Kitchen Garden

August is for Tomatoes

Tomatoes on Aug. 1, 2021.

When a gardener plants more than a hundred tomato seedlings they expect to harvest tomatoes in August. Expectations met!

“I made weak coffee Sunday morning,” I posted on Twitter. “I hate weak coffee. I got distracted while measuring grounds into the French press. Distracted by the tomatoes taking over the kitchen. TOMATOES ARE TAKING OVER THE KITCHEN!”

No freak out here. I drank my coffee, cleaned and sorted the tomatoes, and have a home for yesterday’s surplus. I inspected the garden and there should be another crop today. An abundance of tomatoes is a good thing.

Growing enough Roma-style tomatoes to start canning whole ones is the challenge. I planted three varieties, Speckled Roman, Granadero and Amish Paste. Each has good flavor, and if there are enough, I’ll put one variety per jar. Canned whole Roma tomatoes are the mainstay of our pantry.

I used to can tomato sauce, tomato juice, and diced tomatoes. After the current stock is depleted, it will be whole tomatoes only. Canned whole tomatoes provide the best flexibility. It is an example of less being more. I open a jar of canned wholes and can make almost any tomato dish with it. I don’t think I’m going back to the old way.

A couple of 4-6 ounce tomato varieties are in this year’s mix. Their main contribution is flavor. Seeding and chopping them for salsa produces a very nice texture. I made a quart jar of salsa with the abundance. I used to freeze or can salsa and am moving away from that practice. Fresh is better. I’m growing Guajillo chilies to make a winter-time salsa to use on tacos, enchiladas and the like. I’ll add a bit of home made apple cider vinegar to preserve it in the refrigerator.

August is a busy month in the kitchen for a gardener. Not only are there tomatoes, but crates of onions, garlic curing in racks, and potatoes nicked during harvest needing to be used. Pears will be ripe soon. I check the EarliBlaze apple trees daily to see if they are ripe–they are getting close. Once they come in, the first bushels will go to apple cider vinegar making. Harvesting, storage and processing takes up most of August. It’s part of a commitment to growing one’s own food.

This morning I made strong coffee, the way I like it. I’m already fortified for another day in the kitchen garden. It’s life, as good as it gets.

Kitchen Garden

Back to Work

Apple tree viewed from top of a ladder.

The owner of the orchard and farm asked me to return to work as a mapper a few weeks ago. The mapper helps customers find ripe apples in the orchard during u-pick season. I first worked there in 2013 and did every year since, except for last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I noticed on Instagram they were already picking Viking and Pristine apples so I texted him. It is typical for me to begin work there in August.

After seven messages we determined he continued to need me and that I would go over today to fill out employee paperwork. There is a new manager of the retail barn sales operation to which this position reports. There have been other changes since 2019 as the orchard and farm expanded its offerings beyond apples. I’ll need an orientation. I haven’t worked for someone else since April 2020.

This work suits me. It is two days per week with a fixed ending date of October 31 when the last of the fall apples ripen and are picked. I earned about $2,000 in 2019. You can’t live on it yet there is a use for the income. I don’t work solely for the money any more.

While cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Iowa and across the United States, I’ve been vaccinated and most of the work is outdoors. Hard to say what I’ll run into. In evaluating the risks I didn’t see many of them. After being at home for more than a year, I’m ready for regular human contact with apple seekers.

Working at the orchard adds a fruit element to home food processing. I checked my store of apple products and I’m still working off applesauce, apple butter, apple cider vinegar and dried apples from previous years. My three trees look to produce a big crop this year, and I’ll get some pears. I’ll mainly use apples from the orchard for varieties I don’t grow and use my own harvest to ferment more apple cider vinegar and eat fresh.

Work at the orchard fits well into my idea of a kitchen garden. With a continuing big harvest from the garden a greater portion of each day is spent cleaning and processing vegetables. Adding fruit makes sense. Working at the orchard provides a chance to discuss seasonal produce, cooking, and eating with other people interested in the same thing. By the time I get to October our pantry and freezer should be stocked and the household well-positioned for winter.

I believe I’ll be a better person for going back to work.

Kitchen Garden

At the Food Bank

World War II Gardens

Volunteers at the local food bank couldn’t wait to taste the cherry tomatoes I donated Monday morning. As soon as they were weighed in they tried some as I pointed out different varieties. It is surprising our city of 2,615 people has a need for a food bank, yet business is brisk. I enjoy the social aspect of donating to the food bank.

