The Addison Independent October 6 issue.