Monday, August 30, 2010

How much should I preserve?

At this time of year the blogs are full of pictures of 40 jars of tomatoes that some uber locavore just put up. You read about people's 20x20 foot hand-dug root cellars, and the 200 cucumbers that they turned into pickles.

I just read a comment from a friend that she "doesn't have enough to save right now"-- but what does that mean? How little is too little?

I mostly eat as I grow. I don't really have the space, or I'm not willing to devote the space, to grow enough for the 8 months of preserved food that you need in this northern temperate climate. But even so, for most of my gardening life I've grown just a little too much to consume.

Now, I'm a somewhat selfish gardener. I don't give much (ahem, any) food away. I'm always impressed, and slightly guilt-ridden, over people who bring their baked goods or overflow tomatoes to work. If I've got 10 extra tomatoes, that's a quart of sauce. Too many zucchinis, peppers, or eggplants? You can roast and freeze those. (Or pack the roasted peppers in olive oil. They won't keep quite as long, but they give the olive oil an amazing flavor). And you don't need either the time nor the storage for dozens of jars. Put up 3 jars, and for all I know, eat them next week. This year for the first time we got a small chest freezer, just 5.5 cubic feet, for freezing fruit and blanched vegetables, and I use my son's tiny old dorm room fridge for about 20 jars of heat-canned sauces and relish.

So if you've only got enough tomatoes for a little extra sauce, well, you're not feeding an army, and there's a grocery store down the block for January (for now, anyway). It's great to save a lot.

But you can also save just a little.

Fried squash blossoms with chorizo stuffing

12 large freshly picked squash blossoms (any type-- I've got Butternut, Pumpkin and Zucchini)

The stuffing:
2 chorizo sausages
3 small potatoes
1 large sweet pepper
3 small zucchini or 1 medium eggplant
2 egg yokes

Fill a sauce pan with light oil (canola or corn) to at least 3" depth (do not overfill- top of oil should be no closer than 1" from the top of the pot). Heat to 400F.

If using eggplant, dice it, place it in a seive over a bowl and lightly salt. Let it sit about a half hour until it drains, then rinse it. Discard all liquid. Drench it with olive oil and let it sit 10 minutes or until the olive oil is absorbed. Peel and grate the potatoes, dice the pepper and zucchini or eggplant. Remove the casings from the sausages and fry in a little olive oil, breaking them up into a ground meat texture. Place all ingredients together in the frying pan and continue frying until the eggplant is completely cooked, adding olive oil if necessary. Add egg yolks and quickly mix it. Saute on low until vegetables are soft (about 20 minutes). Allow to cool.

For vegetarian, clearly, leave out the sausage, replace with wild rice or toasted pine nuts.

The batter (from Cape May Magazine, although I thought theirs was too thick, and added a second egg white):
½ cup flour
½ cup rice flour
Salt, pepper
2 egg whites
½ cup club soda

Mix flours and spices and add to club soda. Whisk lightly to incorporate. Lumps are better than over mixing. Whisk egg whites until foamy. Add to batter.

Gently spoon the stuffing into the blossoms, folding over the ends to hold it in. Hand dip into the batter and immediately submerge in hot (400F) oil. Deep fry until the batter is golden brown. Serve immediately.

These were so good that by the time I got the camera, 6 of them were gone.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An act of courage, and the hand of the divine

Sometimes the most mundane activity inspires the most profound thoughts. After gathering the morning’s harvest, I set about dicing the six cucumbers to freeze (fresh cucumber soup in January!), nibbling as I cut, as one does. I slipped a sweet piece of pale green crunch into my mouth and experienced the most revelatory moment:

I made this

I made a cucumber. I also "make" tomatoes, eggplants, squash, corn. Beans. Beets. Carrots. In fact, I can make anything, with help from God and the goddess. A garden brings the divine into the kitchen, through each small miracle of a fruit.

