Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

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Saving Food/Wasting Food

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Last week’s blog did not get finished or posted–all because I made an inedible pot of soup.

In a hurry; measurement ignored; ingredients tossed together; forgot to break up the frozen chard so instead of tasty green bits, slimy strings floated; didn’t realize the pinto beans had been freezer burnt by a crack in the container until they were already in the stew; frugally used up an open beef bouillon concentrate, but the whole thing tasted too dark and earthy, not savory.

Finally I admitted to myself that beef base just didn’t work here, and neither did anything else.  Staring at the congealed mess in the stockpot: How did I come to make this lousy food? 

Fear. The word bubbled up, like the greenish-brown liquid in the pot.  It’s fear. 

A discussion before Thanksgiving at a local barbecue restaurant prompted this reaction. One friend had grown up in an Italian family, but not one that stuffed him like a manicotti; plenty to eat, but no forcing, “take however much or little you want.” Therefore, few food issues emerged afterward, and he is able to enjoy a bit of protein, or a bit of sweet, knowing pretty instantly when he might be over-eating. My other friend grew up with nutrition from the pantry at her church, sometimes shamed by charity, and sometimes sending back food that was so unpleasant her family couldn’t accept it, for others more desperate than them. Later food allergies made meal preparation tedious and very limited.

I grew up with meals measured out carefully, only intermittent seconds or extras, and desserts strictly regulated–even though the cupboards and Frigidaires were full, a practice dating from the blizzard-on-the-farm days of my mother’s teenager-hood. We had enough, but the equal-sized and small portions of meat, starch, vegetable, fruit, though nutritionally well balanced, usually tasty, and not bad looking on the plate, combined with later skirting with poverty during grad school days to create an enduring sense of scarcity, and lack of knowing what my body actually needed and craved, aside from “more.”

After sharing our stories, we three studied our plates and take-out containers in shock, individually mulling over alternate universes–What would it be like to live with his relationship to food? With hers? With mine?

Weeks later, this led to my realization and then extended thoughts about fear, as I stood over my unpalatable potage, but a different fear interrupted–about meeting the Friday writing deadline. All this thinking is taking too long!

Then I remembered the book I’ve been slowly reading lately: Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, wherein she says some very cogent things about Running Out of Time and  Attachment to Outcomes.

With a sigh, I went back to page 36. Susanka reminded me to not make the end product the goal, but rather the process; the process of figuring out what I wanted to say, the process of understanding myself–that was the goal.

The A+ Student in me got sent to a time-out, to cool her proverbial heels for a week, and I lived my life and read my book and wrote pages and pages about my childhood and young-married life, and my relationship with food.

J's crazy-cats keep me company.

J’s crazy-cats keep me company while I write and ponder.

Now multiple essays are emerging, all linked by a challenge I’ve set for myself.

Don’t worry–it’s not a challenge that will cause the A+ Student to come roaring from her room with fangs out and lists streaming behind her. It’s just a challenge to gently help me and the A+ Student identify what ideational platforms I’m standing on, where they come from, and ask:  Are they true? Are they helpful?

So…I now take a vow to clear out old food, to undo the feeling of scarcity in my eating life. No more stuffing the freezer and shelves with food because I am worried about not having enough. 

In fact, I am going to “spend down” my supplies. I will buy the fresh things necessary for daily use, or specific ingredients to make something fun or follow a recipe, but no more stockpiling. If a food item is past due, or icky, it’s gone. After cooking, I can put an extra portion away, but will share it or eat it within a short period.

Reminding myself: it’s one person for many meals, little amounts of food, not like when I was cooking for a family of four, which with teenagers makes it more like six, and their friends, plus leftovers for the food needs that will come a few hours or a day later– Whoops, better cook for eight or ten.

Homemade pizza with a big family used to mean two 9 X 12 cookie sheets. Today I eat one piece, with salad and fruit. Lasagna in the past? Twelve pieces for today, twelve pieces for the freezer, regardless of the future texture. Who cared about that? It was speed, availability, and quantity!  Nowadays, lasagna is layered with vegetables, a delicate sauce, fresh cheeses, and no more than two or three servings over several days. Yes, life is different and the action I’m taking will be accompanied by meditating and writing.

A list is posted now in my kitchen, what’s kept cold and what’s kept frozen and what’s kept waiting in the pantry, along with a few lovely potential recipes.  A month of this, and the new year has a chance to begin fresh and open.

How will it feel to have emptier cabinets, an almost empty freezer?

***

Approaching frozen containers was too daunting after the soup fiasco, so I started by opening a can of sweetened condensed milk whose “best by” date I can’t even admit to.  It tastes fine, the texture is merely thicker and the color more caramel than usual, and I am using it instead of the standard turbinado and milk to lace my morning tea. It’s beautiful in J’s cat-covered mug, and stirs up nicely. A good start, I say.

