The beauty of having both a garden and way too much visual art training manifests itself in many subtle ways, most of them involving dinner. This iteration of inspiration began with the radicchio, arrayed as plump and shiny purple heads in the chicory bed. After a busy day loading frost-leveled detritus into the wheelbarrow for trips to the compost pile, I took stock of what remained: a lot.
I planted the radicchios—including escarole, and frisée, pan di zuccero—in August, and they’re banging right now. I’ll cut a bunch to make pesto for the freezer and leave the rest for eating until the snow comes. Cutting is important; if you leave the roots of these stubborn plants they’ll regrow in early spring with no protection and offer some of the first fresh greens of the new year before they bolt upwards to flower in the climbing sun. I have a particular fondness for chicories because they’re so durable, and because domesticity hasn’t blunted their inherent bitterness. They offer a powerful counterweight to fat and sweet.
Admiring the heads of radicchio and ruminating on their bitter charms, I thought of the plum sauce in the freezer, a sort of hoisin concoction I figured would be integral to many future meals. I made it back in July, and I made a lot: plums from a nearby tree cooked down with maple syrup, vinegar, soy and fish sauces, Thai chilies, and salt and pepper. I ran it through the food mill and froze it in pint jars because I was too lazy to can it. It’s a wicked accompaniment to pâtés and duck and such, and there was a jar open in the fridge from some earlier meal involving something of that gamy ilk. The umami-enhanced sweet and sour of the sauce might be a perfect foil for the chicory, I thought.
Spoiler alert: I was right. I shredded the radicchio finely, kneaded the chiffonade with a fat pinch of salt to wilt it, and then tossed it in a vinaigrette made from the plum sauce: olive oil and sumac vinegar whisked in along with more black pepper. This resulted in a grownup version of that execrable raspberry balsamic dressing that seemed ubiquitous for a minute a while back. And it set off the bitter, crunchy leaves to great effect. Prince would approve of this salad, I am sure.
The rest of the meal consisted of three beef meatballs, seasoned with minced ramp kimchi and fish sauce, simmered in leftover roasted kabocha soup made with stock from some hot wings from an earlier evening and with turnip greens added for good measure and because they needed using. There was also a branzino, stuffed with garlic, butter, and herbs and cooked en papillote.
I spent most of the summer not interested in cooking, even as I worked in the garden every day and preserved a huge amount of food for the coming winter. Now, as it gets chilly out, I’m highly motivated to make dinner again, and bake bread, and use all of the many pickled, canned, and frozen treats to enhance the fresh vegetables that remain. Though I haven’t written about it yet, the new garden has us pretty well set up to buy no produce other than fruit and an occasional guilty pleasure. Besides a meaningful slice of self-sufficiency, the garden also precipitates vivid combinations that no store can rival.