summer salad and a meditation on value

IMG_6779IMG_6754IMG_7476IMG_7552IMG_7581IMG_7588Who could have predicted the percentage of pleasure in the back corner of a quarter-acre lot?  When we talk of commercial real estate, we use the language of profitability: so many ridiculous dollars per square foot in value.

I weigh the square footage of my garden, instead, in pleasure units per annum, and I am a wealthy woman.

The garden produces pleasure at a rate far greater than the sum of its parts. Through my cultivation, I live history and I plan for the future; it’s a living record of failures and hopes. I began this garden by digging out the dirt and forming the growing plots and subsidizing the soil with every bit of dirt capital I had.  It has evolved over the last six years and its topography traces the story of my life.

Exhibit A:  This square foot is ruled by a fat clump of chives with now fading lavender puffballs with papery feathers that I planted when I established the herb row six years ago.  It gave me volunteer ‘Seascape’ strawberries (2) that are darker and sweeter than my main crop ‘Bentons’ that are better for jam. It also killed off two generations of lemon thyme, never hardy, prompting me to move a new pricey start to the middle where the sun will establish it more firmly. It is coddling three shiso seedlings, all marked by slug attacks at the seed leaves, the red shiso the worst of the lot.  I need the red shiso to experiment further furikake, a dried crumbly topping for rice, since the stuff last year wasn’t quite right without salt.  The green gets salted and used as wraps for summer barbecue.

Exhibit B:  This shady square foot is tayberries, now nearly as long as my thumb, which I planted after marveling at them at the market three years ago. The tayberries, yes, that the squirrels have been eating, I’ve discovered, after crowing that those little rascals have been leaving my strawberries alone this year.  The tayberries are threatened, too, by a patch of mint rooted in a deep-set plastic pot to contain it, tucked far back in the shady corner of my garden, but longing to colonize new, more fruitful lands.  And the terrible threat of losing the sun: the elderberry planted to shade the glorious fragile ‘Virginia Richards’ rhody (since discovered to not have the proper sun trajectory) and hide a sagging gutter on the neighbors’ garage (since fixed, since moved out) is now 15 feet tall, and shading the tayberries instead.

Exhibit C: And this square foot, anchoring the potato bed ringed in cedar logs from the branch that fell in the winter storm two years ago, has an Italian fennel sentinel, the fronds used for gravlax and fish and salads.  Its pollen I cultivate for fig jam for the ‘Desert Queen’ fig that — please! — is rallying with leaf buds now after the freeze that wiped out fig season for the year and killed many fig trees wholesale.  The sentinel guards three ‘Marechal Foch’ grape scions and four little apples: ‘Karmijn,’ ‘Esopus Spitzenberg,’ ‘Canadian Strawberry’ and ‘Pendragon,’ all rare, all volatile, all fighting the fleeting nature of life and the suffering that reminds us it will be over too soon.

See?

But the garden is more than just a record of a personal past, and, as a hedonist, I hesitate to say this, but it’s more than just pleasure.  It’s resistance and power.

One example will have to suffice.  Because I cook from my garden, I am free to experiment with the idea of a salad.  Yes, a salad.  Something that’s drummed into us by industry as the paragon of a healthy meal.  It’s a diet meal.  It’s a female meal.  It’s the kind of meal we should not only eat but exclaim delightfully over, Oh, it’s so fresh and healthy and I feel so good while eating it!

And we do this while we are masticating over-processed bagged mesclun made of differently shaped little leaves that all taste exactly the same. Do they harbor e. coli?  We don’t know.  What matters is that we bought it, and when we buy it, we buy into values that promote performing fitness as a marker of class.  The open secret is that these salads don’t create pleasure.  They traffic in anxiety.  They separate the growers from the consumers with an idea of what we *should* eat, not what we *can* eat if we can just…

…wander out into the garden with not even the faintest anxious pressure for ‘eating healthy’ or ‘being fit.’  I eat my salad in the morning.  I bundle a sour sorrel leaf and an odd little papalo leaf around a gooseberry and a tiny carrot.  I smush a strawberry on a tender escarole, slightly bitter, and wrap it burrito-like around a rattail radish pod.  I make a sandwich out of two pea pods, two leaves of tarragon, and a beet leaf. I pick pale yellow collard flowers and pink-white radish flowers and purple johnny-jump-ups and magenta and pale pink pea flowers and eat them as a chaser for the tip of a garlic scape.

