Category Archives: summer

My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.

October strawberries

farm stand

For two or three months this spring and summer I kept my camera close at hand in the kitchen and on the farm, with every intention of joining back up with Heather and others in the This Week in My Kitchen blog hop. I love the idea of these simple everyday photos of what’s happening in our kitchens – a record of what we’ve been cooking and eating, and inspiration for times when I have no idea what to cook. For someone who loves to cook and whose family pays the rent with farm income, truth is, those times strike pretty often. And as to my memory of what we cooked for dinner four days ago, much less this time last year? Burned off like so much early morning fog. Even a partial log of what we ate, of what worked and what didn’t, is truly helpful.

Thing is: I post here so infrequently. If I joined up with the blog hop every week or or even every other week, this website would fast become less about that hoary search for home and belonging and more about my abiding love for pancakes, frittatas, porters, and roasted anythings.

Still, I snapped away. And – inspired in equal measure by the blog hop, by the food logs I kept for my midwives during both my pregnancies, and by Jenny Rosenstrach’s dinner diary – I started keeping a list of our meals and snacks. I am not highly organized or disciplined, and I suspect this effort will fall by the wayside soon enough. But that’s okay. The blog hop photos I’m not posting and the food log have taught me a lot. I’ve learned we eat a lot of mid-day breakfast sandwiches at our favorite deli, where they know us all by name and come to chat with us at the counter when the lunch rush is over. I’ve learned I really do drink a lot of coffee. I’ve learned I don’t have much of a grip on lunch. I’ve learned rock star days in the kitchen beget more rock star days in the kitchen. I’ve learned that salmon no wait just-picked strawberries no wait pulled pork no wait homemade bread no wait tomato sandwiches with mayo and basil no wait a giant bowl of buttery salty green beans with a poached egg on top no wait PEPPERONI PIZZA is my favorite thing ever.

Also, I learned that I did not squander strawberry season, which made me very cheerful.

Alice Medrich's buckwheat shortcakes

Some of you might remember that last year we lived on a farm with vast quantities of rhubarb that I looked at longingly but didn’t manage to eat very much of. When my dear friends from Norway were visiting we made a simple rhubarb grøt (Porridge! Delicious plain or with a little cream. We spooned leftovers on top of Molly’s everyday cake and that was very, very good.). I half-remember making a pie for the Fourth. I know I drank a startlingly good rhubarb buttermilk soda when I was out to dinner once, one I wanted to try to recreate at home, but instead I just think about it all the time. I digress. Last year was very hard and despite the fields of produce staring at sad old me at every turn, I just didn’t manage to dig very deep.

My May and June 2014 food log tells a different story, I am happy to report: Alice Medrich’s buckwheat shortcakes with sliced strawberries and maple sweetened whipped cream. Strawberries with granola and yogurt. Strawberries on waffles, on pancakes, on French toast. Strawberries in salad. Roasted strawberry buttermilk ice cream. Strawberries on my mother-in-law’s famous poundcake. Runny but perfectly good strawberry jam on toast with coffee (PSA and Note to Self for Next Spring: making jam in the slow cooker is awesome, especially if you have little people about, and Pomona’s Universal Pectin is awesome, but ne’er the twain should meet, because the Pomona’s needs a boil to set the jam). Strawberry cake, twice, at my son’s utterly disarming request. Strawberries in my Gordon’s Cup. Strawberries straight out of the quart box in my lap on the drive home. Strawberries straight out of the fridge at the farm stand. Strawberries straight off the plant. Strawberries for daaaaaays, and days and days and days. It was awesome.

Strawberries!

The story of how I came to farming has a lot of threads. For the purposes of this post it’s pretty important to tell the part of the story that begins along a sunny stretch of chain link fence in the courtyard of a shelter in southeastern Queens, where for a few months in 2004 I ran a gardening project with some families. We grew tomatoes and flowers and herbs in containers along that fence, and the kids conducted taste tests to compare supermarket and farmers market produce. The most formative part of the experience, for me, was the interviews the kids did with one another, with their families, and with some of the staff at the shelter. As they took careful notes about favorite foods, childhood gardens, and old family recipes, I began to understand that the dangers of food insecurity swell far beyond the physical. When families lose the intimacy of the family table for weeks or months or longer, when parents can’t teach their children how to make their famous rice and beans because they’re not allowed in the kitchen, when no one has the chance to ask for seconds or thirds of something delicious because dinner is always a thawed tray from an institutional freezer, warmed by someone who may be kind but is never family – the damage can be quite severe.