A group of civic-minded people noticed a number of area residents drove ten miles to the county seat to use a food bank. They felt the local need was real. The community pantry was organized in 2012 by a board that consisted of local residents and representatives from area churches. “It is able to provide food and needed supplies to residents due to the generosity of our community and businesses,” according to the pantry Facebook page. Here’s a link to the Cedar Rapids Gazette article from when it opened.

A key consideration for gardeners is reducing food waste by timely consuming, storing and processing garden produce. Having a local food bank provides one more way to reduce waste. So far this season I made six donations. While they aren’t much in the scope of things, everything helps feed people who are struggling to put food on the table. Why shouldn’t pantry clients receive fresh produce?

Local food production makes a difference in reducing reliance on the drought-ravaged growing areas of California, Arizona, Florida and Texas. Just like with victory gardens during World War II, the aggregate effect of local people growing food is positive. As dry conditions continue, especially out west, consumers will have to rely more on local food production.

If you garden, figure out how to donate part of your production to help others. It makes a person feel like an important part of society and that alone makes it worth doing. The benefit to recipients is tangible.

Kitchen Garden

Reasons to Source Food Locally

Garden produce on Saturday, July 24, 2021.

Despite near drought conditions most of this growing season, our garden is producing the best crop I can remember. Our ability to irrigate is most of that. I’m also becoming a better gardener. We don’t have it as bad as California does.

Because of dry conditions over an extended period of time, California farmers are letting fields go fallow. Without rain or irrigation there is no point in putting seeds in the ground. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued three drought emergency proclamations this year, in April, May and July. The state called for residents to reduce water use by 15 percent to stretch supplies and protect water reserves. While this drought is not the worst on a 1,000 year time line, it is bad and if it continues it will affect what shoppers see in grocery stores. It goes without saying prices will trend upward.

Because of drought in western states, what we do in our Midwestern back yards increases in value.

When Michael Pollan released this video in 2010, the landscape for local food was different. His focus was on the amount of fossil fuel it took to produce vegetables in California and distribute them across the United States. He also discusses the energy required to make processed foods, like Hostess Twinkies. While avoiding global warming remains a reason to eat locally, with drought made worse by climate change, supply becomes an issue. If California farmers are not planting crops, if almond trees are not sustainable there, how will we get nutritious food? There are few better solutions than growing one’s own and sourcing locally.

Kitchen Garden

With a Bitten Tongue

Cherry tomatoes from the garden.

Like most everyone I’ve bitten my tongue. I also scalded it with hot food and beverages. It healed, at least I think it has. As I prepare food from our kitchen garden, some days I don’t notice the taste, partly due to damaged taste buds.

The first cherry tomatoes are such a burst of flavor one must notice. Some days I swoon with how good a dish prepared in our kitchen tastes, even one I make often. Days when taste is dormant are sad ones–distracted with life, eating becomes a simple necessity, a chore.

“Today, food has taken on value, which goes beyond the simple act of eating,” Massimo Bottura, who operates a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy said on a BBC program called The Future of Food. “I was born with the will to be contemporary. When you are truly contemporary, your mind is constantly projected toward the future. There is always more future in my future.”

What does that mean in an Iowa kitchen garden?

I mastered enough techniques to convert raw food into meals. Few ingredients have me consulting with cook books about how to prepare or serve them. For example, a few days ago I harvested a dozen bell peppers and knew to parboil them to make stuffed peppers. I knew how to prepare the dish with rice, onion, celery, tomato, garlic and other ingredients on hand. Hard to say where I learned the technique yet it is part of culinary me. There are many techniques resting behind the door of consciousness. It gives me confidence in the kitchen, enough confidence to put meals on the table each day without consulting recipes. Does it go beyond a single meal into the future? That is more tricky.

I make soup often and attribute it to my Polish heritage. I can consistently produce a certain flavor profile. In the past I made big batches of soup and water-bath canned the extra. No more. I focus on flavor in smaller amounts done over and over through the gardening season. My typical soup starts with mirepoix: celery, onion and carrot. From there, I add what is available, including pearled barley, lentils, turnips and potatoes if I have them. Yesterday I added radicchio leaves, cabbage, kale, grated zucchini, and part of a jar of canned whole tomatoes. Salt and bay leaves seasoned the soup. Because the crop is coming in, I added diced broccoli stems. It simmered all day and by supper time was a meal. While this is not specifically a Polish soup, my heritage influenced the preparation. It suited my palate.