Not a single one of these can be eaten in a restaurant or out of season, or really, in someone else’s garden.  It is mine.  My salad is the product of my labor, my fiddling, and my palate that hungers for bittersweetness.

My labor is worth very little to nothing, all the institutions in my life tell me.  But in its nothingness, it’s everything to me, because I cultivate hope each year and breed out failure and have momentary, seasonal, nearly unique and nearly wholly my own momentary pleasure and joy in living.  There is nothing more valuable in the world.

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Images (top to bottom): lovage, tayberries, haskapberries, garlic scapes, raspberries, gooseberries, Bruno Jupiter Bright, kitten extraordinaire, growing in the kale bed.

chitty chitty bang bang: potatoes

IMG_6682If you haven’t started chitting your seed potatoes, it’s not too late to start.  Just place the potatoes with their little eyes upward (generally there are more on one side than another) in an egg carton.  Mark the variety on the lid of the carton.

It’s not completely necessary to chit potatoes, but why not give them a head start?  For planting, you don’t want the long, zombie-pale fragile shoots one gets when a potato is stored too long in the refrigerator.  You want healthy green buds bursting out all over like spring.

Read more about cautionary tales about chitting potatoes here.

I grow German butterballs, since I like the flavor the best, but will usually throw in a few banana-style potatoes and reds for variety.  If I had some, I’d grow the PNW-native fingerlings called ‘Ozette,’ since they’re so cool.  Next year in Potatoville!

 

separate two eggs: roasted beet parsnip salad and christmas for one

Manzanita, OR.After the darkest day of the year, one can’t help but feel a little brighter.  I took advantage of the day to (appropriately) finish up changing my name on nearly all my documents and accounts and such.  To burn bright in 2014!  That is my mandate, my motto, my personal crest, my raison d’être, my challenge.

Perhaps I should invest in a fire extinguisher.

I’ve been cooking, and anticipating with great joy my Polish Christmas for One.  The theory is to spend far too much time making a miniature version of the 12-dish meatless, fish-heavy Wigilia.  It’s a celebration of being able to cook whatever I want and eat when I want, delighting in the pleasure of being alone and unfettered and ending the year without any more terrible disasters. Hope MUST return, I’ve decided, if only in one-week increments.

Please note the celebratory aspect.  It is far more disturbing, I’m discovering, for others to envision me spending Christmas alone than for me to live the reality of it.  Christmas has always been a quiet affair in our house, involving a break from elaborate dinner parties or socializing or social media or work.  And this year will be no different.  It will just be fancier with Polish dishes and calmer without arguing and more grey and fluffy and energetic and bitey and jumpy and maniacal.

I’ve got salt herring and pickled herring and gravlax.  I have beet kvass souring for borsch, and yellowfoots for mushroom pierogi, dilled sauerkraut for braising, fresh sweet cabbage fermenting with apples, carrots, and cranberries, and apple butter for a miniature cake, and grains for kutia.  There’s vodka and a bottle of good dry Riesling.  I’m still working on the rest.  There will be a little fish, ridiculously complicated, or maybe a crab.  Or oysters?

IMG_5075Anyway, before all that, I am happily eating a new dish made from glorious candystripe beets a new friend pulled from his garden for me.  A fine present for solstice, and unexpected.  I like that.

This pretty and simple warm salad, made with my own parsley and parsnips freshly dug from Tell Tale Farm, is in his honor, as it tastes of our Willamette Valley earth.  The secret is in roasting the parsnip batons separately from the beets with nutmeg and ginger, so they can get crispy and caramelized.

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Warm Roasted Beet and Parsnip Salad

  • 3 beets (candystripe or other light-colored ones that won’t stain and mute color of parsnips)
  • 1 parsnip
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
  • handful of fresh parsley
  • fruity vinegar (homemade raspberry vinegar, if you have it; I used my foxy grape-star anise vinegar)
  • pepper
  • Equipment: 2 roasting pans and foil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Scrub beets well, cut in half or quarter if extra large, and place in one roasting pan.  Toss with a glug of olive oil and some salt until well-oiled.  Cover pan with foil and roast in oven until easily pierce-able with a fork. (40 minutes? Depends on the size of the beets.)