I began to wonder: is there a confluence of the family support work I’ve been doing and, well, growing stuff? Can gardening or farming support families who are struggling? I’d spent years working alongside families, but my ability to judge the maturity of a zucchini was about as refined as my ability to perform a root canal, teach Arabic, or gut a chicken, which is to say, I was completely incompetent. I decided to take a sabbatical. I wasn’t sure how it would all play out, exactly, but I imagined I’d spend a year – two, tops – working for farmers, before returning to the city to try to bring all these experiences together into some kind of job. I spent the spring of 2006 helping out on some smallholdings in France and Ireland and then landed at a working vegetable farm outside of Washington, DC.

I still remember the sweltering August afternoon when I walked out of the repair shop with some tool I’d been sent after, probably another nut driver or some hose clamps for an irrigation repair. I glanced north toward the hoop house, where this guy who was leasing some land from my bosses worked with his crew, sorting pony baskets of sweet peppers for the next day’s market. His brown arms moved fast and his easy laughter carried across the lawn. He worked with dispatch and good cheer and I realized how little I’d understood about the satisfaction of physical labor. Uh oh, I thought.

Gordon's Cup with strawberries

Leaves fell. Snow fell. The next spring I found a job on a livestock farm the next county over. By the end of that year we’d decided to marry and to become business partners, and a few months after that we closed on our own farm. We built a greenhouse, and laid out our fields, and hired a crew, and started a big CSA, and sold at markets, and had a baby, and watched him grow, and fed him from our fields, and put down roots, and wondered if the deep joy of building a community around our own farm was worth the financial struggles. I never forgot about the kids in Queens. But helping to keep our business afloat and parenting very small children took everything I had.

And now, well into my ninth year on a farm, I am finally catching my breath. My children are still quite small, but I’m not working on the farm anymore. I’m looking at it all – my plans, our plans, the merits of local agriculture – with a little bit of distance. And I am beginning to think we place too much import on seasonal eating.

Of course it’s meaningful. A tomato I picked right before lunch, an egg my chicken laid this morning, or the lettuce your farmer woke up long before dawn to pick in time for market really does taste better. And while, officially, the jury is still out on the matter, for me there’s no doubt that the nutrition in that dead ripe tomato I just picked is superior to the nutrition in a tomato grown in a hothouse in California, picked green and hard as a rock, shipped across the country, and gassed with ethylene so that it is a uniform deep red when it’s unloaded in the stockroom of my local ShopRite. The strawberries I ate in the field in early June made me smile the way you do when you remember a kiss. The giant strawberries in the 2-lb clamshell my son reaches for now at the supermarket taste flat and make me grumpy.

What a privilege! I can put the clamshell back down and tell my son October strawberries don’t taste very good, and we can drive to the farm where my husband works and pick sugar sweet Nelson carrots right out of the ground, or select a couple butternuts from the farmstand for our favorite soup. Or, for Pete’s sake, maybe I’ll just buy the damn strawberries. I’m sure the nutritional gap between those perfect June fruits and these October understudies is just a sliver, compared to the chasm between either one and the donuts or Goldfish he would also be quite content to wolf down. Do I fret too much?

It’s impossible to avoid these flights of contemplation as I survey the autumn bones of our garden or walk the farm, coffee in hand. Summer’s dewy flush is long gone. A few tomatoes will hang on until first frost, but their leaves are yellowing with blight. Most of the fruiting crops have been mowed and turned back into the soil, and my husband is planting grasses and legumes, to hold the soil in place, replenish nitrogen, suppress weeds, and improve tilth. The farm, so lush not two months ago, is about to get very brown and very muddy. Even so: autumn eating is my favorite. I could eat my weight in winter squash and sweet potatoes and kale. Stews and roasts and braises fill me right up. On the days when I manage to think about what’s for dinner before 5pm (which, frankly, is pretty hit or miss), I can start that soup in the slow cooker, or put a roast in the oven, or spend five minutes chopping cabbage and carrots for this braise (throw some chicken thighs and drumsticks in there too), and then boom, dinner cooks itself. I love that!

for roasted strawberry ice cream

It seems silly to ignore the pleasure that autumn ingredients and cooking methods bring me. It seems silly, too, to ignore the easy bounty of fresh produce that is always available to us. I think all families can provide something wholesome or formative for their kids, something that comes easy. Maybe you live in the woods and only have to open the door to get outside. Maybe you live in the city and there is no way for your kids not to take in all those bodies and colors and voices and kisses and think of them as normal. Maybe you have a great relationship with your in-laws who live across town and they watch your babies while you work. Maybe your husband is a farmer and the countertops are always heaped with whatever is growing. You know?

