Monday, October 8, 2012

Putting the Garden to bed and Veggie Pot Pies

I've decided that the startling beauty of a New England fall's chief purpose is to mitigate the melancholy of summer's gone and the dread of a long long winter ahead.  Were it not for that neon pink shining alongside salmony red sliding into orangey yellow rubbing up against yellowy green, I may sink into the presnow blues that ain't gettin' no better as the trees get bare. 

You see, I love closure! 

All summer long, we make daily pilgrimages to our beloved lake club only to realize that the season is over one blustery day in September when we haven't been there for a week and even if the weather turns back to toasty, the water will be too cold to go in.  No closure. 

I've been working on putting my garden to sleep for the last month, but as the frost date quickly and steathily approaches, I realize just how much still needs to be done.  Lettuce and chard transplanted to the greenhouse; tomatillos, leeks,  lettuce, arugula, broccoli, bok choi, carrots and fall brassicas harvested; potato area raked out (this will never get done); rest of the tomatoes pulled and stakes stored.  The list goes on.  I'll keep working on it, but there will come an icy morning when whatever I haven't done (raking the potatoes) is going to be past doing.  The garden will be abed.  Most likely, no closure. 

But there is also something cozy and timely about this time of year.  A time to come inside, both physically and psychically.  For me, this means tackling the nether reaches of the house, spending time on the floor playing board games and puzzles, luxuriating in the tub, dusting off the sewing machine and the treadmill.  It's also a time when we never let a warm and sunny day get squandered.  It is a time of shared chores.  Just take a drive on a crisp Sunday afternoon and see all your neighbors out raking, organizing, putting summer away, just like you'll do when you get home.  It is a time of fairs and festivals, sharing community one more time in case next week's event is canceled due to poor weather.  In case the bad weather hits and there is no closure to that fall feeling.

My sister died 15 years ago, not quite 35 years old.  In the months after the accident, what I could not reconcile was that there would be no closure to our issues.  We'd never sit around the table holding our coffee cups with both hands and put all our childhood, childish drama aside.  Fifteen years later, what I've learned is that, despite my yearning for this kind of neat little box, tied with a neat little bow, there never would have been the kind of closure I imagined, probably no closure at all.  Had she died at 85, me an old lady right behind her, I'd be left with open questions, unresolved feelings and the same loss.

For me, therein lies the lesson.   I mean THE lesson.  This need to have closure, to wrap things up neatly to avoid all these mixed emotions is merely evading the present.  The reality that things never wrap up easily, that mixed emotions just means I'm engaged in this part of life.  If I stay mindful and in the present, I'll let go of yesterday's easy routine of garden, kids, lake, garden and find the next easy routine that I need to make my life NOW make sense.   

I love Buddhism because its first tenet is that everything changes.  I hate Buddhism because its first tenet is that everything changes.  But because I also love true, I love it more than I hate it, because I know that in the acceptance that closure is meaningless in the present, I'll find true contentment and I'll make room for much more.  Eckhart Tolle explains that regret and nostalgia are merely reflections of a mind fixated on the past; worry and fear reflections of a mind fixated on the future.  It is only in the present that true happiness can thrive. 

But still, they are calling for a frost on Friday night, so you know where I'll be tomorrow.  Out there in the garden, trying to get closure.

Nothing more humble and satisfying on a cold night than a pot pie.  These are super versatile and delicious.  Feel free to exchange the veggies I list with absolutely anything.  Sometimes I replace the tofu with grilled soy sausage and pair it with peppers, shitake mushrooms and loads of greens.  The recipe below is for the traditional carrots, peas, potatoes that especially appeal to my little people.

Veggie Pot Pies
Make six individual or one large

For the Dough:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 stick butter
4 oz. cream cheese

For the filling:
3 or 4 large cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1/2 cup carrots
1/2 cup cauliflower
1/2 cup corn
1/2 cup peas
2 to 3 medium potatoes

One brick of extra firm tofu cubed

For the sauce:
2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. flour
1 cup milk
1 cup veggie broth
salt and pepper

1 egg, beaten

Make the dough:  In the food processor, fitted with the steel blade, pulse flour and salt 2 or 3 times to combine, add butter, pulse 10 times until it looks like cornmeal, add cream cheese, pulse until the dough comes together.  Turn out on floured surface.  Knead to form into a log with blunt edges.  Wrap in plastic and chill for at least an hour.

