Now the green blade rises…

A favorite Easter hymn (a bit early this year), and a garden truth…the very first green shoots of garlic are beginning to come up through the soil and remind us that spring is here and another growing season has begun.

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There’s green to be found all around right now, even from last year’s harvest as the leeks have made their way out of the ground and into the kitchen for processing…about three dozen leeks in all. Not even the extreme cold of this winter could get them down, nor did the frostline reaching down thirty inches (!!!) push the garlic out of the ground. Both of these things seem borderline miraculous.

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Growing, too, are the first seeds started indoors for this year’s garden. Celery (both for leaf/stalk and for celeriac), as well as the next crop of leeks, have started coming up with wild abandon…we’re up to almost 30 Chinook leek seedlings, plus 20 King Richards, and after a slow start, we have enough celery seedlings of both varieties to feel confident that we’ll have enough to plant. Next up, we’ll be getting tomato, pepper, and cardoon seeds started down in the basement ag lab.

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Even more exciting is that, this year, WE WILL HAVE A SPRING GARDEN. Last year’s weird weather meant getting a late start on the actual physical building of the garden, and by the time everything was dug and ready, we didn’t have time (or good weather) to plant cool weather vegetables…but not this year. A little bit of weeding, some turning up of the soil, and a little fertilizing, and we will be all set for planting those cool weather loving plants like radishes, peas, kale, claytonia, mache/corn salad, plus some slow growers like cabbage. Soon enough, there will be even more green blades rising out of the garden’s soil.

Every seed that sprouts is a little resurrection – new life coming out of what seems like death in the cold, dark earth. No wonder Jesus compares his own death and rising again to the seed that falls in the earth and dies…and yet lives even more abundantly as it springs forth into new life.

A world in white gets underway

All was quiet on New Year’s Day here at Baker’s Ridge. Family up for the long weekend headed out, Kid A napped, and the time came for two things that had been put off for the right moment – planning out the 2019 garden, and taking up the (figurative) pen again here.

Taking these themes not in order, the close of gardening season was a stressful blur of activity as we tried (successfully) to get the last of the harvest in and (unsuccessfully) plant an early fall round of cooler weather greens, lettuce, and fava beans.

2018’s final meteorological insult was to throw us an unseasonably cold early autumn, which pretty much killed off any chance of those seeds planted in late August and September of getting to do much. We got some mustard greens and tatsoi out of the deal, but that was about it…everything else struggled to get off the runway with shortening, very gloomy days and temperatures 15* below normal.

One of the things they don’t tell you about keeping a garden (let alone one the size of ours) is that, by the time everything is a wrap for the season, you need recovery time. I don’t think I fully realized how much energy – not just physical, but mental and emotional – was going down into the soil along with those seeds. So, like the ground itself, I needed some time to go fallow and dormant, to let my own self be replenished by not thinking about the garden for a few months…which meant a whole lot of not writing here, then feeling guilty about not writing, and then feeling guilty about feeling guilty, and then trying to minimize my guilt about my guilt about my not writing because I’m an Enneagram 9 and why can’t I just find some friggin’ peace already about blogging and gardening, man?

So, yeah…I needed a break.

Now, though, we are in a new season. The snow sits over the still earth around us, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time outside bumming around the Ridge. It’s a funny time to be thinking about a garden, since it seems like it’ll be ages from now that anything will be growing out there.

But…that’s not true. Next month, the very first seeds for the very first seedlings will be planted indoors to begin this whole crazy-beautiful circle game again. Now’s the time, in the quiet of the snowy winter’s chill, to start seeing green where only white now glistens. We logged on to our online garden planning tool (we use www.growveg.com, and I highly recommend them if you’re looking to get all 21st century on your garden plot) and started with a blank canvas. Six long, wide rows, with a whole world open to them.

First up was a rundown of what grew well, and what didn’t, last year, and some analysis of why. Our cool weather plants did poorly, but that wasn’t on us or the plants – we didn’t have much of a spring, so all of the time they could have been growing was spent actually digging the rows and prepping the soil…and then it got hot and stayed that way. Other things were definitely our fault; our sweet potato yields were low because we didn’t get them in on time and then didn’t go a good job with weed control. We didn’t have cabbage because I should have planted it sooner. Then, there were things that were totally on the plants – our two types of underperforming summer squash (despite the success of the other types), a beet varietal that didn’t really do much of anything, some really unimpressive eating tomato varietal yields (versus other types that went gangbusters) and so on. We have plenty of growing to do, namely in weed control and upping our compost/manure/fertilizing game, but we can also hope for a more normal 2019 in terms of the weather, too, and can replace some underwhelming varietals with ones better suited to our climate and needs purchased from higher quality seed sources.

