Colder weather urges cooking in a way that summer’s insouciant plenitude cannot rival. Now that we’re down to about a third of the garden, it’s all roots and greens out there (though bolstered immeasurably in the kitchen by the deep benches of pantry and freezer). Their flavor—the sheer information, the resolution and detail in each bite of humble leaf or root, sweetened by frosts and elevated to center stage by the departure of the tender competition—presents targets both easy and challenging. Easy, because a fat fall turnip needs little embellishing to glow, and challenging because families are wont to clamor for novelty when it comes to dinner.
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.
Yesterday was glorious, and I made all sorts of spring cleaning-y progress in the garden, including spreading some leftover compost on a few beds and doing some early planting. This year is a late one—some beds still have frozen soil—but for the most part it’s all workable and good to go. Last year’s parsnips are as sweet as bananas, especially with some of the homemade maple syrup; the last batch went a bit long on the stove and became a surpassingly splendid burnt caramel with many possible applications. I’ll have a post or two elaborating on that combination at some point soon.
After a sublimely warm and clear September, October’s colder and wetter demeanor imparted an urgency to my hitherto lackluster gleaning in the garden. It’s nice again now, but in my tizzy of frantic autumnal gathering I did manage to get a fair amount of food harvested and arrayed on various surfaces to dry out for storage.
I do so love these late summer days: warm enough to frolic, cool enough to actually cook food in the evening. And the garden is banging right now, despite June’s woodchuck invasion and the powdery mildew and squirrels, which between them devastated all of the cucurbits. The mildew killed the cucumbers and zucchini, and the miserable rodents nibbled a little bit of each winter squash so they all rotted. Their thick, waxy skins make squash impervious to the wet ground, but once punctured they turn to much in no time. How dumb does an animal have to be to see a squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, and then see another, identical squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, then see another, identical squash, say “I wonder if that’s good to eat?” and take a bite, decide that it is not in fact good to eat, and so on until they’re all ruined. I’m getting an air rifle.
It has been hot as balls around here, which will not be news to you if you live on the East Coast. While outside, though hot, there has been a breeze and thus in the shade it is not too too bad, inside without air conditioning is a wretched sauna of hatred, trickling sweat, and fetid stench. Also, the other night a skunk got spooked right outside the front door and sprayed all over a corner of the house, so with no rain in sight for weeks the air is seductively perfumed with a sulfurous reek redolent of nothing so much as a smoldering corpse wrapped in plastic that you forgot about in the trunk of your ’79 Chevy in the Nevada desert while you attended Burning Man. Good times.
Today—after what felt like at least a month of fetid, slug-covered, swelteringly humid torpor, interrupted by days of rain that only augmented the ambient moisture—dawned dry, clear, and breezy. I wasted no time, rushing out to attend to the neglected garden, mustering hours of energy despite a shitty, insomnia-dented night of inadequate sleep. There’s a lot going on, not least of which is the full arrival of what I like to call the “round food.” No longer are leaves the bulk of each day’s harvest; they’re shrinking into the minority as the roots and fruits gain girth by the day. Yesterday saw the first new potatoes of the year, roasted along with a spatchcocked chicken, taking advantage of a cooler evening to use the oven (and bake some much-needed bread). Today, thanks to a basket piled high with the various thinnings, cullings, and eager grabbings that attended my earnest horticultural ministrations, dinner comprised a perfect, seamless conclusion to the most pleasant summer day of the year so far.
The Kid loves Caesar salads. He’s keen on salad in general, especially with lots of vinaigrette—heavy on the homemade vinegar, especially blackcurrant—and is an exemplary eater of vegetables in general, especially for an eight-year-old. But he will murder a bowl of romaine and croutons with the eggy, cheesy dressing. Of course most restaurant versions flat out suck, what with the inferior ingredients and all, so I planted extra romaine this spring in order to ensure a steady supply. Leading actor thus covered, the other components were easily secured: homemade apple/sumac vinegar, a duck egg from a nearby farm, the heel of a homemade sourdough boule, pecorino from Dancing Ewe Farm, good oil, and anchovies.