Make the filling:  Chop the veggies that need to be chopped and sautee starting with carrots and cauliflower, a minute or two later add onions and potatoes, then corn and garlic and last the peas.  Season with salt and pepper.  Reserve the tofu.  When veggies are fork tender remove from heat.

Make the Sauce: Melt butter in a sauce pan over medium heat, whisk in flour and cook for a minute or two.  Slowly add milk while whisking to keep the sauce smooth.  Let cook for a couple minutes until starting to thicken, then whisk in broth slowly.  Cook over medium heat until sauce is thickening, about 5 minutes, whisking occasionally, then remove from heat.  Stir in veggies and tofu.

Putting it all together:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  I use those ramekins with the handles for my pot pies.  If you don't have large ramekins on hand, you can make it as one giant pot pie in a deep pie plate.  If you are making them individually, cut your dough into 12 circles (otherwise, cut it into 2 and roll one for the top and one for the bottom).  Flour your work surface and roll each circle out, reserving the larger ones for the bottom of the ramekins.  Fit six of the circles into the bottom of the ramekins.  They don't have to come all the way to the top perfectly, but should come most of the way up all around.  Spoon the filling into the ramekins evenly.  Lay the remaining circles of dough on the top of the ramekins tucking the edges of the dough into the edges of the ramekins.  Beat an egg throughly.  Then paint the egg on top of each pot pie.  With a sharp knife, cut three slashes into the top of the pies to let steam escape.  Put the pies on a cookie sheet or jellyroll pan, and slide the cookie sheet into oven.  Bake for 20 minutes or until the pies are golden brown on the top.  Remove and serve!  And enjoy!!


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Garden as Metaphor for Life and Sicilian Style Cauliflower

There are any number of reasons why I love gardening, but the one I want to talk about here is that gardening is a great metaphor for life.  Just as each person is on their own unique path, each person gardens in their own unique way.  No two gardens are exactly alike.  Gardens reflect the unique sensibility of the grower.  In fact, gardens are a reflection of the personality of the gardner.  I know mine is.

In my veggie garden, volunteers are often welcome to stay when they are gloriosa daisies or johnny jumpups or cosmos (or anything else that is pretty and not too invasive), so the effect is loads of color among the veggies and sometimes difficult paths to get to where you are going.  The one so justifies the other.  Perennials are left wherever they have blown off course until such time as I can scoop them up and put them back into their own habitat with other perennials; except that lovely lavendar malva that I let stay wherever it wants, often planting veggies right around it.  It is one of the loveliest cuts (twice if you deadhead it), does not transplant well and doesn't sprawl too much.  This particular malva is a finicky self seeder, so I just let it go wherever it will and that is why I've had it for the last dozen or more years; sometimes bisecting a row of carrots, sometimes in the middle of an aisle, sometimes behaving itself on the edge of a bed.

My rows are never straight.  The whole effect is somewhat disheveled, but beautiful.  Just like me.  A little haphazard, but productive.  Just like me.  It has its over the top successes and its dismal failures.  Just like me. 

But it's not just on the surface that gardens mirror life.  It was this August when I was picking snap peas that I started thinking about it.  Yes, you didn't read wrong.  August, snap peas.  Same sentence.  And no, I didn't get my peas in late.  They just lasted and lasted and lasted.  I had six weeks of peas.  And don't ask me why.  It was hot and dry in July.  Neither condition would I say is conducive to long standing peas.  But there ya go.  Just when you plan to rip out the peas to make room for the cucumbers you planted along the edge, they just keep on giving.  It was a great plan to put those cukes there.  It made total sense.  The timing was perfect.  Except it didn't work.  This year.  And something so ephemeral as peas, that is what got me thinking.  The thing about gardening is that no matter how much experience I may have; no matter how many lessons I've learned and put into practice in subsequent years; no matter how prepared I think I am, every year throws another learning curve.  Just like life.  Unexpected gifts (like the peas) stand right next to huge disappointments (this year the green beans top the list). 

