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First trip to the food bank in who knows how long, but early chard is finally ready, having survived massive slug predation, a bad leaf miner infestation, one week of scorching heat, and otherwise thoroughly terrible growing conditions. Chard and other hardy greens are the main focus in the food bank beds this year, so hopefully these will keep producing into fall, maybe even next spring if we’re lucky.

The food bank beds at our pea patch are nourished by many folks from both within and without, who give time practically year-round to keep things up. Thanks to herb starts from Lettuce Link, a local nonprofit supporting food bank gardeners, we already have some basil to give. We’ll donate a few carrots planted some months ago by a preschool down the street, and having a spare moment on my hands yesterday afternoon, I culled a giant fistful of wild mint from the weedy hillside.

All in all not such a bad first delivery, except for how late it is already in the year. Short of an Indian summer we won’t likely make up for it with an end-of-season windfall. Still, being able to share garden abundance with others is definitely part and parcel of what makes summer feel like summer.

I’m pleased to report that basil is looking sort of respectable lately. Something I heart about growing basil is that once the little plants are up and going, you’ll have a guaranteed supply through fall so long as you pinch back the tops every now and again. So easy. Pinching prevents the plant from flowering and going to seed (which robs the leaves of their flavor and lovely aroma), and thus causes plants to grow bushier and leafier. Which means pesto now and pesto all winter if you’re diligent.

What’s your favorite use for garden basil?

It’s July 1 and snow peas are finally in. What is this, Alaska or something?

In any case we’ve got scads of them this week, too many to munch raw while puttering in the garden. So we’re quick cooking whole pods in a hot skillet and sprinkling with an amalgam of crushed sichuan pepper, salt, and black pepper. It’s fast and easy and the peas stay crisp, sweet, and beautiful.

What’s your favorite way with snow peas?

Here I was thinking the growing season was shaping up so nicely. Cover crop cut down in early March, biomass and fish fertilizer turned into the soil with plenty of time to break down. No foot-dragging this year about the overwintered kale, which I chopped and composted early. Seeds went in apace, and nothing to expect but forward progress from there. Indeed, the spinach and chard are now up and growing. But a glance around the patch and the depressing fact is that everybody else’s plots are already flush with lettuces, beets, and peas.

Meantime you can barely see the green stuff in ours.

Who doesn’t want to keep up with the Joneses? And yet we only seem to fall further behind. Yesterday on a fly-by with the Biscuit, I transplanted three parsley seedlings and that was pushing it. My home tomato starts are barely on their second set of leaves, and the pumpkin sprouts that I left out overnight last week turned white and stunted.

So no more relying on just the goodness of Nature. I’ve wrapped simple plastic tents around the pumpkins and lettuces and basil, little personal greenhouses that trap the sun’s warmth for chilly nights, and the plants seem to be perking up. We’re going to abandon home grown for bigger, healthier tomato starts from the farmer’s market. And I’ll dig some of my worm bin compost into the soil around heavy feeders like zucchini a couple of weeks hence, a habit that reaped dividends in prior years.

What’s your favorite trick for speeding up the season?

Is it just me, or is mint taking over the world? It grows wild behind the pea patch, and I’m forever ripping the burly runners out of the food bank beds. The strategy is containment, not eradication. And think long and hard before throwing mint stems into the home compost, especially if your pile doesn’t get overly hot.

Not that mint is the enemy. Not at all. It can be so versatile in the kitchen, almost like basil the way it can go savory or sweet. I like chopping it into a garlicky yogurt sauce to go with pan roasted lamb chops or grilled eggplant; thin slices are nice for Vietnamese cucumber salads and tabbouleh.

Even the picky Biscuit likes to chew on mint, and she can happily entertain herself with a sprig while I chop soil and pull weeds. For a few minutes, at least, which is good as it gets these days.

I give bunches of mint to everybody I think might care to use them. Our hippie neighbors. Our foodie friends. I gave a big bunch to a chef friend, who took one sniff and exclaimed, “Cocktails!”

Indeed. First week in May, and even if you don’t care much about race horses, you can still enjoy a refreshing beverage with crushed mint and delicious alcohol. Only the mint is truly local in this drink, so if food miles are a concern, make up for it by using lots of the stuff.

The Old Cuban

One dozen mint leaves, or more to taste / 3 tbls lime juice / 4 tbls simple syrup* / 2 tbls rum / 2 dashes bitters / 4+ tbls Champagne

Muddle mint and lime juice in cocktail shaker. Add simple syrup, rum, bitters, and ice, and shake until chilly. Strain into two cocktail glasses and add half of the Champagne to each.

*Make simple syrup from 1 cup sugar dissolved over heat into 1 cup water.

A word about raab, those broccoli-like florets that mean the beginning of the end for kale and other winter greens. Raab might be my favorite thing about early spring eating — the stems and florets can be so tender and toothsome, and they cook to such a brilliant green in moments. I especially love them in udon and ramen soups. And they appear in the garden and at farmers markets just when you’re sure you cannot wait one more second for peas and asparagus to arrive.