It is a struggle to get beyond the meal currently being prepared. After a trip to the garden, and a tour of the refrigerator and pantry, I get ideas about what to prepare each day. As the gardening season proceeds there are more choices. I’ve found the more our cuisine is driven by ingredient availability and freshness, the better the meal. That’s not surprising, although not particularly noteworthy. I enjoy cooking, and eating home-prepared meals more than restaurant fare. I’m nowhere near the level of Bottura. We get by in our kitchen.

I don’t know if my palate is truly damaged, and live with what I have. When a dish comes out really well I enjoy eating it. Much of the time I’m distracted from living and eating by outside concerns. My best plan for the future of food is to grow great ingredients and pay attention to the preparation. With practice I’ll get better and occasionally I will touch the sublime. That’s what a home cook can hope.

Kitchen Garden

Pandemic Year Garlic

Garlic Patch July 3, 2021.

It was a good garlic harvest this year. All the heads looked solid and disease-free. I hit only one with the spade. The yield was 75 head, or enough for a year in the kitchen and to seed next year’s crop.

Harvested garlic.

It took about two hours to dig it. The work went easily because I had weeded the plot. This is my third year growing garlic at home and experience pays with this crop.

The entire crop in a cart.

I made the garlic rack last year out of simple materials. I use the sawhorses for something else during the year. The present challenge is to let it dry thoroughly, then cut the roots and leaves to make the heads look like what we buy in the store.

This variety has a long history on the farm where I work. The heads and cloves are large, and the flavor is what we want. Planted in October 2020 and harvested yesterday, garlic spends to most time in the ground of anything I grow. In the pandemic year of 2020-2021, it did well.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Breakfast with Arugula

Farfalle with arugula, sugar snap peas and Parmesan cheese.

I searched this website for arugula and found I’ve written about farfalle with arugula several times. It is my go-to spring dish, and now that one of us is vegan, I moved it to the breakfast rotation instead of supper. Properly made it is a taste sensation.

I haven’t written about the dish the same way over the years. That is, the “recipe” keeps changing. This iteration was pretty good, so at the risk of being repetitive, here goes:

Put water on the stove to boil. Measure one and a half cups dried farfalle and put it in the water once it is at a rolling boil. Set the timer for 12 minutes.

On the cutting board, tear up a good handful of arugula and remove the thick stems. De-vein 10-12 sugar snap peas and cut them in half across the length. Measure half a cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Put a generous tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. Add a teaspoon of ground, black pepper and a couple of grinds of sea salt.

When the timer goes off, add the sugar snap peas to the boiling pasta and let it go for another 60 seconds or so. Collect a quarter cup of pasta water and drain the pasta and peas.

Pour the pasta and peas into the mixing bowl and begin gently mixing. Add the pasta water and continue to mix. Finally, add the arugula and mix until incorporated. While I used the word “mix” a couple of times in a row, don’t mix it to death. You want the arugula leaves to look like what they are.

Serve immediately. If a person is going to garden, they have to have recipes to use up the produce. This is one of my ever-changing favorites and a Spring classic.

Kitchen Garden

Waiting for Pollination

View of tomatoes from the oak tree stump, June 15, 2021.

Three separate times I sat on the oak tree stump in the garden to watch insect life. I walked around each of the plots observing activity. I spent a decent amount of time doing this. It is not natural to see insects, one has to train to look for them, bring them into focus. The biome of my garden is more diverse that the row crops I saw driving the Lincoln Highway last week, although it’s something to which I had paid little attention.

Tomato plants look healthy, many of them are in bloom, and a few fruit have formed. There wasn’t an abundance of pollinators, maybe enough to get the job done. I spotted one regular honeybee, although maybe that one will bring their buddies today. This is planned to be a big tomato year to get caught up on canned tomatoes. So far, so good.

The humidity was lower making outdoors pleasant even with ambient temperatures in the mid-80s. What we need is rain. According to the state climatology website, our part of the state received about four inches of accumulated precipitation less than average this spring. I don’t believe rain will come in quantities to get us back to average. I irrigate the garden and two new apple trees daily.

Otherwise, Tuesday was a day of preparing for and being in meetings. I was part of a group of Iowans in a conference call with our U.S. Senator Joni Ernst about addressing climate change, and I conducted the annual meeting of our home owners association.

