Lately, the weather has ricocheted between super hot and steamy (90F) and downright cold (40F), rainy and intensely sunny, still and wildly windy. It’s remarkable that the garden is doing as well as it is thus far. Indeed, the last two weeks of June had me scurrying about harvesting armloads of mint, dill, cilantro and garlic scapes to freeze as pesto for those long winter days when we’ll crave the fresh taste of summer. And there was the lavender and chamomile to keep up with and dry quickly to retain their color and flavor intensity (yes, we use lavender as a culinary herb as well as for the bath–more on eating and drinking flowers in another week or so). Then the berries and cherries came in, and so the kitchen has turned into a steamy cauldron of jam and jelly making (red currant, raspberry and strawberry so far) and my yearly ritual of putting up cherries-eau-de-vie.
Not much time left for writing and recipe-development… though late every day, I head to the garden with my harvest basket and choose from the array of ripe fruits and vegetables the makings of a dinner that will be delicious but also push me to experiment with flavor combinations. Last week I played with the addition of fresh currants in a gorgeous pasta (see the recipe here) and with epazote, cilantro and mint accenting Mexican-inspired soft tacos fllled with baby potatoes and onions, topped with a guajillo-pepper sauce (see the recipe here). Indeed, my garden inspires my cooking, my cooking leads me to think about cultural traditions which in turn send me back to the garden.
This week in my column for The Addison Independent, I explore the issue of abundance as it pertains to a garden as rich, complex ecosystem rather than human realm. The rise of food as popular subject and concern means more, or should mean more, than simply feeding the human community:
Early Season Abundance: Lessons from the Garden
This early season seems extreme at our place, on the edge, with wild swings of weather and animal surprises: orioles and bobolinks are absent, bees elusive, bats…gone. This morning an unusually large and noisy flock of crows fills the sky. I just know they’re planning to attack the raspberry patch once they’ve cleaned out the songbird nests. The garden is acting up, too. The 22 vegetable beds,unlike Kate’s orderly Eden or Judy’s efficient farm, teeter on the verge of bedlam.
A circus of creatures cavorts about the place: insects, reptiles, birds and mammals all call the garden home; the plants have mushroomed overnight: beans need taller climbing supports, root crops need to be pulled, mustard pulled off neighboring favas. It’s time to harvest herbs while they’re tender and sweet, to plant more greens, to train pumpkins to pursue untangled paths, to hang bird netting over ripening fruits, to hack away at the mint. It’s always time to hack away at the mint.
I go to bed counting not sheep but garden chores. A person can get overwhelmed by the little disasters and demands and throw in the trowel. Indeed, I understand how after a long day at work, the ease of buying food tempts a gardener, even if it is less nutritious or delicious than that waiting in the garden. I remind myself that gardening isn’t just about my food; this unruliness is a natural, essential balance, and I’m but one player.
Although the rabbits have eaten their way through crops I didn’t even know they liked (fenugreek, for instance), they do avoid the mint-ringed beds. Striped cucumber beetles munch away at one variety of squash but ignore others. Robins gorge on cherries above where I can drape netting. Chipmunks spirit away a few gooseberries and deer nibble designs in the chard. So far, it’s okay, we’re okay. The birds get the top branches, I get everything else. The deer get the wild fruits, I fence in the rest. The bugs take some of the leaves, even some of the plants, but not all of them. These creatures matter to the health of the garden; the garden matters to their health.
It’s an incredibly rich little ecosystem.
Indeed I try to participate in this give-and-take, to partner with the other denizens. Instead of pretty-ing up things, I leave the shade cloth on the path on hot mornings, so the resident garter snake can curl up beneath it. The snake, in turn, contributes to critter control. Likewise I don’t pull the rapini after it bolts—the honeybees buzz to its blossoms and then to the nearby peppers and pumpkins.
Okay, so the rabbits mowed down the beets; the coyotes are doing a pretty good job picking off the bunnies, and I can re-sow beets inside the mint barricade. There’s a limit to what I tolerate, but I’m learning important community lessons of cooperation by listening and watching, and experiencing the interplay between plants and animals.
In a human time of extremes—climate change and war, oil spills and consumption, overpopulation and intolerance–there’s something grounding, even hopeful about this essential interchange. Each day there are such wonders as fledgling birds hanging onto the tomato towers nearby as I dig out a few baby potatoes, bumblebees in the catmint while I’m picking peas warm on the vine, robins waiting in the next tree while I’m sampling cherries. In the house there’s the pleasure of sharing chamomile tea from my own flowers, of stacking the first jars of preserves and filling the cupboards with dried herbs, the freezer with pestos—memories of this early summer captured for winter meals, and for sharing, swapping or selling. It pushes me past a desire for speed and convenience and order, to something more fundamental and important.
