The Season of Bounty

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It’s that time of the year when a quick evening browse around the garden with a cocktail yields a colorful basket of produce.  For a little while this early summer, I could get away with gathering into my upturned shirt, but with the warmer days and rainy afternoons, the harvest has begun in earnest, and I try to remember to bring out a basket along with my drink.  Garlic and green onions, early tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, carrots, early beets, peas and peppers are all coming in by the handful.  I always try to balance my desire for fresh produce with the realization that if I leave it a while longer, it will grow bigger, but there is nothing like the taste of sweet baby carrots and tender beets steamed with a bat of butter on a steamy summer evening.  My favorite dish of the early summer is, of course, a simple salad of fresh newly picked veggies.  The thinly sliced Peruvian white habanero adds a super kick to this tasty dinner.Image

I am surprised to see the blueberries ripen so early this year, as I usually think of late July as blueberry season, but I predicted this to be the year of the berry, and it seems I have called it right.  Even the tangy and delectable wild black raspberries in the hedgerow are beginning to ripen early, and I got a sticky purple handful this morning for my trouble.  Unfortunately, as they grown amongst the nettles, I also got a prickly wrist.

On another note, for those of you who read “the Doctor is in”  I’m happy to report that my pepper plants are all thriving.  Many of them lost all their dark green foliage to the cold snap we had in May, but the smaller, lighter green leaves are beginning to thicken out the plants, and on many there are the first blooms.  Some did better than others and are already fruiting, hence the spicy salad, but most peppers like the heat, and will produce best from late July into early September.  During this pepper heyday, you will find me in the kitchen, gloves on, chopping peppers for hot sauces and salsas as fast as I can.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

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June is here and delights are beginning to come in from the garden.  Among the radish and peas, the lettuces and green onion are the strawberries, the most wonderful of all fruits and the one that really makes it feel like summer .  Of all the berries, the strawberries are the earliest and, in my opinion, the tastiest.  At least I say that until early July, when the blueberries are ripening, and then early august when we taste the delectable raspberries and blackberries.  But for now we indulge in the sweet, tangy, indescribably yummy strawberry.

I have a small berry patch that I often think takes up too much real estate in my tiny kitchen garden.  Most of the year it looks stringy and sad, almost as if the plants are dead or dying, but not so.   Come May, out come the shoots and flowers that, ever so agonizingly slowly, turn into hard green fruits and then ripen into luscious berries.  I have everbearing plants, which means they produce fruit all summer, although not as prolifically as they do in June.  Come August, they are growing wild and trying to climb down the sides of the raised beds and into the paths.  They are so hearty and vigorous they can root into the deep pine chips I use as mulch on the pathways.  Each year I cut back the runners and plant some back into the bed in the bare spaces, replace some older plants, and reluctantly throw out the rest.  They are so hearty, in fact, that one year I ripped them all up and, not able to throw them out, kept them in a bag in my garage.  Then, regretting my decision, I replanted half of them back into another bed, where they took, and bore berries the same year.

As hearty as they are, strawberries are a funny plant.  They only produce for a few years, and will shoot out runners that can overtake the garden rapidly.  They use an enormous amount of nutrients and therefore should be moved every 3 years or so to a different spot in the garden. They are best heavily mulched, which both keeps the berries out of the mud,and protects the crowns from cold.  They like water, but not too much, and must be in well draining soil.  Weather will affect the crop and determine ripening times; with warmth and abundant sunshine they ripen quickly, rain and clouds cause some delay.  Some varieties do well in containers, and are a good choice for those with not much space, but they must be watered regularly.

Besides eating them fresh on granola or yogurt, one of our favorite things to do with berries is to make ice cream.  Following is a simple and delicious recipe that can’t be beat.  Image

1 pint fresh berries

1 1/2 cups cream, divided

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

Wash and crush the berries with a potato masher until pulpy.

Heat 1 cup cream in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form on the sides of the pan.

Mix together egg yolks 1/2 cup cream, and sugar in a medium bowl

Add the hot cream to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, and then return the mixture to the pan.  Over medium low heat, whisk the mixture until it becomes thickened, 5-10 minutes.  DO NOT BOIL.  Allow the mixture to cool completely.

When custard is cool, add to an ice cream churn and follow the manufacturer’s directions.  YUM!

Another Trout Recipe

ImageThis recipe is for lake trout, usually bigger than stream trout, at least in the North East, and caught deep in the cold bottom of lakes.  Because they are larger they are easier to fillet then the smaller stream trout.  This recipe calls for two fillets about a pound each.  It is also excellent for salmon. I adapted this recipe from one I saw in a magazine.  Served over greens and with fresh berries from the garden, this makes an excellent summer meal.  I have added a dressing recipe for those who like to make their own.  It has a bit of a kick but goes great with the greens and fish.  

