I’ve been harvesting overwintered purple sprouting broccoli for several weeks, and last week I harvested the first of the overwintered cauliflower. These harvests offer the special pleasure of seeing a vegetable that I set out in July reach maturity in April despite months of winter’s cold and rain. Overwintered brassicas have amazed me ever since I started growing them several years ago.
An additional pleasure last week was that this over-wintered brassica harvest coincided with setting out starts of spring and summer broccoli and cauliflower. Unlike their longer-maturing cousins, these brassica varieties will mature and provide tasty meals by early summer. And soon after that harvest, I’ll start seeds of over-wintered brassicas again. This sense of continuity, that there will always be a new plant to replace the old one, is one of the things that makes vegetable gardening so satisfying.
I’m noticing this same reassuring continuity as I get ready to set out thin spears of this year’s onion and shallot crop and as seed potatoes green up in preparation for this year’s planting. They make it less concerning that the storage bins of last year’s onions and potatoes are nearly empty. In the same way, the tomatoes and pepper plants growing slowly in the greenhouse make it easier to use up the last of the roasted and frozen tomatoes and peppers.
Wrapped in this reassuring sense of continuity, I roasted the cauliflower and the purple sprouting broccoli, piled them in a large bowl and added some spears of asparagus.
Then I took the dish to our neighbors for a shared dinner, the first in over a year. Even more joyful than the yearly cycle of garden vegetables is the return of meals with friends after this long year of isolation. Like the promise of continuity in the kitchen garden, the promise of a return to normal social interactions in the months ahead feels very good.
During this pandemic gardening year, many people bought vegetable seeds for the first time, grew their first gardens and discovered the pleasures and challenges of growing food. Long-time vegetable gardeners shared extra seeds and gardening tips and often grew a little extra as insurance against these uncertain times. Confined to home, we all had time to garden.
As the year winds down toward Winter Solstice and the holidays, we now have time to look back on the gardening year and ahead to what the New Year offers. How will we think about growing food in the year ahead and what seeds will we order for 2021?
Ten years ago, I asked gardening friends to tell me why they grow vegetable gardens and published their responses in the monthly column I was writing at the time. I reread this column the other day and realized that the observations have perhaps even more resonance today as we reflect on why so many of us grew food this year.
Why We Grow Vegetable Gardens
For all of us who grow vegetable gardens, the New Year is a good time to pause and consider why we choose to spend our time planting and harvesting food. There’s the food, of course, but as a sampling of Lopez gardeners reveals, there’s also a sense of self-reliance and most of all there’s the garden itself.
But first to the food: “The obvious reason to grow a vegetable garden is to have fresh and delicious organic produce, especially the types that are either highly perishable (raspberries, lettuce) or mysteriously expensive (leeks, artichokes, kale). Be careful, though—our children now have expensive tastes and turn up their noses at pesto from the market.”
Others agree: “there’s the intense flavor.” “Homegrown food just tastes better. I’ll always remember the first time I ate a sweet pepper from my garden (it was a sweet banana). It was so crisp, juicy, so flavorful. The tastes can spoil you.”
And, others add, there are the health benefits of eating homegrown food. “As more information continues to surface on chemical contamination and GMOs (“Frankenstein Foods”), I feel so blessed to be relatively free of those threats to my body.”
Freedom, security, and independence: these are more reasons people grow their own food. “I love the security of not being dependent on other sources for my food. Truthfully, I have always possessed a ‘doomsday’ mentality. Not in a morbid, fearful way but simply in a non-dependence on the ‘system’ way.”
Another considers herself “more of a subsistence gardener, growing as much of my family’s food as I can, including grains, dry beans, edible seeds, etc., and seeds to plant in future years; my intention is also to provide as many material needs as possible from the garden (e.g. fuel, fiber, medicines, etc.). Mother Earth provides abundance for free, and I celebrate how that gives me some small measure of independence from a cash economy that enslaves people and brings about terrible harm.”
“When I first became interested in gardening (as a teen),” another writes, “it was mainly for the idea of growing my own food, to be self-reliant. Having my garden produce food is a given at this point.”
And for another family, there’s “the satisfaction of eating a meal made up largely of our own produce. We sit at the table sometimes and list off all the foods that came from our own patch of dirt!”
Food we grow ourselves is important, but all the effort isn’t only for the food.