But, that’s only the beginning of planning. One of the keys of successful gardening is crop rotation – if you grow the same types of plants in the same place year after year, you’ll deplete the soil and increase the risk of disease. So, we moved things – beans and peas in places where heavy feeders had been the year before, cabbages following up the nightshade potatoes, carrots where the brassicas had been, trying to find the best neighbors for everyone and optimal successors to last year’s residents in the row. This is where using online garden planning tools makes life easier.

And now…we keep waiting. We get those seed orders in. We check our grow lamps and find seedling starter mix. We figure out how to grow some new things, like cardoons (google it) and peas. We keep eating frozen veg, and butternut squash, and canned tomato sauce, and daydream about how wonderful that first perfectly ripe Black Krim is going to taste.

And…we toast to a 2019 equally amazing as 2018 with the dandelion wine we made back in May, which is now finally ready to drink. It came out petillant, or frizzante if you’re more into Italian than French wine…just slightly sparkling. Maybe more than anything else, that’s the best reminder of our first year living with the seasons here at Baker’s Ridge – it was not what we planned, and it most certainly has been surprising, but it is also so deeply joyful, life-giving, and good.

The Eye of Sauron

So…do you like hot stuff? Like, really hot stuff? Keep reading.

Our hot peppers had a fairly good year – jalapeños, habaneros, cayennes, Lady Chois, Lemondrops. All of them produced decent yields, but since I’m the only one in the house who can handle spicy food, it’s been my sole province to decide what to do with them. Since I’m seldom just cooking for myself, and I generally prefer to incorporate chilis into a dish rather than just add them, uncooked, to my own portion, I knew I’d be making hot sauce.

Making hot sauce at home is fairly simple. You mostly just have to choose what general category of sauce you’re making. I’ve done two general approaches – fermented and uncooked/uncanned sauces (brine the ingredients, blend them, keep in the fridge), and a vinegar-based pepper sauce (think what you might find in a Southern barbecue joint when you order up some greens…just cider vinegar in a jar with a lot of peppers). Earlier on, I made two fermented sauces – an all-jalapeño salsa verde, and a cayenne, Lady Choi, and habanero salsa roja. Both are straightforward as it comes – peppers, a few cloves of garlic, brine. They fermented for a few days, then out came the immersion blender.

Similarly simple is my pepper sauce – an old bourbon bottle, a mixed bag of peppers with slits cut in them (or halved in the case of a few big ones that wouldn’t have otherwise fit through the bottleneck), some black peppercorns, some crushed garlic cloves, and apple cider vinegar. Simple and delicious (try it on the tomatoes and okra from last entry).

Today, though, I decided it was time to really bring the heat. The co-op in Viroqua had ghost peppers; since I had enough peppers at home to do another batch of hot sauce, I grabbed a couple since, apparently, I have a death wish. I gathered my ingredients – the ghost peppers, habaneros, lemondrops, cayennes, Lady Chois, garlic cloves, a little fresh lemongrass.

To add a little smokiness, I tossed the red chilis into a pan to blister them.

Then, everyone got sliced up into rings and put in a jar with the garlic and lemongrass, both crushed to release their flavor.

Brine – 1/2 Tbs of salt to 1 C of water is the magic ratio. I made 2 cups of brine and poured it over the rest, lightly covered the jar, and now…we wait.

The most important part of making crazily hot sauces, of course, is naming them. Since we’re listening to the Lord of the Rings on audiobook together as a family right now, I couldn’t help myself…and so the Eye of Sauron it is, its evil, hot gaze following me around the kitchen, waiting to unleash itself on unsuspecting palates. One sauce to rule them all, one sauce to find them, one sauce to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Tomatoes and Okra: The Best Thing You’re Not Eating, You Yankee

Every transregional transplant, no matter how adaptable they are, has at least a few “tells” that reveal to the observant where they are from. Sometimes, it’s vocabulary – the Chicago transplant who still calls them “tennis shoes” instead of “gym shoes.” It might be the subtle (or not-so-subtle) change in accent that a particular word or phrase conjures up. It may be as hard to notice as placing the stress on a different syllable in certain words (such as how a born Texan may still emphasize the first syllable in “Halloween” or “Thanksgiving” or “insurance” years after moving away). For me…get me talking about food. I may not vote, talk, pass my time, or get misty eyed about everything Lone Star like a stereotypical Texan, but if you give me all the ingredients in the world and turn me loose, you’re getting food that makes most of my Midwestern neighbors cock their heads.