But a word to the wise. Rinse well in cold water, adding salt if you like, to chase out gray aphids and other buglikes. I learn the hard way every year, because I sometimes don’t wash stuff I’ve grown with just sunshine and water. Yeah, the critters get cooked, and I think a couple here or there are harmless. An entire flotilla, though, and you’ve got a different kind of soup on your hands.

The Biscuit and I made it over to the pea patch last week where, thanks to irrepressibly warm weather, the plots are flush with cover crop, and with weeds. She entertained herself with a sprig of mint while I pulled shotweed and chopped some of the vetch and peas. Then she ramped up to a full-throated fuss, I plucked a few kale stems, and we were on the move again.

It’s the same guerilla-style gardening in the back yard. During naps I run outside to work leaf mold and fresh compost into the ground. There’s been just enough time to plant spinach, arugula, and greens. And how fantastic is it not to be preggers? A gardener can get up and get down and get all around and not be panting for air.

And now that Biscuit’s sampling her first solids, including last fall’s butternut squash, the growing season holds that much more promise.

This Thursday, January 28 is the deadline for Seattle gardeners to renew their P-patch plots for 2010. Questions, call 206.684.0264. And while you’re at it, consider making a contribution to the P-patch Trust, which does great stuff like provide tools for the p-patches, support food bank programs, and pay plot fees for p-patch gardeners who need assistance.

fall lettuce

As you’ve probably guessed from my radio silence, the Biscuit is out of the oven — and now on to her third week of life. Needless to say, I’m not writing a whole lot right now, and I’m not gardening or cooking very much either.

Instead, we’re being nourished by all of our amazing friends and relatives, who keep showing up with delicious things to eat — fresh corn and tomato salads, roasted chicken, cheesy pastas and polentas, bean soups, a gallon of chowder. Or who drop off fresh, end-of-season produce that’s just been picked at the pea patch.

I’ve fed plenty of people in my time, but nothing like this. It’s truly humbling.

As for this blog, I’ll continue posting my kitchen and garden adventures from time to time, and I’ll certainly still follow the food blogs I like so much. Expect not to hear from me quite as regularly, though, at least for a while.

But know that the local adventures are keeping on, off-line. The Biscuit and I made it to the Broadway farmers market last weekend, where the last of the corn and nectarines were on the tables, and we’re planning to keep going so long as the farmers keep coming. The pea patch plot has been put to bed, thanks to my good friend Alice, who cleared out the tomatoes and cucumbers and eggplants, and sprinkled the soil with cover crop seed. A quarter side of beef arrives from Sweet Grass Farm this weekend, and the lettuces, chard, and celery root are more or less established in the backyard winter garden. Pears, squash, basil, and green beans have gone into deep freeze for cold weather eating.

It’s our version of going to the mattresses. But I hope you’ll check back periodically, to keep up on Stephen’s food adventures in Alaska, and because at some point we’ll come up for air.

orange banana paste

Ah, nesting. For some it involves setting up the crib and painting the nursery. Sewing cute baby quilts. Scrubbing the house down and making way for all the gear that comes with modern babies.

Over here, it’s been a cooking frenzy instead.

But who can help it? There’s so much that’s good and plentiful in the garden right now. I made quarts of our favorite Bolognese sauce, using orange paste tomatoes plus handfuls of fresh oregano, thyme, parsley, and basil. Pints of bread and butter pickles for eating with burgers. A lovely green sauce from ripe tomatillos, for enchiladas and similar fare. I cured a big slab of pork belly guanciale, which will make its way into pastas, soups, and stews all winter long.

And because they make me so happy, I assembled and froze multiple batches of my grandmother’s wonton, using pot sticker filling. These we’ll drop into steaming broth and eat with chopped greens and minced scallions for easy cool weather nourishment.

I even peeled, cored, and froze pears for use as baby food down the road. It feels like storing acorns for winter.

Surely we’d be fine without any of it. We’ve been ready for weeks for this new creature to arrive, so the bustle in the kitchen feels more like a diversion, something to distract me from thoughts of just how dramatically life is about to change. One thing that I’m guessing will stay the same: we’ll like having tasty local and homegrown food in the weeks and months to come.

Recipe: Bolognese Meat Sauce

I’ve made this sauce for countless friends in the throes of new parenthood.

1 large onion, minced / 2 carrots, minced / 2 stalks celery, minced / 2 lbs ground beef and/or pork / 1 cup milk / pinch of nutmeg / 1 cup white wine / 6 cups skinless paste tomatoes / a generous quantity fresh parsley, oregano, thyme, and basil, minced / salt & pepper

Warm a heavy pot over medium heat. Swirl in 1 tbls vegetable oil and add onion, carrots, and celery, cooking over medium heat until softened, about 8 minutes. Add ground meat, ¼ tsp salt, a few grindings of pepper, and cook until browned. Add milk and nutmeg and cook until liquid is essentially gone. Add wine and cook until liquid is essentially gone. Add tomatoes and herbs, bring to a slow boil, then turn down heat and cook over low for 3 hours or until flavors melt together richly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over spaghetti noodles, garnished with Parmesan cheese and fresh minced parsley if desired. Freezes great. Adapted from Marcella Hazan. Feeds 8-10.

Eat Local Northwest

A food blog documenting the adventures of two friends trying to cook and eat sustainably in Seattle and in Anchorage.