March 2013

Charlotte Freeman



Despite the ongoing snow and cold and wind that is still blanketing most of the northern half of the country, I am convinced that someday, somehow, spring must be coming. The vernal equinox has come and gone, and like the Persians, I consider this the beginning of the new year. Nothing interesting happens in January except hangovers from too much holiday food and drink, but the vernal equinox, now there's an event to celebrate. Even if it's still cold out there, the days are getting longer, the earth is tilting toward the sun, there are buds on the apple trees and the roses, and despite it all, there are iris and tulips sending green shoots up in that sheltered bed along the south side of my house. My mudroom is filled with seedling trays warming on heat mats, tomato, pepper, and cabbage seeds germinating. Spring is coming. It's not here yet, but it's coming.

And to while away the time, I am flip-flopping between two gorgeous new garden-to-table vegetable cookbooks, and two terrific gardening books. There are two types of people who grow food in their backyards, the gardeners who cook, and the cooks who garden. I am the latter. While it's true I'm going to attempt the showy cardoon this year, the appeal is that so much more of it is edible than its cousin, the artichoke. I have limited space, and if I'm going to give that much of it over to a ginormous thistle, I want to get more than one or two globes for my efforts. I'll have baby peppers along under hoops of plastic and row cover all season, but I'm not wasting all that effort on ordinary peppers you can buy at the farmers market like jalapenos and bells; if I'm going to all that trouble it's for hot heirlooms like Hinkelhatz (from which I made a fabulous Siracha-type hot sauce last year) or Aci Sivri, a Turkish pepper I've grown for years and dry in ristras that hang by the stove. Why would you grow ordinary greens when you can now order all kinds of Asian and Italian seeds online -- Sugarloaf endives, Senza Testa turnips, Komatsuna mustard, Choi Sum and Gailan?

Which means you need some cookbooks. The first year I had this garden, I didn't realize how prolific chard is or how large it grows. I dragged huge green garbage bags of chard over to my nearby soup kitchen, and ordered all of Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean cookbooks, because frankly, I didn't know what to do with chard. While Deborah Madison's previous book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, was one of my early guidebooks to cooking these things I was figuring out how to grow, now that she's become a gardener herself in a cool, dry part of the west, I'm even more thrilled to see Vegetable Literacy. Turns out, Madison's father was a botanist at UC Davis, and yet, it was only when she forgot a carrot over the winter, and saw that it sent up the lacy flower head typical of the Umbelliferae family, that it struck her to examine not only how plant propagation is similar by family but how plants of the same families taste together. At least in my garden, plants in the same family tend to ripen at about the same time, so you wind up eating a lot of Brassicaceae (bok choi, broccoli rabe, mustard greens) before the nightshades start coming in (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers).

I loved the organization of this book -- each of the twelve chapters covers a family, and opens with a general discussion of their botanical characteristics. The chapters are subdivided by plant (vegetable or herb) and each plant section contains a general intro that discusses propagation, history, and some general cooking tips. Madison suggests varieties that have worked for her in New Mexico (which is a similar climate to mine in eastern Montana), kitchen tips, and companion plants that will aid growth and repel pests. Then there are the recipes -- each vegetable has three to seven recipes, and there were several that sent me to my kitchen on a still-frozen late-March afternoon to try them out. My favorite was the wilted red cabbage with mint and goat feta. I've had half a red cabbage languishing in the crisper drawer for weeks now (one of the great things about cabbage, it never goes bad, you just cut off the oxidized bits), and I have the last of my home-dried mint, and some nice local goat feta in the fridge. Colorful and crunchy but not too raw-tasting, paired with the tahini-yogurt dressing she admits to copying from Yotam Ottolenghi that some of us have been pouring on absolutely everything since his books came out, it was delicious. (Which is good, since there's a lot of it, and it looks like this is what I'm eating for lunch all week.) I also whipped up a batch of her red pepper paste, which is essentially a harissa made with New Mexico chile. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before, but it was the perfect way to use up that last half cup of Chimayo chile that my Arizona girlfriend sent me. As for the rest of these gorgeous-looking recipes, they're just going to have to wait until the greens in my hoop house thaw out and start growing again, and until the weather warms up and my actual garden starts producing once more.

There's another funky garden-to-kitchen book coming out this spring, Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson, an English chef who runs a group of farm-to-table restaurants in Melbourne, Australia. This is a chatty cookbook, informal and informative. It's fun to read that Wilkinson hates peppers of all kinds, that his sister tormented him on drives past the cabbage farm on Sundays by telling him that's where they'd gotten him, and that his nan cooked Brussels sprouts on high heat -- for an hour! The recipes are fun too; there's a stunner of a beet recipe, for instance: a large whole beet, roasted in foil, then split and filled with very fresh ricotta, mint, olive oil, and a splash of red wine vinegar. The recipe for roasted chicken is straightforward, but smoking the garlic that accompanies it adds a dimension of flavor that surprises. And although I'm not entirely sure what a recipe for homemade fish fingers is doing in the butternut squash chapter, it's a recipe for homemade fish fingers! If I had little kids, believe me, I'd be making and freezing these by the tray. Each recipe gets a full-page photo, and the book design is clever and slightly retro without coming off like some weird steampunk-meets-vegetables parody.