Urban Americans are so disconnected from food origins, and so indoctrinated to rely on someone else's expertise, that it takes both imagination and a profound act of courage to eat something that no one has inspected, or vetted, or processed, or labeled, or packaged. In our culture every single piece of fruit has a label and a number. Small storefront grocery stores are mistrusted if not demonized, let alone the guy selling watermelons off the back of his truck. Children ask “what is it” when confronted with a cherry tomato on the vine, and have never snipped the ends off a bean. Eating something that only you and God have touched is nearly revolutionary if not actively subversive.

I learned today that in the UK, everyone is entitled to an allotment, because “landless citizens have a right to the commons.” Here in the states we’ve let cities like Detroit and New Orleans die, because god forbid someone should use someone else’s land (i.e. vacant, abandoned lot) to grow their own food. God forbid the government should be required to redeem land that they allowed private companies to contaminate, so that no one can use it to grow things on, while allowing agribusiness to drench our inspected, vetted, processed, labeled, packaged foods with poison.

This week, we've been subjected to a report about poisoned eggs. Eggs that have been bleached, irradiated, scrubbed, and in fact, vetted, processed and labeled, have supposedly sickened more than a thousand people. We took "baby's first perfect food" and turned it into poison. I don't have to worry about it. I get my eggs from a local farmer, who neither poisons, nor cannibalizes, nor confines her chickens, and whom I've met.

And I grew a cucumber, a carrot, a tomato, a bean. I ate it hot from the sun—God’s hand to my mouth.

Cucumber-raisin bread
Adapted from "Best Zucchini Bread Ever"

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour (or all-purpose)
2 teaspoons cinnamon (freshly ground, if you're into it)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (again, freshly grated, assuming you have, um, nutmegs? around)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder (make your own!)
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup canola or nut oil
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with a splash of vinegar)
1 cup organic Turbinado sugar (or brown sugar, firmly packed)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups finely grated cucumber
4 oz raisins, plumped

Preheat oven to 350F.

Oil a 9×4 inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper. Line a 6-cup muffin tin with papers OR oil a mini loaf pan. Whisk dry ingredients and set aside. In a large bowl, beat eggs until foamy, then beat in yogurt, buttermilk, oil, sugar, and vanilla and combine well. Stir in grated cucumber and plumped raisins. Fold flour mixture into the wet ingredients and stir until combined. Spoon batter into 6 muffin cups (or mini loaf pan) and pour the rest into the 9×4 loaf pan. Bake for approximately 50 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes in the pan.

Loosen the sides and remove from pan. Cool loaf completely before cutting.

Hot and Cold

As the days start to switch over from summer's hot, high sun to autumn's golden coolness, it's time to start adapting the recipes to reflect the weather. Cold cucumber, beet and tomato soups become warm creamed soups. Salads give way to casseroles, and the summer drinks go from cold and refreshing to warm and soothing.

So as the days stay hot while the nights cool off, here's some drinks for both ends of the spectrum.

Honey-vanilla yogurt smoothie
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup honey
4-6 ice cubes
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Throw it all in a blender.

Vanilla milk
8 oz milk, heated
1-3 teaspoons sugar (depending how sweet you like it)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Completely dissolve the sugar in the hot milk, add the vanilla. Allow to cool a little. A wonderful bedtime soother, even for little kids (not enough sugar to keep them awake). For a little caramel flavor, dissolve the sugar in a pat of melted butter and a couple of tablespoons of milk first. I have also tried this with honey; the sugar is better.

I've asked for vanilla beans for Christmas (can't justify the expense for everyday), and will be trying these at some point with homemade vanilla syrup.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Giving food away

One of my favorite activities of The Peterson Garden Project is our Farm2Give beds. These are seven 6x4' raised plots planted and tended by volunteers, with all of the produce going to local food pantries.

We've been harvesting upwards of 10 pounds of produce a week for about 3 weeks now-- tomatoes, corn, melons, beans, summer squash, cucumbers, chard, peppers. We have two nearby food pantries eager to take the produce, and a couple more near various volunteers' homes or businesses.