Like tomatoes and okra, for example. Saying that most people I have met in the Midwest don’t have an appreciation for the earthy, fibrous, slightly slimy goodness that is okra is an understatement. Most folks (at least white folks) don’t cook with it, or even necessarily know what it looks like. Among those who have at least tried it, the extent is usually fried okra, or maybe some okra tossed in their gumbo. Friends, you’re missing out. For this okra aficionado, there is no better way to eat this pointy pod of wonder than with tomatoes.

Before I tell you how to do this, I’m going to tell you why to do this. First, okra is amazingly healthful – full of fiber, low calorie, a great source of nutrients like Vitamin B and potassium, and while there’s more research to do, studies have suggested that it may have some benefits in lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Second, it tastes great. Third, and this is specifically regarding tomatoes and okra as the queen of okra preparations, cooking your okra with acidic ingredients like tomatoes and a dash of vinegar provide excellent “slime control,” which I find helpful. In fact, my method for making the dish uses three of slime reducing techniques – using room temperature (not cold) okra, searing the okra at a high temperature, and then stewing it with acidic ingredients.

So…how to make this wonder dish? First, like so many things in the South, you start with some pig fat. Bacon grease or lard adds a certain meaty, savory richness to the dish; you don’t need a lot, and you can always use olive oil instead, but when I have it on hand, the leftover bacon grease really takes this dish to the next level. So, a generous tablespoon or two of the stuff in your skillet, ideally cast iron. You won’t be simmering this for too long, so while I usually avoid putting tomatoes in my cast iron, this is usually pretty safe. While the skillet’s heating, slice your room temp okra into rounds and lightly salt them.

Once your fat’s nice and hot, in goes the okra – don’t stir it around too much so it can develop a nice, beautiful sear….adds flavor AND cuts the slime.

Once the okra’s looking good, add in some diced onion and garlic (for a pound of okra, add 1 small onion and 2-3 cloves of garlic) and let those soften up. Then, in with diced tomato (an equivalent volume to the okra) and 1/2 Tbs or so of red wine or apple cider vinegar.

A generous pinch of salt, a little black and red pepper, and 20 minutes later (keep on medium-high heat until the tomatoes start to break down, then reduce to medium-low to simmer uncovered), and…voila! Tomatoes and okra – the best thing you’re not eating, assuming you’re not eating this.

As a side, it’s a great accompaniment to smoked/barbecued meat of any sort, but you can honestly serve it over some rice for a great vegetarian meal, too. If you like a little kick to your food, goose it with a nice, vinegary pepper sauce.

Dog Days

There has been one constant in my life from my earliest memories to the present, and it is that I HATE hot weather. I’d say that I have some sort of reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, but considering that I also get hit hard by the reduced light levels of late fall and winter (even as I revel in the cooler temperatures), I don’t quite know how to describe myself. That doesn’t matter; what does is that the second half of summer, marked by the hottest temps of the year, and humidity, and sunshine that’s oppressive rather than life-giving…yeah, not my fave.

Of course, it’s also the time of the year that everything in the garden goes bonkers, so like it or not, I get to spend a lot of time out in the sun and the heat and the humidity and the bugs. The last six weeks or so have been a mostly hot blur of activity – beyond just the usual routine of juggling at-home parenting with still, ya know, having a part-time call, the garden has needed a fair amount of attention (weeds love the hot weather, too, and once it started raining they EXPLODED), and the produce out of it doubly so. I haven’t been keeping particularly close count, but we appear to be on target for final yields along these lines for our hot weather favorites:

Tomatoes: 125-150 lbs

Cucumbers: 100 lbs (they finally slowed down, thank God)

Eggplant: 25 lbs

Summer squash: 30 lbs

Peppers: 15 lbs (which is a lot of peppers)

Green Beans: 20 lbs (that’s a whole lot of green beans)

Broccoli: 10 lbs (maybe; they don’t enjoy all of this heat)

Okra: 20 lbs

Yeah, you read that right. I’ve probably pulled 20 lbs of okra this summer, and those plants are still going strong. That, my friends, is a TON of okra for three plants in a Wisconsin garden. I’ve been freezing some, I’ve made some fried okra, today I’m making tomatoes and okra since I have plenty of both. They’ll go great alongside the pork steaks that’ll be going on the smoker here shortly, and a chilled cucumber salad, too. OK, maybe summer isn’t so bad if it means eating like this.