Cold Poached Trout on Greens With Peas and Berries

3 cups broth

2 cloves garlic, sliced 

10 peppercorns

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (more if you like it spicy)

1/2 onion, sliced

1-2 lbs trout fillets

Put all ingredients except the fish into a large saucepan and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 5 minutes or so.  Add the fish and cover, simmering about 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.  When the fish is cooked through it should separate easily with a fork.  Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.  Strain off the broth, freeze it to save for later.  The spice makes it great for adding to vegetable soups and the fish broth gives it extra nutrition.  When the fish is cool, flake it lightly with a fork and serve over salad greens such as arugula or baby kale.  Add fresh strawberries and snap peas.  Top with pine nuts or sunflower seeds.  Any fruit, such as grapes or mangos, can be substituted for the strawberries, but they are in season right now in Connecticut.  

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Sorry there is no picture of the finished salad, but we gobbled it up before I remembered to take one! 

Spicy Sesame Dijon Dressing

1/4 cup sesame dressing

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tsps brown dijon mustard

salt to taste

1 tsp hot sauce (more if you like it spicy)

Boozing in the Garden

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As much as I like my cocktail hour, I’m not talking about me here!  I’m talking about slugs, and how they love beer.  I went through two bottles last night alone filling up my little plastic dishes in order to attract those nasty little slimers that sneak around and gobble up anything they can climb on.  They had gotten into my cabbage, my strawberries, my beets and peas, my radishes.  All those telltale blemishes on my delicate veggies!  If you don’t put a stop to them, they multiply, but you never notice cause they are hard to see and mostly come out at night or in the rain. They don’t like direct sunlight.  But suddenly they are everywhere and most of the vegetables have either holes in their leaves or pieces gnawed out of the fruits.  Fortunately, there is a simple way to knock them out, literally.  Just place some shallow dishes of beer around the garden and the slugs flock to them, suck up that frothy concoction and pass out, drowning themselves.  You don’t even need good beer; save the microbrew for yourself and pick up a six pack of PBR for the slugs.  They aren’t choosy when it comes to drinking.

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The Doctor is in!

This morning I went out to look at my garden, as is my custom most mornings after the bus has come and gone and I have a chance to finish my coffee.  Everything looked in order from afar, but as I honed in for a closer inspection, trying to sneak up on those pesky tomato suckers, I noticed my plants looked in somewhat ill health.  Not exactly sick, but queasy.  Now, I knew I took a risk by planting them in the dirt before Mothers Day, but the forecast looked good for an early planting, and I had been fastidious about hardening them off.  We did get a cold snap last week, but not a frost in our area, and they had looked fine the morning after.  The leaves were sort of yellowish, curling at the edges, with some brown spots on them.   What could it be?  Blight?  Bugs? Too much water? Not enough?  As I fondled each plant in turn, murmuring over them and worrying like the mother of a sick child (I have, after all, nurtured these babies since January!), It occurred to me that I might need some help.

I knew just where to get it, too.  I hurriedly plucked the worst looking of the leaves off pepper and tomato, hopped in my truck and beat feet (My dad’s expression) to the local greenhouse to talk with my good friend who runs the garden center.  She has been a resource for me over years, and one I have come to value and respect.  I knew together we could figure out what ailed my lovelies.  After a trot around the greenhouse with my fistfull of wilted leaves looking for my friend, who turned out not to be working that day, I decided to take a chance and ask someone else.  I found another woman and after a quick inspection she informed me that my plants weren’t that sick at all, but had a case of chill stemming from wet feet.  We had a chat, and she suggested in the nicest of ways that perhaps I had mulched too deeply, or perhaps too close to the stems.  The previous cold, combined with a wet wind and lots of rain has weakened the plants because the roots couldn’t breath.  She prescribed a treatment of kelp and seaweed mulch lightly applied to the area around the roots, and the mulch pulled back 6 inches.  It turns out everyone at that greenhouse knows stuff!  I rushed home to apply her advice.  Below is the result.  I’ll let you know in a week if my darling peppers and lovely tomatoes have recovered their former vigor.  ImageImage

Ah, Springtime. For a minute.