Here I am going along thinking I've got it going on and that I've learned all these lessons, grown, put ego aside, put mindfulness into practice, and then whammy, life hits.  Conditions in the garden are unique from year to year and the challenge is not to get discouraged with the failures. People change too, my kids make developmental leaps that challenge me to my very core, not to mention midlife crises coming from left field.  But the thing is, it's pointless to say, I'm giving up (I did throw my hands up with the chard when some critter nearly ate my giant patch to the ground in June, only to have the critter go away and the chard come back with a vengeance late in the season when I want to be eating chard).  It's fruitless (literally) to say I'm not growing green beans again because I have these awful soft bodied beetles eating the plants and this year they got the better of me and my beans.  No, I say, I need to get out there with the red pepper wax daily next year and get on top of the (expletive deleted) critters.  And I also point to the long standing peas, the amazing corn, the carrots, yellow, gold, orange and purple that we've been eating since June and will probably enjoy into February. 

I hope I have the same philosophy with life.  I can get up from a sucker punch and keep moving forward; with joy and enthusiasm to boot.  But lest I get complacent, I need only think about the dismal green beans and eggplant that flowered but didn't fruit to know that there are challenges ahead.  And with that, I'm saving my seeds, preserving the harvest and jotting down all my little wisdoms in my garden notebook.  As if they will be relevant next year.

And since I'm writing this as my fall crop of cauliflower is coming in ever so close to the frost date, here's an old, but consistent favorite.

Sicilian Cauliflower

One head cauliflower
One head garlic
2 TBS. grating cheese (romano or parmesan)
3 TBS. bread crumbs
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper

Bring a pot of water to boil.  Cut the cauliflower into large(ish) flowerets.  Blanch cauliflower in fully boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes.  While cauliflower is in the boiling water, put ice and cold water into a bowl.  Drain cauliflower and submerge in the ice water.  Peel and chop garlic.  Drain cauliflower from the ice bath.  Heat olive oil in a skillet, add cauliflower, garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste if you are using.  Sautee until cauliflower is browning, shaking or stirring the pan every minute or so.  Once cauliflower is somewhat brown, take off the heat and let rest for 5 or 10 minutes.  Turn oven on to broil.  Transfer cauliflower to a pie plate, making sure you get all the garlic from the bottom of the pan.  Sprinkle cheese and breadcrumbs on top.  Put under the broiler for about 5 minutes until the cauliflower really colors on top.  Serve hot.  I like to serve with baked potatoes because the garlic, cheese and breadcrumbs make really yummy crunchies that you can put on top of the potatoes.  Enjoy!!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Best of 2011 and Sqash Pasta (or fancy Mac & Cheese)

The 2012 gardening season is upon us. Half a week at 80 degrees (in March) was only the exclamation point on the most mild and dry winter I can remember in New England and I've been here since 1983. Without feet of snow, there promises no mud season. With warm temperatures so early, the promise of early peas, lettuce, spinach acts as the great motivator to get outside and get digging. The sunroom is full of starts: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli and all its brassica relatives, storage onions, leeks and shallots. You can hear my little squeals all over the house as I find the first true leaves on the tomatoes and peppers. These are exciting times.

The report from the greenhouse is no less squeal inspiring (yes, I know I should have had a hyphen there, but after the boy took an enormous leap from table to couch where the computer was precariously resting and itself took a leap onto the floor, we're feeling lucky that it is only a cracked screen and a missing hyphen.) Alas, I digress. Where was I? The greenhouse. Awe inspiring. Yes. We've been harvesting spinach for a month. We ate winter carrots for in January and February that were out of this world. Lettuce is just around the corner. And we've had fresh chard all winter after I, last minute before the frost, transferred five or six plants into this warmer climate. Ahhhh!

All this looking ahead and making plans reminded me to reflect on what was successful last year and I wanted to share a few of these with you as you look to your gardens or plan your trips to farmers markets in thoughts of (sorry for bursting your bubble) next winter which may not be so forgiving. And what better way to share? A top ten list. . .

Heidi's 2011 Top Ten Super Easy Ways to Preserve the Harvest for Winter, Eat More Sustainably, More Deliciously and More Cheaply!!

10. Jam. Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Peaches, Gooseberries, sugar and some pectin and you have a winter's worth of PB&Js, thumbprint cookies, fruit bars, you name it. I used half a jar of raspberry jelly and frozen peaches (see #5) to make killer filling for turnovers a few weeks ago. Commercial jam has more sugar than fruit and is super expensive. You can make your own with much less sugar, especially if you use Universal Pectin instead of Surejell.