I finished reading Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal. I met the author at an event in Iowa City while she was writing it. Dance was not available when I was a grader, and I’ve attended a ballet performance only once or twice, notably the Alvin Ailey company when they were in residence in Iowa City. Like many, I watched Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance The Nutcracker on television. I also read Kirkland’s memoir Dancing on My Grave.

After reading Angyal’s book, I wouldn’t encourage preteens participate in ballet, and if they did, to avoid going on pointe until their bodies finish growing. To understand the physical stress, I tried doing turnout in the kitchen. My left hip was sore the rest of the day.

While we wait for pollination, we also wait for rain. There is none in the forecast.

Kitchen Garden

Late Spring in a Kitchen Garden

Radicchio Leaves, June 11, 2021.

These late spring days of gardening are among the best of the year. Produce is coming in with variety and quantity, the ice box is filling faster than we can eat and preserve everything. It’s why we garden.

There was a time when I didn’t consider leafy green vegetables important in a garden-based meal. I hoped to grow spinach and lettuce, and maybe that’s it. That changed and now I have an entire plot devoted to different kinds of greens. Greens I used to compost now go into vegetable broth or main courses.

This year I successfully grew mustard, chard, kale, collards, turnips, kohlrabi, beets, arugula, lettuce and spinach for leafy greens. I am also experimenting with radicchio.

Radicchio is a bitter green. Based on my research it can be eaten at any stage of the plant. Ideally one gets good sized heads, and I may yet do so. I didn’t understand how big the plant grows, and thinned some to make room for a couple with heads. That produced an opportunity to try some things.

The first leaves I picked went into a fresh salad. Next, I separated and sorted the culled leaves and pickled the larger ones in a brine made with malt vinegar mixed with my own apple cider vinegar. The pickled leaves will be ready in seven days. Like with any pickle in this household, a little goes a long way. What else?

We have not eaten much arborio rice yet have a couple of bags on hand. I thought to use some of it in a radicchio risotto. I searched my main cookbook library and found radicchio recipes in Molto Italiano by Mario Batali, Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant by Annie Somerville, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Classic Italian Cooking for the Vegetarian Gourmet by Beverly Cox with Dale Whitesell, and Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets by Deborah Madison. There were a couple of recipes for risotto and other interesting options. What surprised me was how many cookbooks did not mention radicchio.

Next step is to read all these recipes, pick a risotto plus one other dish to try with the leaves depicted above. The next couple of days are already busy, yet I hope to work this in. Radicchio was comparatively easy to grow, although some refinement is needed in my future cultivation of the plant. I can likely start another crop for fall harvest.

With the garden in and weeded, I can work on other projects in the yard and house. Broccoli heads are beginning to form and cauliflower won’t be far behind. I monitor for predatory pests, as insect life in the garden is vibrant and hopeful. There are likely some cabbage eaters coming, maybe some squash beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and others. I’ll pick them off as I’ve always done without insecticides. My post-pandemic schedule enables me to keep watch over the garden.

I’m planning two main garden harvests per week. One Monday morning for the food bank, and another toward the end of the week for preservation and cooking. This year’s garden has been satisfying on many levels. So much so, I hung a sign on it.

Garden 2021
Kitchen Garden

A Spring Harvest

Garden produce displayed on my work bench on June 4, 2021.

The Dutch oven on the stove top is bubbling with today’s vegetable broth. This batch is different because I used kohlrabi greens, which I usually compost, along with turnip and beet greens. The color is rich. Air in the whole house is imbued with the aroma of mirepoix combined with fresh greens. It is elemental.

By tomorrow night, part of the broth will be used to make dinner.

On trash/recycling day I walk the receptacles to the road when I wake so I don’t forget them after sunrise. There was a cool breeze with low humidity as I did it this morning. It felt good after yesterday’s high temperature close to 90 degrees. According to a local meteorologist, the weekend will be exceedingly warm, without precipitation. It’s a time for humans to stay hydrated and to water the garden enough to keep plants growing in the heat. During yesterday afternoon’s walkabout it appeared pumpkins, cucumbers and squash planted have become established despite the heat. It was touch and go for a while.

When I write about the kitchen garden it blocks other topics. For the time being it’s okay. In 2022 I’m planning a course of renewal as a septuagenarian, there’s more I want to accomplish during my days. For now, the scent of vegetable broth and small successes in the garden will sustain me.