Also: I’m deeply proud of my husband’s work, and I deeply miss what our family life looked like back in our Virginia days. Eating the vegetables my husband grows, when he grows them, is a way to celebrate him and also the way we became a family.

This food feeds us, belly and soul. I know that. And yet – I don’t think it can feed everyone, and I know I feel uneasy about that. Without turning this into a sob story, I think it’s worth acknowledging that most small scale farmers struggle to make ends meet. But we’ll always have food on the table, which is just not true for so many people. Right now I have way, way more questions about food and hunger and community than I came to farming with.

Look: I know I’m speaking from a somewhat ragged place. We left a farm that couldn’t pay our bills, and I’ve written over and over again about how hard it was to leave our land and the rhythms our family life took on there. But I lost my community too: CSA members, farmers market customers and staff, fellow farmers with whom we shared equipment and shipping costs and pest control strategies and so, so many meals. I think I’m only just now understanding the cost of losing those daily relationships.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? The thing that’s so hard about moving, the thing that makes it worth forging through six pounds of CSA eggplant week after week, the thing about teaching your kids how to make your famous rice and beans: we belong to each other. In a chapter of my life when I’ve known a lot of loneliness, in a world where so many people are displaced by disaster or avarice, in a time when so much online grandstanding and so many incomprehensible injustices make it feel easier and safer to retreat than to reach out – I choose belonging.

And so today I went to the grocery store with my kids and I bought some coffee and cheddar cheese and three kinds of Halloween candy. And then we stopped by the farm for carrots and sweet potatoes and leeks and turnips. We drove home, and as we turned onto our street, we could see our friends from New York, here for the weekend, unloading their car. We hugged and carried the babies and groceries inside. My husband grew some delicious food, and tonight I put it in a pot with some oil and salt and heat. My friends handed me some braised beef they’d brought with them, the last roast from their own cow, and I added that too. Later we moved the pot to the kitchen table, grabbed some bowls, grabbed some beers, and ate. Together.

No fretting.

Nothing says, “I miss you!” like garlic breath.

No, I do not think the world needs another tzatziki recipe. But it is, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, the right time of year to eat it. My friend Wesley and her family recently returned from a trip to Crete, and her ten-year old daughter made tzatziki for us all when we went to dinner at their place in North Carolina last week. When I got home our little raised bed garden in the front yard was a gorgeous jungle, with plenty of sweet little pickling cucumbers ready to go. I remembered I’d shared my own recipe on our farm blog back in our Virginia days. I dug it up, and we made our first batch of the season tonight, and we put it on burgers and on top of roasted eggplant too, and it was so damn good. What the world needs, I thought, is more ten-year olds who know their way around a kitchen. What the world needs is a way for all of us to eat this well and to eat this happy.

Last summer I started migrating a few of my farm blog posts over here. I didn’t get very far with that project, I don’t think – but as I licked the food processor bowl clean tonight, I thought, heck, let’s try again. Let’s show up here a little bit and then figure out how to show up some more. Nothing says, “I miss you!” like garlic breath, right?

chooks in cukes

(I’m reposting this recipe almost exactly as I wrote it for our farm blog in 2011 – I’ve taken out just one or two confusing references, but am otherwise leaving the words as is. They speak to a different time in my life, and as I continue to explore what and who make a place a home, here on this site and in my life, it feels valuable to look back on where I’ve come from, even if I’m just talking about cheesecloth and lactobacilli. The nearly word-for-word repost also explains all the first person plural pronouns.)

Tzatziki is a classic Greek appetizer made from strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and herbs, and similar dishes are made all over the Middle East and Mediterranean.  It manages somehow to be both refreshing and substantial at the same time, which is exactly what I’m after these days.  Heavy braises and long slow roasts make me sweat just thinking of them – but these hot sticky midsummer days are tiring, and a girl needs some fuel!  Enter tzatziki.