Next week the menu includes Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese, and a side of My Personal History with Commodity (Government) Cheese. Soon to come: Phyllo Chicken Pot Pie accompanied by Women & Preparedness; Losing Books and the Purpose of Stuff; a dessert of Poverty, Pie, and the Possibility of Blizzards.

See? I tell myself. There’s still fullness, and not just of food.

IMG_8866

Creamy and filling, the tea with sweetened condensed milk–whose time had finally come!

 

Carrots and Arugula and Soups, Oh My! Final Harvest in My Community Garden Plot

Late season carrots in all their glory

Eons ago, in May, I planted the garden. June, July and August I took pictures of sunny chard and glorious basil, radishes plumping and spiders scurrying. Early last week I tugged water- and wind-proof pants over my leggings and layered fleece under a nylon jacket, in order to brave 35 degree November weather.  The newly arrived cold had trapped me for several days shivering in my apartment and in my mind: Go to the garden? Are you nuts?

But that morning I warmed myself with yoga, breathed through anxiety about lists of other things to do, and gathered my tools, determined to salvage all the veggies before the hard freeze predicted to come after nightfall. Perhaps the produce could have survived outdoors for a week or two more, but I felt ready to put the garden to bed, which starts with the final harvest.

CARROTS GALORE.

My garden-mate and I had planted a second round of carrots in September and when I got to the garden, it was obvious where the plants had been thinned since then, and where they hadn’t been. One carrot in its heft resembled a “regular” vegetable from the grocery store and even required a spade–albeit a small one–to dig it out.

The rest were a little stunted, plump tops peeking out, but not going much further than a few inches into the ground, often radish-round in shape. Over and over again, in un-thinned bunches, teeny, dollhouse versions of carrots emerged with a yank. They were pulled and bagged and hauled back to the apartment; later soaked in the sink, rinsed, soaked again with a little soap, then scrubbed individually until the dirt was non-existent, and rinsed once again. My reasoning for saving even the smallest ones: the cute lil’ nubbins would be sweet, even the tiny bit that only front teeth would be able to nibble.

The minuscule seeds and the dirt and the rain and sun made these bright orangey treats and who was I to judge what was a big enough carrot to eat?

Carrots crowd the countertop

ARUGULA.

All summer my garden-mate kept trying to get rid of my arugula.  I wasn’t very good at keeping it trimmed, and he, not a big salad eater, kept snorting: What is this oversized dandelion? then, as it took over more garden space, Isn’t it time to pull this big ol’ weed? and Hmm, awfully bushy isn’t it?

Watch it, buddy! I’d retort. This is an heirloom variety of arugula! and I can harvest more later; finally, Listen, they will re-seed for next year if I leave them. 

On harvest morning I tasted small new leaves hidden near the ground and pulled big rambles of vines. Yes, Garden-Mate, they were ugly and unwieldy, half-dry and tumbleweed-like, but still…they had grown new baby greens!

I stuffed them in a huge sack and after the carrots were cleaned and drying on the countertop, I plunked down on my kitchen floor listening to the radio and pulled off these little slips, wafer-thin bits of spicy green, washed them and washed them and later mixed them with pea-shoots from the farmers’ market.

I finally did what I said I’d do–use some of that late-season arugula–and that felt good. Next year I will tend them better.

CONTINUING STORY OF THE WHITE CLOUD CAULIFLOWER.

Cauliflower Curry

Way back when I harvested the sole surviving cauliflower, I debated what to do with it. It sat in a bag on the bottom shelf of the fridge for a long time.

I first learned to enjoy cauliflower in yellow curries and so after about a month, I adapted a curried cauliflower recipe (thank you Moosewood once again!), using whole cumin and coriander seeds.

I only had red onions in the house–this is called making-do–and so pinky purple accented the greener than usual cauliflower. A quick raita (yogurt dip with cucumber bits) accompanied the dish, along with a selection of raisins, unsalted cashews, salted peanuts, and coconut shreds.

Eating the concoction, I remembered: Whole is a different experience from powdered spice. Crunching the ribbed and rounded seeds in your mouth, the semi-bitter, aromatic flavor bursts out as they are ground at the moment instead of beforehand. A friend commented that I exuded cumin for a day or two. Perhaps too liberal a hand with those yummy little seeds? I couldn’t help myself–it had been too long since I’d played with whole spices.The cauliflower came to an excellent end.

GARDEN CLEAN-UP SOUP.

Chard and corn swim with white beans in Garden Clean-up Soup

Every time a piece of meat with bone is roasted or baked in my house, I make my own stock; just cook the carcass in fresh water, put in all the scrapin’s of marinating-oil and spices and pan juices, simmer with salt, fresh ground pepper, chopped onion and bits of other veggies lying about, and then strain.  Here I used just such a chicken broth, garden corn and the red chard, along with canned white beans.