The difficulty comes with delivery. Some pantries take food only in narrow windows, generally on weekdays during the day. Others have more flexible delivery times, but less reliable staffing. One volunteer had 30 pounds of produce fall off the back of his scooter on his way to deliver it, and he didn't notice until he got there.

It's cumbersome and haphazard, and food gets wasted through spoilage and loss. I don't have room to store 30 extra pounds of produce that I pick on a Sunday (when I'm off work), but can't deliver until Thursday.

I've been trying to contact the Greater Chicago Food Depository to see if we can deliver stuff there. Presumably, they are staffed for more hours. Problem is, I don't know where "there" is-- there doesn't seem to be an address on the website-- and no one is returning my calls.

Kinda gives new meaning to the old gardener's joke, that I've got so much food that I can't even give it away.

Sweet and Spicy Corn Relish

8 ears sweet corn
, husked and nibletted
large yellow onion
3 bell peppers
4 cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2-3 small hot peppers (poblano, shishito, or jalapeno)
2 cups cider vinegar
cup sugar
teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Mix the vinegar and sugar, stir thoroughly and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Place the spices in a cheesecloth bag and soak it in this mixture. Set aside, but keep it hot. Dice the cucumbers, tomatoes, and hot peppers, dredge with salt and about a tablespoon of sugar, mix well and set aside. Dice the onions and peppers, and blanch with the corn (place in boiling water, bring to a boil again, leave on full boil for 5 minutes). Mix all the vegetables together in a large ceramic bowl (or other non-reactive) bowl, and mix with the hot liquid and spices. The liquid should cover the vegetables (if it doesn't, add hot water until all the veggies are just submerged). Place in the fridge overnight. Next day, drain off the liquid into a large saucepan and bring to a full boil. Put the vegetables into a room temperature bowl. Pour the back over the vegetables then place in Ball jars and heat process to preserve.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What to do with the cherry tomatoes

You know that scene in The Return of the King where Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are in the cave with the ghost army, and all the millions of skulls coming tumbling down?

Now think cherry tomatoes instead of skulls. That's what I feel like.

One of the things that can catch inexperienced gardeners unaware is the bounty. Everyone's heard the apocryphal stories of the sneak zucchini attack-- some hapless gardener plants 10 zucchinis in a fit of madness and can't get rid of them, so they leave them on some unsuspecting neighbor's porch in the middle of the night.

This year, as part of the Eat Real Food challenge at Not Dabbling in Normal, I decided to see if I could preserve enough food to make it into January before resorting to store bought (since I'm trying to stay local and seasonal). I planted twice as many tomatoes as usual, plus 6 cherry tomatoes, thinking I'd eat the cherries and preserve the full size.

And like the newbie that I'm not, I got caught unaware-- I've got cherries out the wazzoo. About 4-5 quarts so far, with double that ripening as I write. They make great snacks, and a friend is taking 2 quarts (plus some corn, and though she doesn't know it yet, refrigerator pickles, not to mention, ahem, zucchini) in payment for a design job, bless her, but what to do with the rest?

Cherry Tomato Eggplant Bruschetta
1 quart Cherry Tomatoes (about 60-80 tomatoes, depending on the size)
1 eggplant
garlic to taste (let's say 3 large cloves)
2+ T olive oil plus 1 T olive oil
Fresh herbs (basil is nice, also parsley, also oregano)
Salt and pepper

Adjust quantities if you have 80 pounds of cherry tomatoes, like I appear to.

Peel and dice eggplant and dredge it with salt. Let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour, until some liquid has accumulated. Rinse, pat dry, and macerate in 2 tablespoons olive oil until thoroughly absorbed. Quarter or dice the tomatoes, chop the herbs very fine, press the garlic. Mix it all together with the remaining olive oil. At this point you can either roast it in a cool oven (300-325F/150-160C) for 45-55 minutes, or cook it in a skillet at high heat for about 5 minutes. Cool and eat right away, or spoon the hot bruschetta into hot jars and heat preserve. For a sweet garlic taste, roast a head of garlic whole first, then whip that with the olive oil before mixing it all together.

