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Last fall I saved tomato seed. This was not about my carbon footprint. It was just something to try, another life experience. And why not Sun Gold tomatoes, those portable flavor bombs that produce for weeks — months — in the garden? So there I was in my kitchen, fermenting, decanting, drying the fuzzy little things. Come spring, the seeds sprouted into beefy seedlings. Anybody can do this, I thought.
I was so proud I gave plants to friends, neighbors, a colleague at work. A fellow pea patcher planted two in the kids’ garden. Everybody exclaimed over them. “They’re so healthy!” they said. The plant I kept has outpaced them all, a novel situation for someone who’s usually a day late and a dollar short. It’s because the seed is so local, so acclimatized, I decided. Mid-July, despite of months of cool and rain, and the plant’s limbs are frothing over the top of their wire cage.
Yesterday I caught a glimpse of the first green fruits. On second look, they didn’t seem quite right. Not like Sun Golds of yore, at least. And well. Here’s why: Sun Golds are hybrid tomatoes. Which means the tomatoes themselves don’t produce true seed. Second generation F1 hybrids, which these are, tend towards a random smattering of yellow, red, and orange cherries — of uncertain taste and character, I hardly need mention.
So this life experience now involves calling seedling recipients to say, “Just letting you know about your mutt tomatoes!” And the kicker is I actually bought fresh Sun Gold seed this year. Just in case things didn’t work out with my little experiment. Never even opened the package.
Not much to brag about at the pea patch right now. Snow peas are done, fava beans distant history. We got our ten strawberries for the year. And owing to a cool, rainy June it’s still weeks before summer’s first beans, squash, and tomatoes.
Yet these rogue flowers from another gardener’s seed spill — calendulas possibly? – are producing like a dream. We don’t eat them, of course, but a jar of blossoms on the table sure makes everything else taste better.
Here in the cool Northwest we’re still snapping snow peas from vines and pulling up the last overwintered fava beans. The Biscuit couldn’t be happier. She overgrazed the peas until a rationing program was put in place. She devours the favas warm and just skinned, can’t wait for a drizzle of olive oil or crunchy salt. She sits on the back porch and tears open the big spongy pods, samples the beans raw, says, “I want to eat them now — now — now!” Patience, grasshopper.
Because getting to those delicate, ethereally green favas is a process. There’s the shelling, the brief swim in boiling water, the fingers fumbling with pale, tough, hot skins. It’s meditative, yes. But you also feel it in your legs, planted for long minutes beside the kitchen table. Along the way, a generous pile of pods turns much smaller pile of beans. You worry there won’t be enough to feed your people. But it gets done and then dinner practically cooks itself: pasta tossed with ricotta, parm, a handful of beans.
This iteration incorporates wilted arugula, because ours was bolting. You can use spinach instead, or skip greens altogether. We found that cooked arugula delivers the mild, pleasing taste of spinach without the oxalic acid. Spring through and through, no matter that it’s June.
Recipe: Fusilli with Fava Beans, Ricotta, and Wilted Arugula
1 lb fava bean pods, for approximately ½ c shelled and skinned fresh fava beans / ½ lb fusilli / olive oil / 1 clove garlic, minced / ½ lb overgrown arugula or spinach / 2 tbls toasted walnuts, chopped / ¼ cup ricotta cheese / Parmesan cheese to taste / salt & pepper
Remove fava beans from their pods, drop the beans in boiling salted water, then slip off skins while still hot. Toss the beans with olive oil and salt to taste. Rinse the arugula or spinach. Leave some water clinging to the leaves and chop leaves coarsely.
Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain. Meantime warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saute pan. Add minced garlic and saute for 30 seconds over medium heat, until just fragrant. Add arugula or spinach and saute until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in walnuts, ricotta, Parmesan, and favas. Toss with pasta. Salt and pepper to taste. Feeds 2-plus.
The story starts with a fistful of cavolo nero leaves. Time was tight. There was no game plan to speak of, and cheesy ziti bubbled and browned in the oven. But who was ready to embrace winter — by which I mean stewed kale on the side? Not here. The snappy decision was raw kale salad. We’d declined to try it a few years back, when it was all the rage.
And well! I’m late to this party, but let me tell you this stuff is actually delicious. I love the salad’s slight crunch and green freshness; the lemon juice softens the kale ribbons just enough to blunt its raw edge. Should you require further proof of concept, consider that my husband, a skeptic through and through, packed the remnants for lunch today.
Recipe: Tuscan Kale Salad
1 bunch Tuscan kale, aka black kale, dinosaur kale, cavolo nero (see photo above) / 2 tbls lemon juice / 3 tbls olive oil / 1 small clove garlic, minced finely / 3 tbls Parmesan cheese / scant ¼ tsp salt / crushed red pepper to taste / ¼ cup breadcrumbs, toasted
Strip stems from kale and slice into ½-inch ribbons. Mix together lemon juice, oil, garlic, cheese, salt, and red pepper, then toss thoroughly with kale until all strands are dressed. Toss again with breadcrumbs and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. Feeds 4 as a side. Adapted from Melissa Clark.