Our only caveat is that you need to plan ahead here.  The recipe is straightforward and easy, but you’ll need to strain your yogurt, and salt and drain your cucumbers.  And ideally you stick it in the fridge for a couple hours after you mix it up, to let the flavors blend.  So it’s not something you can whip up at the last minute for a potluck or to accompany a Sunday dinner outside by the grill – although it would be right at home in either of those settings!

cutting cukes

Tzatziki

1 quart yogurt (preferably full fat with no added stabilizers or sweeteners – just cultured milk; or, substitute 2 1/2 cups Greek yogurt and skip the yogurt straining step)
2 large cucumbers (or 3 picklers), peeled, seeded, and chopped (instructions below)
1 tablespoon salt
juice of one lemon
one clove garlic, chopped
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or mint or both
additional salt and pepper to taste

First, strain the yogurt. We use a nylon nut milk/sprouting bag like this, but you could also use coffee filters or cheesecloth.1 If using a nut milk bag, hang it into a large jar (a half gallon or one gallon jar works well) and secure with a rubber band.  If using coffee filters, line a colander or large strainer with two coffee filters and set the colander/strainer inside a large bowl.  Cheesecloth can be used either way. Carefully pour the yogurt in.  Whichever method you use, you want to leave room for the whey to drain out of the yogurt, so be sure the bottom of your bag or filter isn’t touching the liquid as it drains out.  Some whey will drain out immediately, but be patient; the longer you can wait, the creamier your tzatziki will be.  You could probably use the yogurt after 45 minutes or so, but wait about two hours if you can.  Or strain the yogurt the day before you make the tzatziki and store it in the fridge overnight. When we use a quart of Dannon All Natural Plain Yogurt, we end up with a little over two cups of thick strained yogurt and a little more than a cup and half of whey. We’ll try straining our own yogurt later this summer, and anticipate the ratio of yogurt to whey will be a bit different.

(Don’t pour that whey down the sink! It’s full of good healthy stuff including lots of Lactobacilli, which are said to be good for gut health and general immune health. It will last for about forever in the fridge. You can add it to a smoothie, use it in place of water or other liquids in baked goods, use it as a starter culture for all kinds of lactofermented fruits and vegetables and beverages, use it in soaked grains like overnight oats … most recently we’ve been using it in a our daily almost-no-knead bread and in a pickle recipe.)

Next, prepare the cucumbers. This process takes about 45 minutes, largely unattended.  We pick our cucumbers quite young and of course never wax them, so we rarely peel or seed them for any recipes.  However, tzatziki really does benefit from cucumbers that have had a lot of the liquid removed.  First, peel the cucumbers.  Then seed them.  You can cut them in half lengthwise and run a spoon along the seeds, scooping them out.  Or quarter them lengthwise and use a small paring knife to cut out the seeds.  Next chop up the cucumbers and place them in a colander, place the colander in a large bowl, and sprinkle the cucumbers with about a tablespoon of salt.  Toss.  The salt will draw water of out of the cucumbers.  Let them drain for about half an hour.  Press to release any remaining water, and then pat them dry with a paper towel.

Now you’re ready to mix it all up! Put the strained yogurt in a large bowl.  In a food processor, blend the cucumbers, the lemon juice, the garlic, the herbs, and a few grinds of black pepper until well blended.  Add the cucumber mixture to the yogurt and stir to mix.  Taste to see if you need additional salt; we don’t find it necessary. Tzatziki tastes best if you put it in the fridge for a couple hours to allow the flavors to meld. But we won’t tell anyone if you dig in right away.

* * *

Serving ideas: Use tzatziki as a dip for vegetables like carrots or cucumbers.  Spread it on crackers or nice bread.  Use it as a spread in a sandwich with other summer vegetables.  Add it to falafel in a pita.  It’s also a great side dish or dipping sauce for meats and fish. (2014 update: So good on top of beef or lamb burgers. Great on bean or grain based patties too, like these little quinoa patties, or fritters like these. Delicious on salmon. Perfect on top of an eggplant roasted until charred and meltingly tender and split in two lengthwise.)

  1. I actually prefer using jelly bags like these now. []

Three things (delicious summer food edition)

peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall...

Yes, so, kind of ridiculous to try passing this off as another three things post when most people over the age of about six can clearly count (at least) 20 items here. But hey, I’m talking about tomatoes and corn and peaches! All is forgiven? Moving on.

1) Delicious summer food we’ve made and gobbled down recently:

Fresh corn cakes from David Lebovitz. We topped them with a fresh corn and tomato salad (see below), chèvre, and eggs over easy. Leftovers kept well in the fridge and were delicious reheated in the toaster oven.