Cultivating communities big and small.
To a recent potluck I brought a platter of the early fruits and vegetables of my labor: potatoes, onions, cherries, red currants, nasturtiums, carrots, garlic, fennel, radicchio. As people sampled the flavors, they didn’t know about my garden community that lay behind this array, but they were deepening their own bonds by connecting over food traditions and culture, sharing garden tips and kitchen secrets, discussing living close to the land and strengthening ties to their local communities.
Talk blossomed about the rise of community gardens and even community kitchens, Vergennes’ school garden program (see the June 21 Addison Independent), the Vermont Gleaning project and Central Vermont’s bartering program, Onion River Exchange . I mentioned that friends in Vancouver, British Columbia had started The Sustainable Living Arts School, which sponsors learning parties to bring “local folks, local knowledge and local resources together for hands-on learning experiences,” something we could do here in Addison County. It was as though the complex organism that is my garden had sent out its earth perspectives through the potluck.
More and more I see tending a garden and a kitchen as important acts of community. Actively cooperating with the other inhabitants of the place leads to a bountiful harvest for us all. So I’ll let the birds have a few of the raspberries before I lay the netting, and then I’ll pick some to serve with a bit of ricotta, figs and honey when friends come over tonight.
Fruit and Vegetable Mosaic
An assortment served at room temperature can please a crowd or feed a family. Choose a mix of naturally sweet, tart, spicy and flavorful fruits and vegetables such as berries, apricots, cherries, fennel, carrots, potatoes, onions, radicchio. I use whatever is ready in the garden plus some oil-cured olives, fig halves or fresh dates, and spicy pickled peppers I stuff with goat cheese. Asparagus, broccoli or corn are terrific additions. Play around with the interplay of flavors depending on what’s fresh and what else you’re serving.
Roast everything at 400 degrees; a range of vegetables can be in the oven at the same time, kept in their own dishes, checked often and pulled out when tender. I start the potatoes and onions first as they will take 30 minutes or more depending on their size and age.
Place potatoes (in golf-ball size pieces if they are large) in a pan with a bit of olive oil and roll them around until they’re lightly covered; add unpeeled cloves of garlic or chopped up garlic scapes and several stems of lemon thyme and/or rosemary and thinly sliced discs of lemon, sprinkle with salt.
Brush the onions with olive oil, add a film of water with a few drops of balsamic vinegar to their pan, salt and pepper them (sometimes I’ll slow roast carrots, cippolini or pearl onions or shallots: Amanda Hesser’s The Cook and the Gardener has a splendid recipe beautifully illustrated by Kate Gridley). Do the same to radicchio quartered lengthwise.
Add lemon juice as well as olive oil to fennel sliced lengthwise. Add some crushed coriander seeds or cumin seeds or thyme sprigs to baby carrots. Roast cherries, pitted and cut in half, unadorned, for just a minute; the same with figs. Leave berries and dates raw. Arrange everything in a pleasing design, garnish with fresh, colorful nasturtium blossoms.
8 fresh figs cut in half lengthwise (They’re just coming into the market now; not local, but worth a splurge. Make sure they’re plump, glossy and nearly soft but without torn skins.)
1 pint fresh raspberries, strawberries, and/or red currants (I like a mixture that’s heavy on raspberries.)
1 cup fresh, creamy ricotta or Greek yogurt strained in cheesecloth for several hours
3 TB honey for drizzling
A few drops of balsamic vinegar or red wine for brushing on the figs (optional)
One lemon, zested (make the strips as thin as possible)
1. Light the broiler or keep the grill going if you’ve used it for the main course. Wash and dry the figs and berries. Take stems and leaves off berries, slice the strawberries if they are big. Brush the figs with a little balsamic vinegar or red wine, or omit this step as the figs do fine on their own.
2. In a mixer, food processor, or with a whisk, whip the ricotta or yogurt until light. Thin with a little milk if it is too thick to whip.
3. Arrange the berries in a ring on a platter and scoop the ricotta in the center.
4. Place the figs on a cookie sheet or on the grill, cut side up, and broil/grill for just a minute or so, until they start to color and release their juices. The timing will depend on the ripeness of the figs and the heat of your fire. Watch them carefully as you don’t want them to burst!
5. Arrange the hot figs on the berries, drizzle the honey over the entire plate, sprinkle on the lemon zest and lavender florets, if you have some in the garden, and serve!
This week we’re picking:
chamomile & other edible flowers
greens: arugula, chard, radicchio, kale, spinach, beet greens
herbs of all sorts