The year’s first hard freeze brought deep snow and temps down into the teens, completely shutting Seattle down. In the garden it was an equally Darwinian scenario. Chard froze, then decayed. Fennel died back. Much to my surprise though most everything else did OK despite only thick snow for “protection”. Many survivors were greens: two varieties of winter lettuce plus arugula, red and green mustards, mache, endive, and of course, kale, which looks as vigorous as ever. The beets and leeks are alive, as are some of the hardy herbs like parsley. A big patch of volunteer chervil emerged unscathed, albeit with mellowed flavor.
One lesson of the recent freeze was to let snow be. Another lesson was that planting crops bred specifically for winter growing does work. Then again it’s only December, so we’ll see how everybody fares through a long, damp, cold winter.
Yesterday was the last official day of the p-patch season, which translates as high time for procrastinators and foot-draggers to clean up plots and prep the soil for spring. Patch-wide, we’d agreed to mulch with autumn leaves and burlap this year in lieu of cover cropping, the latter accused of providing safe harbor to cutworms. That meant dressing our plot with leaves from a nearby park and coffee bags from a local Bucky’s. What’s not to love?
We were mostly good about being ruthless — you need a healthy dose of that this time of year — pulling down all the unbloomed sweet peas, the unripe peppers, and pulling up the entire crop of parsnips, all five of them. The rest of the vegetation we chopped and laid down to compost right back into the soil. But as always not quite everything came out; I’m holding out hope for the occasional bundle of greens through the cold months.
After the chaos of the growing season it felt good to bring back a bit of order to the garden. Maybe I’m projecting but the soil seemed tired, ready for some nourishment and replenishing, and it was almost a relief to cover the beds with their blankets.
One recent sunny visit to the pea patch, and come to find that late blight had ripped through the tomatoes after a heavy September rain. Just the decomposing skeletons of plants were left, not even a salvageable tomato.
It was a season of mostly unfulfilled promises. The cayenne peppers are still green and raw as grass. The beans are huge swollen pods swaying from vines. Late-planted sweet peas won’t flower before frost. Come October, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful for all that wasn’t.
But then the Biscuit hardly minded. While I pulled weeds and pruned plants she toddled about sampling chard and basil and putting cherry tomatoes into a basket, only to decide they were better on the ground. Not that it’s all sweet and leisurely. Our most recent visit she seemed happily entertained, and come to find dahlia pollen smeared across her forehead and the tomatillos trampled upon.
Whoops — time to pack up. Off to thump pumpkins in the Children’s Garden and wave at the giant nodding sunflowers. I know she won’t remember any of it, she’s just too young. Still. In these days before memory, maybe something will speak to her soul.
No question, this was an awful summer at the pea patch. But a glance through old archives shows carping about cold conditions as recently as two summers ago, when we didn’t get much ’til after Labor Day and the first cherry tomatoes came ripe on September 15. About the same as this year, go figure.
Something those old posts also suggest is that cucumbers grow no matter the conditions. Cukes are not exactly a superfood; a half-cup of slices yields 8 watery calories and a bit of vitamin K, and that assumes you eat the skin. But they’re refreshing to eat, and we never really seem to tire of them. A good thing, because they keep on coming. This year ours started producing in late July and are still going strong. Even when you channel a steady supply to the food bank, to nice neighbors, and to your mother, there’s still plenty to go around.
The thing to do these days of course is to make pickles. I love pickles, and last year I bought a pickle slicer and made lots of pretty-looking bread-and-butter pickles. Tasty. This summer I even planted a warty little cornichon bred for preserving. Problem is, we still have so many pickles from last year.
So. This season we’re slicing and dicing cukes and eating them fresh. Tossing them with avocado and blue cheese in a green salad. Tucking them into sandwiches of leftover roast lamb and a yogurt-dill sauce. You could even serve with smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast points if that’s the way you swing, and better peel away every trace of dark green skin while you’re at it. Me, I like to gussy up slices with a vinaigrette and serve alongside big flavors.
With steak tacos or similar good things: Combine juice of ½ lime / 1 tsp sugar / 1 tbls neutral oil / big pinch smoked paprika / big pinch cumin / 12 sprigs minced cilantro (optional) and toss with 1 cucumber sliced into thin rounds. Let flavors mingle for 15 minutes, then serve.
With Asian fare especially grilled meats or fish: Combine 2 tsp rice vinegar / big pinch sugar / 1 tbls neutral oil / ½ tsp chili-garlic paste, or to taste / 12 leaves minced fresh mint / 6 sprigs minced cilantro (optional) and toss with 1 cucumber sliced into thin rounds. Let flavors mingle for 15 minutes, then serve.
You’d think vegetable growing only got easier with experience. That turns out not to be true, especially in a year when Nature is fickle and intemperate, or at least can be accused of bad timing. A cold June, then summer travels coinciding with July’s heat, and here in the waning days of August we’re coping with stunted pumpkin vines, bolted beets, sprawling tomatillos, and an eighteen- pound zucchini. No time left to make amends, and one hell of a lot of squash bread to bake.
It’s looking like we may not get a single tomato this year. Ah, the hard realities of late August.
Which is just how it goes, I guess, and if vegetable growing offers anything resembling a take-home point, it’s that you have to practice letting go. Me, I’m not quite there yet. I can’t help it — I’m feeling wistful for an abundant garden that feeds the whole family, especially with a baby who’s eating most everything homegrown these days, including chard, cucumbers, green beans, even beets.
Good thing she enjoys zucchini muffins, too.