9. Zucchini Muffins. That's double chocolate zucchini muffins. The recipe is on this very blog back in 2009. But come on, if you garden and you grow zucchini, there is a point when you are inundated. If you don't grow your own, you can get them from farmers who are themselves inundated for next to nothing from mid July on to the end of the summer. I make double batches of muffins every two or three weeks until the zucchinis are gone (sometimes that's when the snow if falling). There's nothing like a muffin and a cup of tea on a snowy day. I can offer the kids these nutritious goodies all winter long. I also make blueberry crumb cake, apple cake and pumpkin muffins for the freezer stacked next to the zucchini muffins. A little variety.

8. Greens. For us that means chard and spinach, but for you that might mean kale, collards. It all works the same. I chop it and saute it in olive oil and then put it in baggies in the freezer. It comes out tasting just like it did when it went in! We use it in all kinds of soups (white bean and chard is a favorite!!), in enchiladas, quiche or frittata. Well worth the effort.

7. Pickles. Not just cucumbers either. Mixed veggie pickles are our favorite, with cauliflower, carrots, beans, peppers, onions and yes, cukes too. I put it in a sweet tumeric brine and it is incredible. The veggies are crunchy and tangy and sweet. Did I already say there're incredible? We also pickle beets and corn (corn relish with peppers and onions). We eat all of these all winter on salads, as a snack, as a side dish. And pickling is not as hard as you think. Just google some recipes and go to town.

6. Canning Blueberry Pie Filling. What is better than a blueberry pie in July? A "fresh" blueberry pie in February!!! We pick loads of blueberries at the height of the season. Most of them get frozen or eaten fresh. But I make sure to make one pick a pie pick. I make a huge batch of pie filling (where you sweeten it, add lemon zest and thicken it) and after making a fresh pie, I can 4 quarts and 4 pints. That's 4 pies worth for the winter. Just make a crust, fill it with a jar or two of filling and you're all set. I also just used one of the pints for turnovers and they were out of this world. You can do the same thing with peach pie filling or apple pie filling too.

5. Freezing peaches, strawberries. In years past I bought a ton of frozen fruit for the winter. But why? It never tastes that great. Not like local fruit you've picked at the height of the season and frozen. Not like the peaches that drip juices all over your arms and onto the floor. It is worth the mopping for these tasty treats all winter. And SOOOOOOO much cheaper than buying organic fruit from far away, fresh or frozen. And so easy. Strawberries, you just cut off the "greenies" as we call them and pop them in a bag. Peaches (or nectarines) you peal, slice. I put them in a huge bowl and fill the bags once the bowl is full of fruit. It cuts down on the mess of filling the bags when your hands are so juicy and you don't get as much juice in with the fruit. The juice in the bottom of the bowl, we drink or use in a smoothie afterwards. And speaking of smoothies, I make them all winter long with these delicious treats, a little apple juice and my new find, Chia Seeds! If you want to read about Chia Seeds, treat yourself to Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, a fascinating and fun read. I get the peaches by the bushel at the orchard. I tell them I want jam peaches and they sell them for next to nothing. They are usually super ripe (which is why they are in the jam box), but besides that, they are perfect. I cull through the bushels and put the perfect and not as ripe ones in the fridge for eating, then process the rest.

4. Freezing blueberries. You may be asking why I made this a separate category from #5. It is because frozen blueberries are that important. If you can't get to the strawberries and the peaches, okay. But by all means, get to the blueberries. You won't regret it. Not only are they great in smoothies and on yogurt, but you can just eat them. Completely frozen, mostly frozen, a little frozen or thawed. We have fruity dessert after dinner and my kids eat bowls of these things. I do too. When we have game night, I put out a big bowl of blueberries and a big bowl of popcorn. Around here there are lots of high bush farms where the berries are easy to pick and the season is long. We are nowhere near as fanatical as a lot of people I know around here, but we probably pick about 60 pounds for the freezer, the jar and for fresh eating (and that's in addition to the 20 high bush plants we have in our own garden.)

3. Eggplant. I just cannot bring myself to buy eggplant from far away. That used to be a problem because in this house of Italian folk, eggplant parmesan is a bigtime favorite. For the last five years or more, though, I've been freezing either the parmesan completely made or the eggplant that has been breaded and, here's the most awesome part, BAKED! A friend turned me on to baking the eggplant instead of frying it and it is way way way better. You use a fraction of the oil, it is not greasy and when you freeze it, the pieces do not stick together, so that when they are thawed, all the breading gets all over the place. These pieces stay in tact through the whole process. My new favorite is to make rollatini with the frozen eggplant. Same as parmesan only you roll a bit of filling in each piece and then put sauce on top. One layer in the pan. Quicker to make, quicker to bake. Do this. You will not be sorry. And eggplant is plentiful and delicious at farmers markets in August and September.