“I garden because I love spending my days in nature, amazed by plants, insects, birds, sky and I feel blessed to participate in the wondrous and the miraculous.”
“There is the eternal miracle of a tiny brown seed becoming a huge green plant. The transition from nearly bare brown spring soil to late summer, when there is barely room for a weed, astonishes every year.” “I’m still in awe that seeds will sprout, that cuttings will form roots.”
“There is also an adventurous piece to gardening—you never know what will flourish and what will succumb in a given year. Gardens are for optimists!” “Gardening teaches acceptance: there will always be some plants that just don’t thrive. OK, I lied about that—I still feel a little sad when a plant doesn’t make it.”
“I love the peace and solitude of my garden. It is the pure joy of being on the land raising my own vital foods that keeps me hunkered down with my hands in the soil.”
“The garden surrounds us with enlivening energy, provides a place to see into nature, gently humbles, and welcomes us no matter what. What a privilege!”
“I don’t think I would garden only to be growing food. There are so many excellent farms in the area that can provide. I garden because I love the process, the satisfaction of producing from seed to soup. When I eat from my garden, I have a personal history with that food—it goes beyond sustenance, politics or economy.”
I’m grateful for all of these observations. They remind me of the many reasons growing vegetables gives us pleasure.
Turning from reflections to practical tasks, an important step this time of year for all of us gardeners is getting seeds for next year’s gardens. Some seeds we’ve saved from plants in our gardens; others we order. With seed catalogs arriving daily, I’m reminded that this time of year I usually write a post about seed ordering, sharing the steps I follow and questions I ask myself. Looking back through years of December and January entries, I see that I’ve written about getting organized by alphabetizing seed packets, inventorying the contents and checking the longevity of seed varieties to help me decide what to keep and what to discard;
It’s hard not to want to photograph everything that the kitchen garden offers right now: glossy purple eggplant, red, orange and yellow peppers, purple onions, and perhaps most photogenic of all, tomatoes. I brought in an especially stunning basketful of tomatoes the other day: deep red Cherokee Carbon and Cherokee Purple, softer red Momotaro and Mortgage Lifter, yellow Hillbillies with their dramatic red creases, and Darby Red and Yellows, small red-orange orbs dashed with yellow. In the left corner of this red and yellow still life there are two peppers in the same tones: an orange Etudia and a red Carmen.
What better way to taste the sweet flavors and show off the warm colors of ripe tomatoes than panzanella? I wrote about this Tuscan bread salad last August and included my favorite recipe for it then, but I want to remind tomato lovers of panzanella again this year and to offer another recipe. You can never have too many variations on this salad. This one comes from Melissa Clark and features fresh mozzarella and cucumbers in addition to tomatoes and bread. My friend Dena served this delicious version of panzanella last week for dinner and shared the equally tasty leftovers on a picnic the next day. For my latest version, I substituted thinly sliced fennel and those red and orange peppers in the basket because I didn’t have any cucumbers. They provided the same crunch cucumbers would plus the spicy sweetness of peppers and the sweet anise flavor of fennel.
Until the tomatoes run out, I’ll be making more variations on this perfect summer salad.
At the height of tomato season, for every perfectly ripe, taut and juicy specimen, there’s an overripe, oozing counterpart not far away. The Tuscan bread salad called panzanella is the perfect place to use those sad, soft tomatoes that are still rich in flavor. Traditional panzanella is made with stale, dried bread that’s rehydrated from a dressing of sweet tomato juices, vinegar and plenty of olive oil. This version also includes some mozzarella for richness and cucumber for crunch. It’s an ideal make-ahead dish; the longer the mixture sits (up to 6 or so hours), the better it tastes. Just make sure your bread thoroughly dries out in the oven so it won’t turn to mush.
4 ounces ciabatta or baguette, preferably stale, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 3
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more to taste
¾ teaspoon kosher sea salt, more to taste
2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, preferably a mix of varieties and colors
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn or cut into bite-size pieces
½ cup thinly sliced red onion, about half a small onion
2 garlic cloves, grated to a paste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, more to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oreganoor thyme (or a combination)
Large pinch red pepper flakes(optional)
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Black pepper, to taste
½ cup thinly sliced Persian or Kirby cucumber, about 1 small cucumber
½ cup torn basil leaves
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread the bread cubes on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 2 tablespoons oil and a pinch of salt. Bake until they are dried out and pale golden brown at the edges, about 7 to 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.