Bangain bharta. This is a traditional Punjabi dish made with charred eggplant, tomatoes, and lots of good spices, and I’m putting it in our rotation until there are no more tomatoes and eggplant. So good. We ate it over brown rice and topped with a dollop of plain yogurt and scooped it all up with Camille’s naan, which we made with lard we’d rendered from our own pastured pigs. If you eat and have access to real lard, I heartily recommend that substitution. This particular version was shared with us by a CSA member a couple years ago.

Pasta with let-my-eggplant-go-free! purée from Francis Lam. (Thanks, Molly!) One of those awesome kitchen alchemy recipes, where simple ingredients combine and go BOOM! I would only like to say that after about 12 years of trying, I can say with certainty that I really, really, really don’t like whole wheat pasta. I think I’m going to stop trying. I suggest white pasta here, which, for flavor and texture reasons, will really let this sauce sing. Might even make my own next time.

Fresh corn and tomato salad. No real recipe here, and it changes some every time we make it, which is a couple times a week at least. Shave the kernels off an ear of corn, chop a couple hefty handfuls of cherry tomatoes, chiffonade some basil, squeeze in some lime juice, salt to taste. Scale up as necessary. I love it on top of brown rice and black beans (try Molly’s quick black beans with cumin and oregano) and topped with a fried egg, or on top of those fresh corn cakes above, or straight from the bowl. I bet it would be good in a tortilla soup too.

Cream of tomato soup. I had the Campbell’s stuff often enough as a child, usually with grilled cheese, and while I didn’t have to force it down, I didn’t really understand the fuss. Now that I make my own I sure do. I love Marion Cunningham’s recipe in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. The ingredient list is quite short so the quality of the tomatoes matters enormously. If you’re using fresh tomatoes, make sure they are dead ripe, and make sure you love how they taste raw. You can also fix a slightly lackluster tomato soup with a big spoonful of tomato paste. Canned tomatoes are also an excellent choice here. I’ve seen lots of versions out there made with stock, which sounds good too and would be perhaps a little less rich than the one we make. I’m also tempted to try a version with roasted tomatoes.

One-pan pasta from Martha Stewart. I followed this recipe nearly exactly (just subbed our homemade chicken bone broth for half the water) and while it was delicious – I adored the sauce that forms from the tomato juices and pasta starch – next time I will use all broth and will double or even triple the tomatoes. Edited to add: I can’t wait to try the farro verion of this from Smitten Kitchen. Could something this tasty and easy also be a bit more nutrient-dense?

2) Delicious summer food I love but have somehow not yet made this year:

Cultured salsa from Nourishing Traditions. I can’t even begin to explain how good this is. Get yourself some whey (I just strain it from full-fat plain yogurt) and hie thee to your kitchen! It should last for ages in your fridge only it won’t because you will eat it all in two days, and that’s if you don’t have company.

Braised okra with cherry tomatoes, which I wrote about last week.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s sweet corn polenta with eggplant sauce. Polenta made with fresh corn! It’s a little labor intensive but very straightforward. And the eggplant and tomato sauce is good on everything. I put it in a savory galette once with some chèvre and should really do that again.

Tomato and cheddar pie. This one requires a little planning: the biscuit dough for the crust needs to chill for an hour, and the tomatoes need to drain for 30 minutes.  But otherwise it comes together quite easily. The crust is quite forgiving. Once I was a little short on flour, and the dough seemed a sticky and hopeless mess as I eased it into the pie pan.  But it baked up beautifully, and didn’t get soggy even after a day in the fridge. And seriously: tomatoes, mayonnaise, cheese, biscuit crust? Need I say more?

Tomato cobbler with blue cheese biscuits from Joy the Baker. Everything about this is amazing. The flavors are assertive but perfectly balanced – I recommend all spices and seasonings in the called-for quantities.

Peperonata. Sweet peppers cooked long and slow, with some capers, red wine vinegar, and herbs tossed in at the end. This is ostensibly good with many things – I imagine it would taste great alongside almost any kind of meat, on crostini with some soft tangy cheese, mixed into hot or cold pasta, on top of polenta, maybe folded into a frittata – but I wouldn’t know because we always eat it straight out of the skillet.