Peel and cut the parsnip into small batons, and mince ginger.  In a second roasting pan, and toss with a glug of olive oil, salt, and powder well with a good strong shakes of nutmeg.  Roast uncovered in the oven with the beets until browned and crispy. (15 minutes?)

Chop parsley and set aside.  Remove parsnips from oven when done and leave uncovered and unrefrigerated.

When beets are done, remove the foil and let cool until you are able to handle, then peel off skin with a paring knife.  Slice beets and place in serving dish.  Toss with a good splash of vinegar and some more olive oil, then add parsley, parsnips, and perhaps a little pepper.

Serve while still warm.  It makes a great light supper dish for one with some feta sprinkled on top, or a side dish for sausages or pork chops for 2-4.

Separate Two Eggs is my new, very occasional, series about a lonely single woman eating sad meals alone.  Or not. It’s really just a way to continue to queer food writing to add diversity to the Mommy-blogging and monogamous couple-oriented fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

planting seeds: good, bad, ugly

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IMG_2698 IMG_2701Seed catalogues for 2013 are now out.  The Willamette Valley is one of the richest seed-producing areas of the country, so we’re fortunate to be able to have close and intimate relationships with several farms and businesses cultivating seed crops.  Seeds that are adapted to Northwest gardens or heirloom varieties from maritime cool climates elsewhere in the world that grow well in our fair state are plentiful.  I’ve listed my favorites, and welcome your suggestions for others.  You also might want to be aware of vegetable hybrids that are owned by Monsanto.

Monsanto-owned brands (these may be distributed by other seed companies, so look at names of particular varieties):

Northwest-friendly, bred in Oregon:

  • Territorial Seed (Cottage Grove, OR): This is the big boy in the crowd, but still a solid local business.  They’ve stopped stocking Seminis seeds as of a few years ago, so the rumors of a Monsanto connection aren’t true.
  • Adaptive Seeds (Sweet Home, OR): Also Open Oak Farm, specializing in beans and grains and roots and all kinds of wonderful things for the PNW.  The pictures above of cool vintage farm equipment and the field used in their seed operation were taken a couple of months ago during a tour of the farm.
  • Wild Garden Seed (Philomath, OR): Also Shoulder-to-Shoulder Farm and related to Gathering Together Farm, specializing in lettuces and flowers, too.  Farmer Frank Morton developed my favorite variety of kale, White Russian.
  • Log House Plants (Cottage Grove, OR): excellent plant hybridizers responsible for the grafted tomatoes and a range of unusual seeds; check out their new Drunken Botanist collection.
  • Nichols Nursery (Albany, OR).  “New and Unusual” features sugar beets and a great romanesco-type zucchini.
  • Siskiyou Seeds (Williams, OR): Also Seven Seeds Farm.  Lists a number of cooperative seed growers locally and in WA and northern CA, too.

Others:

  • Chinese/Japanese/some Thai produce: Kitazawa Seed Co. (Oakland, CA): These are often sold in big Asian supermarkets on the West Coast.  I’ve seen them in Uwajimaya in Beaverton, but not around Eugene.
  • Italian produce:  Seeds of Italy (Italy): Absolutely gorgeous range of Italian varieties of vegetables and herbs.  Be careful on the growing seasons for some of the hot weather crops.

And if you’re thinking about learning more about gardening by volunteering, check out the Food for Lane County Gardens Program, which reports a record-breaking year in 2012. 190,000 pounds (their largest yield ever) of produce distributed to meal sites and pantries!  Contact Jen Anonia, Gardens Program Manager, janonia@foodforlanecounty.org or 541-343-2822.  Or just donate to FFLC!  There’s a terrific 1-for-1 matching program for the month of February.  All donations will be matched by an anonymous donor.  We’ll be interviewing Executive Director Beverlee Hughes this Sunday on Food for Thought on KLCC.