Cherry Tomato Salsa
Use any basic salsa recipe, just with quartered cherry tomatoes instead of diced full-sized tomatoes. Here's one from

1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 red onion, finely diced
1 jalapeño, minced
Juice from 1/2 of a lemon (I'd rather use lime, but she uses lemon)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt

Toss the cherry tomatoes, red onion, and jalapeño together in a small mixing bowl. Squeeze the lemon (um, lime?) juice over the mixture, and stir in the fresh cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

Cherry Tomato Paste
You need at least 3 quarts of cherry tomatoes to end up with a pint of paste, or a quart of sauce. Put the tomatoes into a sauce pan with a little water (maybe a quarter cup, just to keep them from burning until they start to release their own liquid). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until all the tomatoes have lost their shape. Run through progressively finer sieves in a food mill, until the seeds and skin are separated. Compost the seeds and skin, or use them as the base for stock. (Then compost them.) Return the tomato-y liquid to the pan and cook down by half (i.e. keep cooking and stirring until half or more of the water has simmered off.) Spoon hot paste into hot jars (1 cup for paste, larger for a thinner paste, larger still for a sauce consistency) and heat seal. Since cherry tomatoes have a high sugar content, for extra insurance against spoiling add a little lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar. (Do this to taste. You don't want your tomato paste to be sour. For additional insurance, store these cold.) If you like, you can add salt, spices, garlic or onion to this, but I like the flexibility of a pure paste.

Dried Cherry tomatoes
Cut your tomatoes in half and lay between two clean screens. Set out in the sun for 2-3 days; bringing them in overnight. (from the gardener behind Read Between the Limes). Colleen Vanderlinden, the organic gardening guru at, says she does this with her grape tomatoes especially.

More tweeted advice:


Thanks to all my tweeps for the ideas!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I relish the summer!

No words of wisdom today, just a wonderful summer relish, and a really bad pun

Spicy Peach Relish
for every 4 medium peaches:

1 bell pepper (red is the best aesthetically, but any sweet bell will do)
1-2 hot pepper of choice (I used Shishito because that's what I have growing)
1 small sweet onion
1 medium cucumber
Zest from 2 limes

1/4 cup peach preserves
1 T balsamic vinegar
Juice from 2 limes
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint or cilantro (flavor will be quite different depending which one you use)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Peel, seed and finely dice all fruits. For a hotter relish, don't seed the hot peppers. If you don't want your relish too hot, seed the peppers, or use only some of the seeds.

Heat the brine, pour over fruit mixture, put in fridge overnight. Ladle into sterilized jars and heat seal.

A tweep asks "okay to put in fridge overnight, rather than hot mix into hot jars?" Someone correct this if it's wrong-- do I need to reheat? Don't want to kill anyone! @Canvolution says "make it a fridge relish; can't tell how acid it is with all those veg!"

Serve with chicken or seafood, or over a leafy salad.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"What the hell" gardening

There are lots of gardeners with impressive, even terrifying, depth of knowledge. There are gardeners who can build any structure needed for any type of plant, and ones who know exactly how to build soil or which treatment to use for a sick plant, based on a glance. There are gardeners who not only know the names of, but plant dozens if not hundreds of tomato varieties, and also can tell you what they taste like, and whether they are "slicing" or "paste" tomatoes. (There's a difference? I think I've been doing it wrong.)

There are gardeners who know what to do with tomatillos.

I confess when I started getting active online I was extremely intimidated by gardeners who knew the difference between tagetes and calendula, which I always just called "marigold," (I sound like I have clue, yes? Don't be fooled). They have the scientific names for dozens of plants at the tips of their tongues, and always know which named variety of lily, or iris, was growing in their own backyards, not to mention yours.