Pomodori al forno from Molly Wizenberg. You cook roma tomatoes low and slow and then marinate them with garlic, parsley, and olive oil, before serving them with goat cheese and sliced baguette. This stuff would make you very popular at a brunch and would also make a very fine (and messy!) start to a summer dinner party, but again, I’m only guessing, because I pretty much eat this standing at the counter with the bowl of tomatoes, a hunk of bread, a tub of cheese, and a knife.

Gordon’s Cup, also from Molly. Gin! Lime! Cucumber! Salt! Do it!

Peach pie. I do make a mean pie. ‘Tis the season!

3) Delicious summer food I have never made (so please share your recipes with me!):

Tomato jam

Moussaka

Tomato sauce for putting up. I’m happy to freeze or can. I make sauces from canned and fresh tomatoes all the time, but I’ve never done it in storage quantities. Maybe I should just make more, and freeze it, but I still feel on the lookout for something really worth all that peeling and seeding.

Ketchup

Corn ice cream!

And that’s a wrap.

What about you? What are you eating these days? And can you help me with that last section?

Confessions of an okra lover, part the first

Okra blossom

Okra/Abelmoschus esculentus Moench. Virginia, August 2012.

My husband says I can get nostalgic about a paperclip, and he’s not far off. Something I’ve been missing like the dickens this summer? Okra. Oh man. It was a star crop for us at our old farm. I never ate it growing up except under great duress, but seven years on Virginia farms turned me into a card carrying okraphile. I guess there are northern varieties (farm and garden friends, please chime in and tell me what they are!!), but we don’t currently grow them at this farm. My husband tells me he’s been seeing some at market – it’s reasonable to ask him to bring me home five pounds next week, don’t you think?

The rest of this post is another that first appeared on our farm blog – hence the references to our being Southern farmers and to a time and place when we grew lots of this little emerald wonder. The recipe at the bottom, for braised okra with cherry tomatoes, is what I would be making this very second if I still had a 200-foot block of okra (or even just a plant or two) a short walk away. It’s dead easy and, more to the point, one of my very favorite things to eat ever. The original post also included recipes for the other things I love to make with okra: lacto-fermented okra pickles, our favorite fried okra, and my husband’s gumbo. I’ll probably bring them on over here too, soon enough.

(Insert Wayne’ World Scooby Doo ending sound here. Boom! It’s two years ago, and you’re sitting on our back porch in Virginia sipping a beer while I finish cooking dinner.)

Confession: we are vegetable farmers, and we are Southern, and until recently I just didn’t like okra very much.  It’s not that I found it offensive exactly. I was always happy enough to eat it in my husband’s gumbo, where, in his deft hands and alongside a rich roux and some smoky spices, its infamous slime is somehow alchemized into a velvety sauce. In a gumbo the okra itself almost disappears, which makes it quite easy to tolerate.  I also tried frying it, over and over again.  It was always okay.  It was certainly pretty to look at, and I felt I must be doing my body a favor by eating it, even if I had to choke it down.  I always felt virtuous eating okra, but I never had very much fun.

With apologies to the many awesome lunch ladies I have known, I am pretty sure the cafeteria at South Columbia Elementary School in Martinez, Georgia, circa 1984, is to blame. I remember dreary piles of the stuff, breaded and steamed and slumping forlornly, almost apologetically, in its compartment of the brownish melamine lunch tray. I looked at its dusty breading and its drab interior, utterly unconvinced, and occasionally gave it a nudge with my fork.  It yielded immediately, like pudding, and slid right back off the fork.  We got off on the wrong foot, okra and me, and I’m afraid now that I wasted more than twenty-five years holding a grudge.

Because this summer?  I’m on an okra bender.  I’m not sure what changed for me, exactly. We’re growing okra again after a hiatus of several years; perhaps I see those gorgeous plants with their flowers like delicate ivory trumpets and I just want to do right by them.  Maybe something clicked for me when my husband said, “I love okra because it’s the most vegetable-y of our vegetables.”  He’s right: when you cook it right, okra’s flavor is green and clean and bright, the very essence of fresh.  Maybe it’s because now, as a mother, I don’t want to waste any more time being virtuous.  What I want is joy at the table, a strong body and a curious mind and an open heart, a rich family life. I swear I’m finding all that in okra.

Some quick notes, and then a recipe.

Storing okra: Keep your okra in a plastic or paper bag in the fridge, unwashed, and use it within a few days.