But, I won’t lie and say that it hasn’t felt like an exhausting stretch. Beyond simply the heat taking it out of me, there has been a lot to do. Freezing (usually after blanching) veg. The seemingly endless running of tomatoes through the food mill for canning tomato sauce. Grating cucumber to freeze…gotta make sure we have tzatziki year-round, amiright? Making hot sauce of a few types. Lots of eggplant parmigiana…wasn’t laying it up for the winter, but it’s a time-consuming (albeit delicious) dish to prepare. Lots of cooking in general, really.

As I sit, though, and silently thank God for the last (please…) blisteringly hot, sunbaked day of the year, part of me knows that I will find myself missing this in mid-January. It’ll be too far away to quite remember the taste and color of all of these amazing fruits of the earth in the full vividness that I experience now, and yet it’ll still be too far away from spring to begin planting those first seedlings to transfer out to the garden come May. In the meanwhile, there’s always the freezer and shelves full of these reminders that, even out of one of the things I like the least, goodness can come, and in abundance.

Cukes

Friends, I have a cucumber problem.

Namely, our twelve cucumber plants have had the best year ever. All twelve of them. Not a slacker in the bunch. They have climbed their trellis, they have put out their blossoms, they have grown their cucumbers, and now they continue on their march. We’ve hit a bit of a lull (by which I mean I’m still getting at least a cucumber or two a day), but there’s a lot of new leaf and blossom development as the older parts of the vines show a bit of strain. Round Two is coming.

I’ve legitimately lost count of how many cukes I’ve pulled. My best is guess is between 6 and 7 dozen as of today…which probably puts us somewhere in the 50 lb range if you’re inclined to measure by weight. All three varieties have produced fairly evenly, and given us different kinds of cucumbers to work with. The Munchers are our thin, smooth-skinned little guys, perfect for picking while they’re still young and tender to…well, munch on. Kid A has quite taken a fancy to them, and it is not a trip to the garden for her unless she gets a cucumber to snack on out of the deal. I’m not going to tell my child no if she wants to voluntarily eat a vegetable (not that we usually have a problem; she eats just about everything), and so Muncher in hand, she walks around inspecting the rest of the garden.

Meanwhile, the Marketmores have given us dark green, slightly spiky, larger cukes that are ideal for slicing. They also grate down into tzatziki like champs, too. One of this week’s best discoveries is that you can freeze shredded cucumber, so the tzatziki train is going to keep a rollin’ all year long in this household. Kid A likes that, too; I’m convinced I could sit her down with a bucket of tzatziki and a spoon, and she would eat all of it…and then sign at me for more.

Then, there are the National Picklings. I figured it would be great to have a set of pickling cucumbers so I might get a few batches of homemade pickles out of the deal. Let’s just say we’re on track for more than a few batches.

I’ve made, thus far, about a gallon of bread and butter pickles (two different recipes), plus about two dozen fermented garlic-dill pickles. This was a new project for me; I’ve done sauerkraut enough times to feel pretty comfortable with the basic mechanics of fermentation, but this felt like a step up. Colleen, who is not the world’s biggest fan of dill pickles, was not sure of what to make of them after their week of fermentation down in the cool of the basement. She likened them to crocodiles floating around in a murky river.

Maybe she has a point. Either way, I think they’re pretty tasty, and they’re full of good probiotics…besides, something cool and salty and crunchy on these hot summer days is hard to top.

I still have a fridge drawer full of other cucumbers, though, ones yet to be shredded or pickled or sliced or gleefully devoured by a toddler on a growth spurt. Perhaps relish will be next. There are always more kinds of pickles to try. My box grater’s still training for a marathon. I need enough tzatziki to feed Jason AND the Argonauts should they drop by unannounced. Kid A’s growing; maybe she’ll start pulling two cukes a day.

Anybody want some cukes?

Heirlooms

The language of heirloom and heritage is commonplace in gardening circles. Typically, what’s being discussed are plant varieties that have stood the text of time without modern chemical and genetic modifications. Think of tomatoes and the rapturous expressions that cross many of our faces when naming off some of those special, time-tested varietals like Cherokee Purple, San Marzano, Green Zebra, Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Moskvich, Amish Paste, and so many others. These are the tomatoes that they don’t grow for the supermarket, the ones that have their own unique personalities and refuse to be tamed down into the blandness of mass-produced, mass-marketed produce.