Cut tomatoes into bite-size pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Add mozzarella, onions, garlic paste, 1 tablespoon vinegar, oregano or thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes if using. Toss to coat and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, the mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some black pepper to taste. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil until the mixture is thickened. Stir in cucumbers, basil and parsley.
Add bread cubes, cucumber mixture and capers to the tomatoes and toss well. Let sit for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours before serving. Toss with a little more olive oil, vinegar and salt if needed just before serving.
The panzanella recipe I use as my starting point comes from Orcas Island chef Christina Orchid who published it in the Islands Weekly years ago. Here’s the recipe from her website http://redrabbitfarm.com/classes/:
Panzanella: Italian style bread salad.
1 loaf hearty artisanal style French or Italian bread cut into 1 inch cubes.
1/2 cup grated Reggiano parmesan cheese or grana panda
2 pints garden ripe cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 cup basil, chopped
1 small red onion cut in thin slices and quartered
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 cup superior quality red wine vinegar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
On a large sheet pan toss the bread cubes with enough olive oil to thoroughly moisten all, then toss with the grated cheese, and toast bread cubes in a 440 degree oven for 5 minutes or until crispy and golden. Reserve. Cut the tomatoes in half from the stem end and toss with the onions and red wine vinegar. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Just before service toss the bread cubes together with the tomato mixture and the chopped basil. Drizzle with Olive Oil and toss until all is moistened. Garnish with a drizzle of the balsamic vinegar. Serves 8.
If you follow her recipe exactly, this panzanella provides a transporting mix of textures and flavors. Over the years, though, variations have crept into the panzanella I make. The biggest change currently is that instead of white flour French or Italian bread, I use either seeded whole wheat bread or whole wheat walnut levain, breads I make from the Della Fattoria Bread cookbook http://dellafattoria.com. I love the way the wheat, seed and walnut flavors meld with the sweetly acid tomato flavors.
The recipe technique of thoroughly moistening the bread cubes with olive oil then tossing them with grated Parmesan and toasting at high heat works wonderfully with this more hearty bread. For tomatoes, I often use juicy full-sized tomatoes like Cherokee Carbon or Cherokee Purple in addition to cherry tomatoes. The extra juice in these larger tomatoes soaks into the toasted bread cubes, softening them but not making them mushy. Sometimes I omit the red onion and use chives or instead of onion use a little chopped garlic but I always use basil. And because high summer tomato flavors are so complex and wonderful on their own, I often omit the red wine vinegar and the balsamic and rely instead on tomato juices for the acid. Despite these many variations that have evolved over the years, I still think of this panzanella as Christina’s and am grateful to her for sharing it. It’s a perfect way to celebrate the peak tomatoes of summer.
Our Elma’s Special and Imperial Epineuse plum trees set a lot of plums this spring and now in late-July the small, sweet, dark purple plums are ripening. After years of trying to deter birds and raccoons with netting and traps while the plums approached perfect ripeness, I discovered that I can harvest these plums before they are fully ripe, and before they attract predators, and they will ripen to near perfection in a cool pantry. Raccoons still occasionally stage nighttime raids and birds peck at fruit now and then, but we get the bulk of the harvest to enjoy fresh, transformed into desserts or preserved for winter.
A bowl of fresh plums to share at breakfast, lunch or dinner is the easiest way to serve these summer treats, but a plum cake is almost as easy. I use a recipe first published in the New York Times in 1982. It goes together easily, bakes for about an hour, and disappears so quickly that I make one every few days this time of year. It makes a lovely dinner dessert but is also great for breakfast or lunch.
Original Plum Torte
¾ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt (optional)
24halves pitted purple plums (or enough to cover the top of the cake closely spaced)
Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon for topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
Spoon the batter into a spring form of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with (about) 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
Bake one hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.
To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.
I like this torte plain but for really special occasions I will double the plum experience and make plum ice cream. Years ago my friend Kathy told me about the plum ice cream she was making from a recipe in David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop (2007). I bought the book for my husband and we started making this and many other amazing ice creams following Lebovitz’s excellent and imaginative recipes.
This particular recipe couldn’t be easier and the flavor, texture and color are perfect. Plums, sugar, cream and a bit of kirsch are the only ingredients. We use a Cuisinart ice cream maker that is easy to use and to clean.