Using okra: Please don’t bread it and then steam it. You could steam it very gently, just till bright green and still with some snap to it, and then eat it warm, drizzled with butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, or chilled, dressed with a bright vinaigrette.  Try it breaded and fried, braised, pickled, skewered and grilled, in stews, in curries, in place of squash or zucchini in ratatouille.

A word about okra slime: In Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison writes, “Okra is slimy, and rather than try to ignore this fact, perhaps it’s best just to admit that’s how things are.” Maybe that’s what changed for me this summer.  I’m not trying to wish the slime away anymore.  Instead, I’ve learned how to make it work in a dish’s favor.  In our favorite fried okra, it binds with a cornmeal and parmesan coating to create a perfect golden crust.  In our okra and tomato braise, it thickens the juices of burst cherry tomatoes and makes the most lovely sauce.  And of course it’s essential for thickening up gumbo.  Maybe thinking about it this way will help you, too.

chooks and okra

Braised Okra with Cherry Tomatoes
(serves 4-6, unless you eat like we do, in which case: serves 2)

This recipe comes to us from our friend and former CSA host Noell. Don’t be fooled by its apparent plainness: this belongs in everyone’s summer arsenal.  It’s amazing eaten straight from the skillet, and pretty darn good eaten straight from the fridge as well.  It’s wonderful on top of quinoa and other grains, and it makes a great wrap or burrito filling.  Every time I take a bite I grin.

Quantities are approximate.  Use roughly equal amounts of okra and cherry tomatoes, and garlic to taste.

1 lb okra
1 lb cherry tomatoes
3-4 cloves garlic (or to taste), chopped
olive oil, salt & pepper

Warm a few tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Meanwhile, trim off the okra stems and then slice in half lengthwise, or slice into 1/4-inch rounds.  When the skillet is ready, add the okra and the chopped garlic.  Saute for about 10 minutes, flipping occasionally, until the okra begins to brown.  Add the cherry tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste, and cover.  Braise 5-10 minutes, checking every few minutes.  The dish is done when most of the cherry tomatoes have burst.

Braised okra with cherry tomatoes

Weekending

Russian sage

There’s something restorative about waking up in a gabled room, particularly if that’s not where you usually wake up. On Saturday I woke a little before 7 to rustling woods, sunshine spilling through the small window at my feet, and the smiling brown eyes of my three-year old, who was standing next to the fairly tall bed where I’d spent the night. I grinned back at him. “Let’s eat something,” he said. So I climbed from under the heavy quilt and together we padded down the creaky stairs. I’d stayed up past 1 catching up with an old friend who was moving halfway across the country the next morning, but there was something about that sloped roof – it was the best nearly-six hours of sleep I’d gotten in months.

I made some coffee and poured the boy a bowl of cereal, and together we sat in a comfortable silence on the couch, breezes blowing the lace curtains across our shoulders. If anyone out there has a three-year old you will especially appreciate the sweetness of those quiet moments. He asked the occasional question – “Did you get a good night’s sleep, Mama?” “My footie pajamas are getting kind of small, huh?” – but mainly he stretched out with one foot on my lap and one foot on of the back of the couch and the cereal (no milk) on his belly, munching away.

A little later later the first of the others appeared in the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and together we three made our way down the back porck steps and across the yard. We paused to let the chickens out before winding on through dewy grass and gnarled apple trees, already heavy with green fruit, to the river. We’d walked the same path the night before, after a day of steady heavy rains, and found the river rushing and brown and clawing at its banks. This morning it was still fast and high, but a bit of pebbly beach was visible, and the water was clear. We sipped our coffee, and talked a bit, of crayfish and road trips and first gardens, and the boy threw sticks and stones into the wild current.

Later it was just me and the boy again. I sighed a little, feeling deeply at peace and missing our old farm. But mainly I rolled up my pants and kicked off my sandals and talked with my boy. I loaded his hands with rocks, and pointed out a slug making its way down a sycamore trunk, and tried skipping a few stones across the rapids. We stayed there an hour at least, nothing wrong in the world, not that morning. I knew it and hugged it to my chest to remember.

Later still, when three people and their luggage and a cheerful Golden Retriever had piled into one car, and we into another, and we had all pulled away from that red house in the woods, I thought about it all – running wild through a May thunderstorm in the middle of the Pacific fifteen years ago, drinking tea and dreaming big in Kyoto and Vancouver and Boston and New York and Portsmouth, that New Year’s Eve when we opened our champagne with a hammer in my parents’ driveway, that balmy May Sunday when she married us under the ash tree in front of 200 friends and family on hay bales, the graduations and jobs and relationships we’ve celebrated, the Big Decisions we’ve mulled over long distance, years too out of touch, years that brought us back together – I thought about it all, just enough to remember my own bigger picture, and I drove.