And then there are the "what the hell" gardeners:
  • The rabbits ate most of the climbing beans' stalks, and all the leaves, but they don't look so bad, so what the hell, I'll leave them.
  • Damn, a squirrel took a bite out of that tomato, but it doesn't look so bad. What the hell, I'll pick it and just cut off the nommed bits.
  • Whoah! Winter melon will climb up a bean trellis, who knew? What the hell, I'll just add some supports for it and see what happens.
  • The potted peppers don't look so good. What the hell, I'll throw in some bean seeds; beans fix nitrogen, (or something) right? That should help.
  • Hey- there are turnips coming up from last year. What the hell, let's see what happens if I just let them go to seed.
  • Are Vermont cranberry beans dry beans or shell beans? What the hell, let's pick some and see how they taste.
  • I think those are aphids at the top of the 12-foot-tall corn, where I can't reach. What the hell, let's try power spraying them off.

So what the hell have you done in your garden that you were clueless about, but, well, what the hell...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Zombie Corn, flavor, and Sungold sauce

The weird gray mass in my corn turns out to be Corn Smut, aka Ustilago maydis aka Huitlacoche (“wee-tlah-KOH-cheh”), and is apparently edible. Now, I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but frankly, I draw the line at Zombie Corn.

Also made an interesting discovery about the Bloody Butcher from Seed Savers Exchange— every husk has 2-3 ears growing in it, unfortunately at wildly different rates, and you can't harvest the oldest without also pulling the youngest, since they share a husk and a stem. So assuming I can keep ahead of the aphids, I’m going to try leaving these and see if I can get some of these multiple husks all to mature.

One of the interesting things about growing different corn varieties is that different types taste differently. The Bon Appetit is as sweet as candy, no joke. Eye poppingly sweet. The Bloody Butcher has a smoky deep flavor, it tastes roasted even when it’s braised. The Country Gentleman has the "corniest’ flavor so far, which is probably why it’s a popular backyard variety.

This is one of the most interesting things about growing your own food. You rediscover variety in places you've been trained not to expect variety. Different tomatoes have not only different shapes, but also different flavors, sometimes subtle but sometimes dramatic, like the three different corns. Eating three different varieties of cherry tomatoes in a row is as different as eating a bagel and then a cookie and then pasta. All the same basic ingredients, but wildly different flavors.

Sungold Pasta Sauce
1 quart mixed cherry tomatoes, primarily golden
1 bell pepper, red or green, seeded and diced
1 large clove garlic, crushed
large handful white mushrooms, diced

Blanche the tomatoes and pull off the skins. This is tedious, but worth it. I made this without peeling the tomatoes and found the skins to be tough and distracting in the sauce, although my husband didn't mind them. Set the peeled tomatoes aside.

Heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then add the mushrooms and garlic. Saute until the mushrooms have absorbed all the oil. If you want your sauce to have a mushroomy back taste, add about 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice and saute until the mushrooms release liquid. Add the green peppers and saute until just going soft. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until their structure breaks down. For additional texture and color, throw in some unpeeled small sweet red or black cherry tomatoes.

This sauce will have a golden/pale green color, very lovely and unusual.

Serve over your pasta of choice with grated parmesan or romano cheese and a nice woodsy white.

So many herbs, so little storage space

Four parsley plants. The oregano that ate Chicago. Two creeping thyme. Fourteen basil. Two rosemary. Five lavender. Don't even mention the sage.






Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why people are afraid to cook

I love the web. Open up a search engine, type in "green beans, chard, beets, carrots" and out comes a recipe. Amazing.

Except when you try to make it.

"roast chard in oven until crispy, but not burnt" How long will that take? What will it look like? Should I do anything with it while it's in there?
"slowly drizzle in the oil to emulsify into vinaigrette" Do I just pour it, or do I have to mix it? How hard? How slow is a drizzle? How can I tell it's emulsified? What in the world does that even mean?
" Lay out prepped beets and carrots on a sheet pan and roast in same 400°F oven as the chard until nicely roasted" Again, how long? What constitutes "nicely roasted?"