I'm not convinced that his stated premise -- beginning with the vegetables, rather than the protein or carbs -- is quite as radical as he posits, but who knows? Perhaps the Aussies haven't been quite as overrun by the vegetarians, vegans, and special diet folks as we have here. The book is organized alphabetically by vegetable. Each section opens with a discussion of Wilkinson's history with that vegetable, perhaps some ruminations on the general culinary history, and a paragraph of tips for growing it and cooking with it. For a chef who claims to be inspired chiefly by his garden, a number of these growing tips recount his failures, with fennel, with beans, and with peas, for example, and the gardening tips are not particularly specific. The gardening stories also seem geographically uncertain; many of them are memories of his grandfather's allotment in Yorkshire, while others seem to refer to his garden in Melbourne. As a gardener, I would have loved to have heard how gardening in these two locations differs, what you can plant in the one place that won't grow in the other, and what he's learned from starting a garden in the Southern Hemisphere. In general, I found that while the introductions were charming, and there were any number of good stories embedded in them, they lacked the rigor and depth of information of the Madison book. On the other hand, this is Wilkinson's first book, while Madison has published more than ten and is considered a national expert on vegetable and vegetarian cooking, so that's probably an unfair comparison. Overall, I found Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables charming, beautifully designed, and there are a dozen post-its stuck throughout the book marking recipes I can't wait to try once there's something other than one withered, overwintered kale plant growing in my garden.

Which brings me to Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way. This was published last year, and somehow surfaced in the basket of incoming books just as I'm getting organized for the season. My love for this book might be influenced by my childhood dream of working at Colonial Williamsburg (and the photos of myself and my late brother as children there, with Patrick in a tricorn hat my dad bought, that he wore for months afterward). That said, this is a fascinating look at nearly forgotten cultivation techniques. It's organized by vegetable group: beans and peas, cabbage, salad greens, root crops... and each chapter contains botanical descriptions, information on varieties, and a description of the eighteenth-century techniques that gardeners are still using to grow them. This is the part that has me poring over this book. They had hoop houses in the eighteenth century! My hoops are cheap sprinkler pipe covered with plastic, but theirs are oak staves covered with oiled cotton-and-linen paper, which I now want, in a very Pinterest kind of way. The book shows all sorts of fabulous trellis arrangements made from sticks, including a "tomato table," a sort of horizontal trellis through which the tomato plants are grown and which support the fruits. There are bean and pea trellises wrapped around the base with cheesecloth to keep rabbits out. There are expensive glass cloches used to overwinter greens (shards of the originals were found in the gardens when excavating them), along with detailed instructions about how to build a hot bed using fresh horse dung. Not to go all peak-oil on you, but this is exactly the sort of information that comforts me on late spring evenings when the melting arctic ice caps have us all still trudging along through snowstorm after snowstorm. We have plenty of horses out here. I can get my hands on fresh horseshit. If I have to, I now know how to build a hot bed so I can grow food when Game of Thrones comes true and the Big Winter descends on us all. (Sorry, it's been a long, long winter, and I hate buying greens at the store.) Whether or not you're plagued with apocalyptic nightmares, this is a beautifully produced and enormously informative book, full of gardening tips from a time when the only option was organic, and when clever people put their intelligence to good use to figure out how to grow food year-round in an isolated community thousands of sea miles away from home.

The other gardening book I'm thrilled to see is Janisse Ray's The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. I knew Janisse, slightly, twenty years ago when I was helping run a summer workshop for nature writers, and so it's a great pleasure to read that she's managed to buy herself a plot of land upon which to start growing food (and to read about that cute little boy of hers, who is now all grown up). She's a lovely writer, and as do the best personal writers, she ties her story of gardens lost and found to the larger social issue we all face -- the terrifying disappearance of seeds. Her story of the lost conch cowpeas, an ancient varietal she grew in a long-lost garden in Florida, still haunts me. We all have that thing, the thing we took slightly for granted in our twenties that we thought we'd be able to find again, and that we go looking for, once we're old enough to settle down, when we have gardens of our own, only to discover that it's gone. Entirely gone. For me, it's sweet corn that tastes like corn. All the modern sweet corn tastes like sugar water, and I long for those yellow ears of my childhood, bought from Illinois farm stands in fifty-pound sacks. Ray uses her own story of searching for lost seeds as a starting place for discussing the much larger and more terrifying problem of seed varieties dying out, and the big seed companies polluting our seed stock with patented GMOs (and then suing organic farmers whose crops are contaminated with open-pollinated GMO strains). This is a huge issue. With fewer and fewer people growing their own food, and fewer and fewer people saving their own seed, local varieties are disappearing. I'm ten years into my own garden, and this is the first year that all the tomatoes I'm planting come from seed I've saved. Aside from the general independence that comes with saving your own seed, there's another advantage, which is the process of selectively breeding varieties that produce well in your own microclimate. I have a Jaunne Flamme tomato that is now on its third or fourth generation of seed saved from my backyard. It's becoming more and more personal as I select seed from those tomatoes that grew well here, with my own weird weather, and my own tricks of neglect. If you are at all interested in local food, the GMO problem, southern backyard vegetable crops or just terrific nonfiction writing, this is the book to read in these last few weeks, as we all impatiently wait for it to quit snowing already and become spring.