dark days #20: southern greens and soft red wheat

I was in a Southern greens type of mood, so I thought I’d cook up some fresh collards in a smoked hambone stock for the very last Dark Days winter local cooking challenge.  And it’s good timing, too.  Spring is here!  We’ve been hit by a spring storm with some wild weather all week: sunshine, rain, hail, wind, and then it started all over again.  We managed to get the grill going, however, and Retrogrouch grilled up a couple of Biancalana Pork Growers shoulder chops seasoned with a peppery rub.  Frumento, soft red wheat berries grown by Ayers Creek, were simmered until split and plump with bay leaves and carrot, then turned into a pilaf with local carrots, filberts, onions, and barberries.  Farmer Anthony Boutard has this to say about frumento:

Most varieties of bread wheat have a tough skin and are not particularly flavorful as whole grains for soups, stews and salads. A couple years ago, we purchased a package of frumento from a grocery store in Rome. It was sold as a breakfast cereal. The grain appears to be a soft red winter wheat of some sort. It is very tasty and tender for wheat. It is a true winter variety in that it forms a low growing tuft over the winter, and then shifts its growth pattern in the spring. The heads are large, productive and easy to thresh.

I liked this meal, because I was able to turn the leftovers of two hardy bunches of collards and the smoky, porkulent stock into a wheat berry soup for the next day’s lunch.  A twofer!  It was just what I needed.

Today was the first day of our annual farmer’s market, running now until Christmas.  We’ve turned a corner.  I’ll post the gloriously un-dark day’s pictures later today.  Bright green spring greens, red and pink radishes, garnet beets, orange carrots, creamy white turnips, o my!

dark days challenge #10: “foraged” salad with apple, walnut and quince dressing

The foraging was in my backyard!  To balance all the confit I’ve been eating, I had a keen yearning for a serious salad for this week’s Dark Days Challenge meal.  Now, I’m not talking about insipid heads of butter lettuce, or those pointless (sorry, fans) bags of mesclun greens that all taste the same, even though they look to be different species.  I’m talking about salad that bites back.

We had two — TWO!! — sunny days this week, so I did a bit of gardening between deadlines, pruning the cane berries and pulling back the mulch in some areas to allow for little chives and lovage and strawberry babies.  But I was really on the lookout for salad possibilities.  I learned in my Master Gardener training that one can eat our first ubiquitous early spring weed, the little Western bittercress, now making itself known in bare patches of my garden.  I pulled some of the largest ones, then found some tender dandelion greens (the second ubiquitous early spring weed), tore them up, and added them to the mix.

I love eating weeds.  It makes me feel powerful!

But I realized I had cultivated salad greens still in the garden, too.  The arugula is doing wonderfully, all the better for the cold wet weather, so I snipped off some of those leaves for the base of the salad.  I had given up on the plants cozied up to my peas because they were unbearably spicy and hot in summer’s dog days, but they have actually mellowed and become fresher over the course of the winter, weathering our cold snaps with gusto.

And my wild bronze fennel is up in two corners of the yard, sending out gorgeous feathery fronds that are sweet, fresh, and slightly licorice-y, so I sacrificed a few to the salad bowl.

I still have storage apples (Melrose, I believe) in the back from Riverbend Farms, so I added a couple to the salad, plus some delicious new Rogue Creamery cheese, Brutal Blue, and walnuts from Hentze Farm.  The lily still needed to be gilded, clearly, so I melted a couple of tablespoons of frozen homemade quince paste and whisked it into a vinaigrette made of (non-local) olive oil and my accidentally brilliant* Concord grape and star anise vinegar.  Amazing.  It was like eating spring.

* I wanted to make local raisins this year, but I realized too late that one shouldn’t dry tiny Concords (pictured on left) without taking out the seeds, because those seeds are big and hard, and they stick like glue to the dried grape.  So I took the lot, added a whole star anise, and covered everything in white wine vinegar.  Four months later, it’s incredibly delicious — better than the best berry vinegar because of the “foxy” flavor of the Concord grape, with just the right amount of spicy depth from the star anise.  I’ll make this one from now on.

aunt ruby’s green tomato gazpacho

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Courtesy of my tomato tarragon gazpacho recipe, but made with green tomatoes and half red bell peppers and half green peppers.  I am growing huge, juicy, acidic Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, and the first one is almost ready, so thought I’d practice with Aunt Ruby’s greens bought at the market.  The color isn’t exactly picturesque, but the soup makes a nice change from red gazpacho, kind of like a liquified salad.  Olive oil-fried baguette slices, salted and peppered, make amazing croutons.