At the same time I made the garden veggie soup, I made vichyssoise; its more pedestrian name: leek and potato soup. More making-do: the glass milk jar was almost empty, so I added the last of my half-and-half for tea, to the potatoes and butter and leeks chopped up and sautéed with regular onion, then blenderized to pale yellow smoothness.

In the spirit of play, I created a third soup by mixing the two–some veggie bean soup into vichyssoise, and voila! a creamy textured soup, ingredients suspended in a completely different way from clear broth.

The fridge and freezer were filled, dirty stockpots and cutting boards stacked up for cleaning.

Vichyssoise plus Garden Clean-Up Soup

Tomorrow I go back to the garden to truly put it to bed: clear out dead plants, mulch the soil, and take down the protective fencing. As the snow and wind blow, the woodchucks will dream their sweet overwintering dreams about spring–as will I.

But when I dig through the freezer during December and January, soups from the summer harvest will turn up; in February and March, behind chocolates hidden for self-protection, frozen beans and chard will materialize.  My own dried parsley and dill have taken their places in the cupboard next to cinnamon and nutmeg from far away lands.

Is there deep inner meaning here? Revelation?

Maybe just satisfaction, living in the work of the day.

Orange and red nasturtiums bloomed summer into fall.

First harvest in my community garden plot

As someone who cooks a lot, for myself and others, I use fair trade, seasonal and local, and/or organic ingredients, whenever possible.   Call me crazy but I just believe in these defining attributes strongly, try hard to find them, and encourage others to prefer them over imported, old, pesticide-covered & water-polluting, factory-farm, long-distance food.

Having said all this, I don’t flog myself when I can’t find them. (Striving for perfection, not necessarily reaching it, right?)

As a city dweller without yard access, my fresh veggies with those descriptors come from the farmers’ market, the local grocery, and in the summer, my community garden plot. “Community garden” just means I grew it myself, or a friend did, in a local shared garden; in the Albany & Schenectady area, that would be part of Capital District Community Gardens.

So for me the literal ground-work of April and planting of May have now yielded July’s bounty—

Basil. Many poetic words have been waxed about its delicious properties, its pungent, fruity addition to dishes. But look how gosh darned pretty it is, coming out of the dark earth, growing hard in the night and day! I can taste the sun in it, taste other seashores and countries. As long as I pinch off the tops to keep it from bolting (flowering), it will continue to give me pesto and Thai-spiced vegetables and lime & basil vinaigrettes all summer.

And nothing like the morning light streaming through red chard….Yes, it got a bit old and spotted before I got to it, so I picked leaf after leaf, and tossed it all into green bags in the fridge until it could be washed properly; yes, I used the fancy salad spinner, rinsed it again and again to get the grit off, spin-spin-spin, and then finally cooked it all down. Mild and wonderful to float in soup or drop into stir-fry, it’s one of the “top ten vegetables” for nutrition. Go chard, you subtle thing, you.

Can I tell you what happens when you plant radish seeds in the ground, water them and then leave town without thinning them? You get a lot of radishes. I ended up with piles and piles of mildly spicy roots popping up out of the ground, mostly red but many pink, and a few exciting purple ones. You’ll see the basil here in the sink too, and a little parsley:  clean flavors to go into my salads.

Finally, this is a picture of my bush beans, before they were beans, back when they were just beautiful pinky-purple flowers. I watered, weeded some, went out of town (see above), came back, and almost missed the long stems of bean, hanging hidden behind leaves. They would have been spotty themselves and over-ripe the next time I came to my plot, if another gardener hadn’t pointed them out to me while I was frantically weeding the nasturtiums and watermelons. The former-flowers now-beans have been turned into Five Bean Salad, complete with parsley picked the same day.

Marinated Five Bean Salad Adapted from  Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, Ten Speed Press, 1977:

¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup fair trade olive oil

2 tsp salt and some fresh ground pepper

½ tsp oregano and 1-1 ½ tsp basil

1-2 heaping teaspoons of minced garlic

zest (the yellow part of the peel, taken off with a tool handily called a zester) and juice from half a lemon

1 can each of well-rinsed dark kidneys, black beans, great northern beans, garbanzo beans—or whatever else you’ve got. Mollie recommends freshly cooked beans, but it was just too hot this week!

2 heaping handfuls of fresh community garden bush beans, washed and trimmed

½ bunch of community garden parsley, chopped

1 finely minced red onion; maybe 1 1/2 if you like more onion

Mix all the sauce ingredients together. Cook the green beans in a bit of water (1/2 cup to a cup) until tender (5-10 minutes depending on their age and your definition of “tender”; some people like a crunch to beans; others desire complete abdication).  Mix green beans with canned beans and other ingredients in a big bowl.

This version is much lower fat than the original; I wanted to be able to taste the lemon and the different beans’ nuttiness more than just taste and feel the oil; a cup measures roughly 225 calories. Yummy cold or room temperature.