So there we were with pan-fried mushrooms and green beans, steamed carrots and beets, and sorta kinda crispy chard. Annoyed with the recipe, we turned it into the Nelson Chin test kitchen and came up with:

Scalloped August veggies

2 large Carrots cut length-wise and then into wedges (I never peel carrots, but feel free)
5 Med.-Lrg. mixed Beets cut into wedges and peeled
Today's green bean harvest (we had about a pint), cleaned (i.e., cut the ends off)
1 large portobello mushroom, sliced
3 larges cloves of garlic, smashed and diced

30 large chard leaves, washed and stems removed
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F/190C

Remove the stems, then clean and chop the chard. Toss in a large bowl with a couple tablespoons olive oil. Spread thinly on a baking sheet (one with raised edges works best) and roast about 25 minutes, or until it is crispy but not burnt (after 15 minutes, start checking it every 5 minutes). Remove from oven and set aside. Turn off oven and allow it to cool down a little.

Prepare a casserole with cooking spray. Scald 1 1/2 cups of milk (4-6 minutes on high in the microwave)

Steam, braise, or roast the beets and carrots until just tender. Saute the green beans, mushrooms and garlic in a little olive oil. Turn the oven back on, at 350F/175C. Put the two veggie mixes into the casserole in two layers. Each layer should be dotted with 1 tablespoon of butter, and dredged with 2 tablespoons of flour. Pour the hot milk over this, cover and bake for 30 minutes.

Serve over fettucini.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How a garden grows

For maybe the first decade that I gardened, I focused on the ornamental garden and did vegetables just in a small way— lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, herbs in the small plot off the garage (now the Garage Garden). Somewhere in the 90s I put in the Wagon Wheel, although the earliest paper journal, and earliest plan, I can find is dated 1999 . I think I had been building the garden for at least 10 years when the Wagon Wheel went in (so called because it was a half circle divided into spokes).

The vegetable started small and safe. As late as 2004 most of the gardening work was still ornamental as I added beds and switched from annuals to perennials learning as I went what worked and what didn’t. There’s a lotta plants in plant heaven because of my ignorance. It was putting in the Knot garden in 2005 (now the Serpentine) that jump-started the veggies.

Once you switch to perennials, the ornamental beds start to take care of themselves. I still divide plants of course, and move them around (kind of like moving furniture, and one of my favorite garden tasks). And I have my first new ornamental bed in years—the Woodland—which is still a few years from figuring itself out. I’m thinking it will eventually be a tiny prairie meadow.

I’ve tried something new every year, although I’m kind of running out of space, and have managed to avoid intriguing plants that I know we won’t eat, like kohlrabi and hot peppers, and high maintenance ones that I know I won’t take care of, like roses and exotics. I dug out my old paper journals, and here’s what I’ve managed to trace, of edible plants that I added, and then kept year after year:

  • Somewhere in the dim mists of time: raspberries and the garage garden
  • 1999- the basic vegetable garden takes shape in the Wagon Wheel (the bed itself was built I think mid 90s, because the kids remember it from grade school): snow peas, lettuce, broccoli (don’t remember doing broccoli that far back, but it's in the journals!), carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers.
  • 2000- fennel for the first time (stuck with it for 8 years before finally giving up)
  • 2001- first pumpkin
  • 2002-3- can’t find the journals, but cucumbers and zucchini snuck in here somewhere, although I did zucchini again this year for the first time in ages.
  • 2004- first actual reference I can find to cukes, but I’m pretty sure I had done them before
  • 2005-6 (shared journal between 2 years, and cleverly did not differentiate the years) the Knot garden goes in as an herb garden, with 10 types of herbs. Also put in beets for the first time.
  • 2007- first (unsuccessful) attempt at squash, and discovery of on-line gardening blogs, where I lurked for a couple of years, especially Mr. Brown Thumb and You Grow Girl.
  • 2008- first eggplant, turnips, chard, despite this being the year I broke my ankle right after the main planting; I also experimented with attempting a full second crop of summer vegetables, with mixed success.
  • 2009- corn, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and wintersowing, strawberries (from seed)
  • 2010- climbing beans (always did bush beans before and in future always will again. Hate the climbers), and took a leap of faith by planting asparagus from seed.
Which brings us to today, harvesting corn and cukes, beans and cherry tomatoes, dill and parsley. I can't believe I've never posted this recipe before, as it is my all-time favorite summer soup.