When I moved to Connecticut almost 12 years ago, I came from Crested Butte, Colorado, a western slope former mining town turned fancy with a ski area.  It was at 8800 feet in elevation.  I had a garden, but in it I grew mostly grass.  And I didn’t even mind so much, because it was green.  I did manage some carrots, peas

and some herbs most years, but that was the sum total that my high altitude green thumb could manage.  I tried for 10 years to get a serviceable tomato, but nary a cherry could I produce in that elevated locale.

Then I moved to Connecticut, and the sheer amount of vegetation astonished me.  In fact, by mid summer I was entirely overwhelmed.  I had to cut the grass ALL the time.  And weeding?  Forget it!   I couldn’t stop things from growing, and that first year my cherry tomato vines grew to be over 11 feet long.  I chuckle to remember how delighted I was with my first garden and the 12 or so varieties of vegetable I planted.  Now I have over 12 varieties of tomatoes alone.

Springtime in Connecticut is both a magical and alarming time for me.  The new life clawing up out of the ground and unfolding everywhere happens so fast and forceful that it is almost frightening.  Each year in the early spring I wait expectantly for the growth to start.  It begins with the greening of the grass, and gently blooms into a haze of green on the tips of the trees.  Then I feel as if I’m rushing to catch and appreciate every last brilliant daffodil before the outrageous yellow of the forsythia emerges, but it all too soon blends in with the pinks and whites of the dogwoods and magnolia which give way to the purples and violets of the heavenly scented lilacs.  Before I know it spring turns to summer and the business of hacking back the vegetation that grows uncontrollably everywhere, blocking my view of the oncoming cars at the end of the drive, threatening to overwhelm my perennials.  And then the nasty posion ivy, the multiflora, the nettles.

There is usually a period of ease between these times, a period of calm wherein there is just enough vegetation to feel the world is a gentle place but not enough to feel as if things are out of control.   For me, that time is now.  Onions are beginning to poke out of the moist rich soil, and the first blossoms begin to open on the tomatoes.  The last frost was last night, and tomorrow I relocate my delicate seedlings into their permanent homes.  The lawn looks green, healthy and not too long.  I have to remember to take a deep breath and savor every moment before the deluge of verdancy I know will be coming.   Everything  is a mixed blessing in this delicate  balance we call life.

Garden Planning

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If you live in the North East, it’s that time of year to begin planning out your garden.  Unless, like me, you have been planning since December.   That is when the John Scheeper’s and Burpee’s catalogues start to arrive in the post.  This is not to say that I have a plan.  I don’t   It’s just a plan in process.  The plan won’t actually be finished until about November, when I pull everything up.  Then I get a month of respite before I start my seeds for next year.

How you plan your garden says volumes about who you are as a person.  Here is an example.  I started 12 kinds of peppers in my bathtub this January.  I carefully marked each container so I could tell the difference between the Aji Jamaica and the Aji Major after they came up.  I watered them and kept the lights on them religiously, never really noticing that my painstakingly crafted markers were disintegrating in the constant moisture.   Truthfully, I kind of knew what was happening, but forgot to do anything about it as soon as I left the bathroom.  Some might say that that’s just lazy, and they’d be partly right, but the fact is I secretly don’t care that I can’t identify them anymore.  Now it’s a big mystery what might evolve from my luscious leafy pepper bushes, and I’m delighted to watch it unfold as the peppers bloom and grow.  That’s just who I am.  I try to be orderly, but the mystery and randomness of life pleases me too much to try very hard.  I would tell you that a garden is a microcosm of the larger world, and in that I’d be right.  I would tell you that the mystery and randomness one finds while gardening is how the world operates, but as it turns out, that’s just true for me.

Here is how I know.  Some years ago I helped some very wonderful people to start their vegetable garden.  They had bought a house with an existing garden that still held the remnants of summer, and they were inspired to plant again the following year.  The challenge was that the garden was hideously overgrown and they had never gardened vegetables before.  It was an interesting exercise for me in more ways than one.  I took it on as a personal challenge and began to plan…my way.   What I found over time was that my way was not necessarily their way, and in the end I admiringly backed out of having much of a hand in their garden.  My way leaves much to the whims of nature and admits that nothing is truly within my control.  For them, it was just a bit unstructured and random.  They wanted a more orderly and precise garden.  Well planned, I should say.  They chose vegetable types and locations in advance of whimsy and availability.  They chose to plant in marked rows that had been laid out in advance.  It was all slightly shocking to me.  In the end I admit that I learned quite a bit from their gardening practices, and continue to consider myself divinely fortunate to know them. 

Some people crave order.  Some people thrive on chaos.  I may be little of both.  I tell myself it is the sign of a flexible mind.  Which kind are you?