It’s not surprising that most of us who take our home gardening seriously feel a certain affinity toward these old chestnuts of the horticultural milieu. After all, if you’re going to put yourself through all of the hard work of growing the plants, why settle for the same old mediocre produce that you could just buy (and not enjoy)? No, you don’t simply grow tomatoes – you grow *good* tomatoes, or sweet corn, or cucumbers, or summer squash, or whatever it is that you’d like to plant. There are massive seed catalogues out there from companies like High Mowing, Baker Creek, and Seed Savers Exchange that are specially designed for folks who like to grow these heirloom plants. Plenty of our garden is taken up by them – there are only a few plants not representing heirloom varietals in our garden.

That’s one meaning of heirloom in gardening. I’ve been pondering another, as I’ve considered these noble plants that have stood the test of time, as well as my own roots. I’ve planted my own, more personal heirlooms in our garden, those plants that carry the rich flavor of my own heritage and sense of place. I can’t imagine having a garden without collards or okra, for example – they’re too much a part of who I am not to include. And I say that deliberately; they’re not just food for me, but an intrinsic part of how I understand myself as a person with deep roots in Southern soil. They’re foods whose history in this nation helps tell the story of the land which nurtured my ancestors…and they tell the full story, ugliness and all.

After all, both of these foods’ stories are caught up in the story of slavery in this country; okra may have originated in West Africa (and has certainly been cultivated there for a very long time if its actual origins lie elsewhere), and it made its way to this side of the Atlantic along with ships full of West Africans – kidnapped, abused, and sold into slavery. It was grown by those slaves in the garden plots allotted them, and eventually poor whites in the South learned to cook and eat the green, seedy, lightly slimy pods.

Similarly, collard greens were a subsistence food of slaves and poor black folk in the South that crossed the cultural divide onto white plates because of their ease of growing, nutritional value, and delicious taste if you know what to do with them. Michael Twitty, one of my favorite food writers, has an excellent blog post on collards that’s worth your time to read; you can find it here. Collards are a truly global food, eaten in lots of places by lots of people from a lot of cultural backgrounds, but it does bear acknowledging that their history in this country is firmly rooted in the history of the African American community.

The complicated dance of Southern food ways, as a descendant of a longtime white Southern family, is the two-step of both embracing the “poor people’s food” that has been gracing Teague and Thompson tables for three centuries (or better) while also naming that “Southern food” is largely West African food that’s evolved through the filters of different geography, slavery, economic impoverishment and exploitation, and cross-pollination with the Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh, French, and German colonists and settlers of the South. Like or not, white people didn’t invent Southern cuisine; they learned to love what their African descent neighbors cooked, sometimes out of economic necessity, then put some twists of their own on it (fried chicken is essentially West African flavors plus a Scottish cooking technique). That doesn’t make this food not the food of my poor white Southern ancestors, but it does mean that I need to name its whole story…and that black folk play a huge role in it, and I owe them a debt of gratitude for it. I can best express that gratitude, at least in my writing, by not whitewashing them out of the story of Southern food. Southern food is a beautiful thing, a cultural heirloom, a culinary heritage worth celebration, and a gift to the world, and we would not have it without people of African descent.

This culinary heritage – slow cooked greens, black eyed peas, okra in stews or fried crispy, a little bit of fatty pork odds-n-ends, cornbread, red pepper flakes and hot sauce, catfish and fried chicken and barbecue – is the unique product of all of these historical forces, and every “meat and three” plate from a roadside joint tells the story of the southern United States better than any textbook…and far better than phony baloney “Moonlight and Magnolias” tropes. We do well, those of us of Southern extraction, to remember this and help ourselves to another bowl of butter beans instead of invoking Gone With the Wind.

There’s another piece of the heirloom/heritage pie in here for me, too, and that’s the plain truth that you only have to go back two generations in my family to be on the farm again, and that (at least on my dad’s side) a century ago literally everyone whose blood flows in my veins worked the land for their daily bread. Colleen’s family, too, has some deep roots in the deep topsoil of the Midwest. My garden isn’t simply mine; it’s theirs, in a way, because it is their story living itself out in my own life. It’s the family tradition, you might say, the only way I really know how to be. My own life, my own story isn’t separate from where, and who, I’ve come from. This garden, this act of tending the earth and eating the fruits of my brow’s sweat raised into a harvest by the mysterious grace of God’s providence, is my heritage – a living heirloom, feeding our bodies and our souls with the story of peoples and nations told around tables stretching from the Scottish Highlands and the hills of Alsace to the West African coast, Alabama farmland, the rolling prairies of Texas and the cornfields of Illinois….and on beyond my generation into the future.