2. Freezing corn. If you do nothing else, I'd recommend freezing corn. It can't be easier. You just shuck the corn, cut it off the cob into a big bowl and then put however much you'd like in bags and freeze. No blanching, nothing. I keep talking about versatility, but corn is even more versatile than most anything else. We eat it half thawed and raw as a snack. I put it in soups, in Mexican dishes, in chili. I make a mean corn chowder with it. It goes in pot pies and on the plate as a veggie. I freeze five dozen ears and we still have about six gallon bags as of this writing on the eve of April. We'll get nearly to corn season with this amount. If you are one of those doubting Thomas types (as I certainly have been known to be), try a dozen or two dozen ears and I'll bet you increase your order the following year. Well, when I said it can't be easier I sort of forgot the taste testing of many ears until we eat the absolute sweetest, most amazing corn of the season. Then I run back to whichever farm or farmer I got that corn from and bargain for a deal on a lot of corn. They are always happy to give a break and I've got the best corn going. You CANNOT buy this stuff in a bag from a store!!!!!

1. Canning Tomatoes. This was the first and most important thing I learned to can 25 years ago (I'm leaning on my cane as I write). Frank's grandmother taught me and his mother tweaked my process by sharing her own. Today I don't do it quite like either of them, but I do the quantity they did, about 150 quarts per year. Why so much? For starters I am a total tomato snob. Admitted. I will not buy a can of tomatoes (let alone an already made sauce!!!) I haven't in more than 20 years and I'm not starting now. But also because we do love Italian food. I almost always have a sauce in the fridge and we eat pizza one night a week, not to mention all the soups and stews and other yummies that need tomatoes. Cans of stewed tomatoes, it has come to light, are lined with scary chemicals. Even organic tomatoes in cans have traces of chemicals you do not want to eat. And once you've canned your own from local, fresh tomatoes, you'll know that the taste of your own compared to that of the can is like comparing apples to rocks. There is no comparison. Many farmers give great deals on canning tomatoes bought by the bushel. The year we had blight and lost our tomato crop, we went to a farm stand in Milford, NH. They had a call list. When they had bushels of canning tomatoes, they'd call. You had 24 hours to call back and reserve and another 3 or 4 days to get up there and pick them up. Their canning tomatoes had hardly a blemish. Well worth the drive. Again, I've already blogged about canning tomatoes, so you can refer to my previous entry for a step by step. It is not hard and well worth the effort.

So there ya go. A top ten of preserving. I mentioned nothing about all the veggies we store without preserving: garlic, onions, potatoes and squash. Even if you don't grow any of these, with the exception of garlic, which is super expensive at farmers markets for some unknown reason, you can stock up on the rest at farm stands in September and they can last the better part of the winter just on the shelf. My recipe today (and I'm a little surprised I didn't write about this early on) is a favorite in my family. My kids call it fancy Mac & Cheese. Hope you love it as much as we do.

Pasta with Squash and Marscapone Sauce

One Large Butternut or Acorn or Delicata Squash (or 2 small to medium)
3 or 4 large garlic cloves
1 Large shallot
Olive Oil for sauteeing
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 to 2 cups veggie broth
One tub marscapone
1/4 cup romano cheese, finely grated (more for sprinkling at the table)
1 pound orreciette pasta

Put your pasta water on to boil when you start the process.
Peel and seed the squash and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Mince garlic cloves and shallot.
Heat oil in a skillet, then add squash, garlic and shallot, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes, then add just enough broth to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and continue cooking on medium. Stir every few minutes, adding more broth as needed to keep things going. (You can add the pasta at any time.) After 10 minutes or so, test if the squash is soft with a potato masher. If it is, mash the squash. You aren't trying to get a fine puree, a little texture is fine. Then stir in the marscapone and the romano. Test the seasonings. Add salt or pepper if needed. Cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Once the pasta is ready, drain and combine with the sauce. Sprinkle extra romano on top to taste. Voila!!