Cream of Cucumber Soup

4-5 large cucumbers
1 large onion
1 T dill seeds
2 cloves garlic
1 T chopped fresh parsley
2 T butter

1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional; for thickening. This recipe is from my MIL, who puts cornstarch in everything)
1 quart stock (chicken or vegetable; make sure it's a "white" stock or the soup will be ugly!)
>1 cup milk
2 cups half-half
2 yolks eggs (I got a double yoke one when making this just now!)
pepper and salt to taste

Different colored cherry tomatoes

Peel, seed and dice the largest cucumbers, leaving one for garnish. Dice onions and garlic (or use a garlic press) and saute in butter with the parsley and dill seeds in the soup pot about 5 minutes (the cukes will turn a bright light green). Add water or stock, simmer 20 minutes. Mix cornstarch with milk, stir into the soup and bring it to a light boil; allow it to boil about 10 minutes. Puree with an immersible mixer (or in a blender if you don't have a mixer; if you use a blender, let it cool a little before decanting it).

Lightly beat the half-half and egg yolks, pour a little boiling soup on to them, stirring at same time, then return it to the hot soup, stirring constantly; it must not boil again or it will curdle. Season to taste with white pepper and salt.

You can give this soup a nice green color (and add nutritional value) by making a "dye" with spinach: Wash and drain spinach, pound it in a mortar, roll it in cheesecloth and wring it into a large measuring cup. Pour into the soup and stir thoroughly.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves, and the remaining cucumber into discs. Garnish the soup with the cut vegetables and a sprig of parsley just before serving.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I spent most of my gardening life, which goes back a couple of decades, digging the dirt in solitary splendor, with even close friends not entirely aware of how much gardening I do. Then three years ago I broke my ankle right at the start of the gardening season.

Unable even to get down my back steps, I started "gardening" on line and discovered an amazing world of connectedness, of dirt-under-their-nails enthusiasts, of people with so much passion and knowledge and desire to make the world better through gardening. I had had no idea that there were other people like me, who wouldn't eat tomatoes in January or strawberries in October. Who never went to the farmer's market, not because there wasn't one, or it was inconvenient, but because I didn't need it. Who believed that gardening in your backyard, or on your porch, or around the corner, could change the world.

With time on my hands from a downsized job, this year I increased my square footage by a third, and joined the revolutionaries at the Peterson Garden Project; we're determined, in the words of founder LaManda Joy, to inspire everyone to grow their own food. (Growing is the easy part, it's getting started, so we're going to make that easy, too.)

We started a garden on the site of an old World War II Victory Garden on Chicago's north side, so I've read a lot about what the term victory means and meant in that context. Because my parents were Greatest Generation parents I've always known what a Victory Garden was, and how it related to the war effort.

But a lot of people now don't make that connection.

So I'm challenging you help us redefine the term. Let's start Victory Gardens to celebrate victory over nutrition-poor factory food. To announce a victory over the idea that our every whim must be satisfied, like tomatoes in January, at the expense of our planet and our health. It's a victory to teach children that tomatoes are sweet, not yucky (it breaks my heart when I hear children say they don't like tomatoes). A victory when neighbors meet for the first time at the community garden. A victory to see the smile on the face of a new gardener the first time she picks a bean that she grew herself.

We've been saying at Peterson Garden that "it's not a garden, it's a revolution." I'm declaring here that it's not a garden, it's a victory.

How do you define victory in your garden?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Punctuate the garden

A garden is more than just plants. Maydreams will tell you a garden needs Wanderability, Placeness,and Gardimacy among other things, but I think one of the things a garden needs is, well, things.

I have lots of things in my garden, big things like a tree and a trellis, a patio and a pond, and little things like a stone face or a clay snail, a literal white elephant (bought, yes, at a white elephant sale), and a couple of metal birds. Medium sized things like a sweet potato vine-breathing dragon and a gorgeous faience-blue pot shaped like a snail.