David Lebovitz’s Plum Ice Cream
Makes 1 Quart
1 pound plums
⅓ cup water
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon kirsch
Halve and pit the plums, cut them into 8ths and put them in a medium saucepan with the water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.
Once cool, puree in a blender or food processor with the cream and kirsch until smooth.
Chill thoroughly, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Though some in this household might disagree, we can really eat only so much cake and ice cream. For the rest of the plums ripening in the pantry, I’ve found that while drying plums is easy even with the long drying time in the dehydrator, the quickest way for me to preserve plums is to cut them in half, remove the pits, arrange them closely, skin side down, on parchment paper-lined sheet plans and roast them at 300 degrees for about an hour.
At this point, they’ve softened and the juices have concentrated. When they are completely cool, I slide them into pint canning jars, screw on lids and freeze them. Thawed months from now, they are delicious with yogurt and granola. They aren’t the same as a ripe, fresh plum, but on a dark winter morning they bring back welcome memories of warm summer days.
PS: see Karen’s comment about skin-side up or skin-side down in the Original Plum Torte. I’ve been doing skin-side down lately as in the photo above. Here’s a version of skin side up. Pretty too! Thanks for noticing Karen!
I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.
Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat. Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature.
My prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.
The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.
Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.
We’re just back from three weeks of walking in the countryside and cities of Andalusia, Spain. Dramatic landscapes, complex history, friendly Spaniards and fellow travelers were all highlights of our trip. We also returned with very fond memories of Andalusian food.
On our village-to-village walks I watched for kitchen gardens and the vegetables growing in them this time of year. Onions, chard and early lettuce stood out against brown soil and in even in the smallest garden plots there were often stands of habas, what I know as fava beans and what the English call broad beans. In larger gardens long rows of favas grew around almond and olive trees, some with blossoms and some with pods already formed, like those in the kitchen garden of Las Chimeneas, the inn and restaurant in Mairena where we stayed for a week while taking daily walks into the mountains and to surrounding villages.
Fava beans are one of our kitchen garden favorites here on Lopez Island, planted in fall or in early spring and harvested in June or July. We serve them pureed for crostini or sandwiches and whole in pasta sauces or as side dishes, but none of these Italian and Californian preparations prepared me for Habas y Jamon, fava beans and Serrano ham, a classic Andalusian dish. The first night our hosts served it I was transported. There was the familiar earthy fava flavor but with a pleasant, faint bitterness from the skin still encasing the small, tender beans. Added to these flavors were the salty sweetness of the ham and the subtle flavors of onion, tomato and orange in the surrounding sauce. Familiar tastes yet a totally new combination. I wanted to eat it every night.
When I told our hosts how much I enjoyed this dish, they graciously offered to show me how to make it, adding this dish to the paella demonstration they’d planned. Assisted by Emma on the right, Conchi began by adding nearly a cupful of olive oil to a large skillet, warming it as she sliced in a couple of onions and lightly softened them. Next she added two or three handfuls of thinly sliced ham, warming it briefly before chopping and adding several tomatoes, zest from an orange and finally several quarts of small shelled but not peeled fava beans. That was it. The mixture simmered back in the kitchen as she showed us how to make paella. Habas y Jamon was served as a side dish to the paella but for me it could have been the entire meal
With only peeled and frozen favas from last year’s crop and no true Serrano ham, I was still determined to recreate this dish. My first scaled-down version of Conchi’s recipe was very tasty, bringing back happy memories of the original dish. I’m looking forward to this year’s fava crop and the chance to try some unpeeled beans from an early harvest. And maybe I can even find some real Serrano ham.
Asparagus was another spring vegetable we saw many times but not growing in gardens. Instead, in our walks along country paths, we saw long, thin stalks of wild asparagus in the arms and pockets of foragers.
These jolly foragers reminded me of the cookbook author and writer David Tanis’s story of eating wild asparagus in Andalusia in the spring. Tanis writes: “Long, skinny and ever so slightly bitter, Spanish wild asparagus has a deep green flavor. The best way to cook it, I was told, is sautéed in olive oil with garlic, then swirled with beaten eggs to make a revuelto…a kind of scrambled eggs.” The recipe he developed to accompany his story includes chorizo, green onions and a scattering of toasted croutons along with the eggs and asparagus.
Back home with asparagus from our kitchen garden, I followed his recipe. Though missing the wild asparagus and the wonderful pimenton-flavored chorizo of Andalusia, the dish was delicious and kept our food memories of Spain alive.