(joining Amanda at The Habit of Being)

Pullets

apples

Red

Porch

Fridge pickles!

Fridge pickles!

Tara mentioned making fridge pickles from a recipe I posted on our farm blog a couple summers ago, and that got me to thinking it makes sense to migrate some of those recipes over here, to this blog that’s not a food blog.

I blogged for our farm, sporadically but earnestly, for four years, and there’s a lot of history there. I’m still not quite sure what to do with it all – it really doesn’t make sense to continue paying for the site. The land that we farmed is becoming something else. We’re not quite sure what, yet, but our story there is (nearly) over. On the other hand: it’s our story! I’m not sure what I want to do with all those pictures and words.

These pickles are part of that story. When it comes to putting food by, what I am is a master dabbler. Sure, I know a heck of a lot more than I did in my city days. I make jam every once in a while, but I freeze it every time. I am always happier when I can dig into lard I made from the fatback of our own pigs instead of reaching for supermarket butter. I do know how to make bacon and yogurt but I only do it sometimes. I think I am fondest of lacto-fermenting vegetables in small batches – it’s quick and easy and delicious and yay for living foods! But beyond freezing bone broth and freezer-friendly produce, none of this is an integral part of our kitchen year.

It’s not that I lack for excellent organic produce (umm…), and it’s not that I lack for inspiration. My kitchen bookshelves are really something to behold, and there are so many great online resources. There are questions of time, of priorities, of honestly assessing how much you can fit into a day, of choosing between sterilizing jars and snuggling up on the couch for another round of George and Martha. But the real stumbling block, for me? I am a big honking extrovert. I play very well with others and get pretty lonesome standing all alone at the stove. I need a class – and, dare I say, homework. I need to blanch the peaches while a mama friend gets the jars ready and our boys stir in the sugar. I need people.

I actually have a lard rendering date next Tuesday! That makes me smile so much I think I might march on down to the old milk room in the lower barn to see if there are any returned cucumbers from yesterday’s market. Cucumbers fresh off the vine are ideal, of course, but the point here is to make something delicious instead of letting something waste. And these fridge pickles? They do the trick.

As I said in the original post on our farm blog, these are a great beginner pickle for the curious-but-intimidated, but they’re also a really tasty way to work through a glut of cucumbers when you don’t have the time or the inclination to can. They are always good.

chooks in the cukes

Fridge Pickles
adapted from Donalyn Ketchum

Crunchy, garlicky, and just sour enough, we can’t stop reaching for these. Pour a simple brine of water, vinegar, and salt over cucumbers, garlic, and herbs. Leave the jars alone for a few days … and voila! Pickles! They aren’t canned, so they need to be stored in the fridge. They’ll keep at least a couple months in there – if they last that long. Makes 6 pints or 3 quarts.

For the brine:
2 quarts water
1 cup white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt (kosher salt is also fine, but may result in cloudier pickle brine)

For the pickles:
Cucumbers, enough to fit snugly into your jars, washed well and sliced into spears
Garlic, 1-2 cloves per pint jar or 2-3 cloves per quart jar, smashed and peeled
Herbs (dill is classic; we also love thyme), 1-2 sprigs per pint jar or 2-4 sprigs per quart jar, rinsed well

Clean your jars thoroughly with soap and water. They do not need to be sterilized.

Combine all brine ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to be sure the salt dissolves completely. While the mixture is coming to a boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Place a smashed garlic clove or two in the bottom of each jar. Add the sprigs of your chosen herb.

Fill the jar the rest of the way with cucumber spears. Really cram them in there – otherwise some spears will float above the brine when you add it, and this can lead to premature spoilage.

Add another smashed garlic clove to each jar – wedge it down between some cucumber spears so it won’t float when you add the brine.

Pour the simmering brine over the vegetables, being sure they are completely submerged. If your brine isn’t simmering, bring it back to a simmer before pouring it over the vegetables.

Put a lid on each jar.

Leave at room temperature for 2-3 days (less time when the weather is very hot, more when it’s cold) and then, if you can stand it, put them in the fridge for an additional 1-2 weeks.

We usually break into the first jar right away but give the rest of the jars the additional slow fridge fermentation before eating them.