These small sculptures offer a little humor, a little focus, a little respite from the green and the work. They sneak up on you in corners or anchor a bed.

Find them all in my garden, or here.

Then there's the growing things. Here's what I made with today's harvest:

Harvest-stuffed Bell Peppers

Several large bell peppers (one for each diner)
Roasted beets, one per pepper
2-3 small onions, roasted
Andouille sausage for the meat eaters; leave this out otherwise
One medium eggplant, peeled and diced
Brown or wild rice
creole or other seasoning (a smoky herb like tarragon or sage would be nice with this)

To roast the beets, remove the roots and greens and thoroughly wash them. Place them in a foil-lined pan and drizzle with a little oil, then wrap them in the foil. Place them in a preheated 375F/190C oven and roast for about 20-25 (for smaller, fresher beets; longer for large or old beets), until tender. Add the onions about halfway through. Allow to cool, then remove the skins with a peeler (or just slip them off). Dice.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil. Slice of the tops of the peppers and remove the seeds. Blanch the peppers and tops in the boiling water, about 3 minutes only; drain and place upright in a roasting dish.

Cook rice according to package directions. While the rice is cooking, dice the eggplant and macerate it in olive oil (i.e. cover it entirely in the olive oil). Chop the sausage and saute it in a little olive oil. Add the eggplant and spices. When thoroughly cooked (eggplant will be tender) add the rice and beets. For vegetarian/vegan, leave out the sausage. Fill the peppers with the rice mixture, using any extra mixture to fill the dish between the peppers. Cover and roast at 325 for 25-30 minutes.

Serve over seasoned mashed root vegetables with avgolemono or hollandaise sauce.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lammas Harvest

True to the promise of the festival, today I had the first harvest too big to bring in as a single basketful or armload. The festival’s counterpart, Beltane at the beginning of summer, the planting of the crops and the marriage of the god and goddess, is full of promise and joy. Lammas is full of bounty and joy, but melancholy too, as the god begins to prepare for his yearly sacrifice and death, and the goddess begins to remember her anger over the loss of her daughters.

In modern patriarchal theology we think of lightning as a phallic manifestation, but I like to think of August storms as the fury and despair of the goddess who cannot save the earth her daughters from their imminent death, year after year after year. She brings us daily bounty, more than we can use, as both fruited gift and fruitless bribe. It means the downward slope towards the frozen midwinter is beginning.

Lammas Salad
10 Golden beets, blanched and sliced thin
3 small Chiogga beets, blanched and sliced thin
1 cucumber, seeded and sliced
1 green pepper, sliced very thin
1-2 ears of corn, nibletted and blanched
3 apricots, diced
1 Shishito pepper, seeded and diced

Macerate (i.e. soak) the cucumber in a couple tablespoons of honey and salt for 1-2 hours. Macerate the apricots and shishito peppers in cider vinegar for 1-2 hours. Drain and rinse just before mixing up the salad. To blanch the beets, trim the roots and stems (peeling optional), and drop them into actively boiling water for no more than 5 minutes. Allow to cool, then slice. To blanch the corn, slice the niblets from the cob, and drop them into actively boiling water; leave until the color deepens (a couple/few minutes at most).

Mix everything together with a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise. (Make it yourself.)

I served this as a side with crab cakes.

Spitfires, and their cousins

I'm growing Nasturtium Spitfires for the Seed GROW project. Thanks to Renee's Garden for the seeds!

Once I got over the idea that nasturtiums will climb on their own, and actually trained and tied them to the various trellises, they started doing what I wanted them to do. Palm to forehead for not doing this all along, because I think they would be gorgeous now if I had.

I set quite a high bar for these guys, since all the trellis areas I wanted to use are in dappled shade. But now that they're tied for height, they're getting a little more sun and showing a continuous bloom and nice lush greenery.

Here's the other nasturtiums still growing in my yard:
Cherries Jubilee

Two volunteers from a mix planted back in the mists of time. The ones on the left might actually BE spitfires; they look identical, but they're a volunteer from a prior year's planting.