Archives for posts with tag: food

A.V. Walters

I know I said I was finished canning for the season. And then, there was the threat of frost, so we decided to do one last harvest before the more delicate items perished. We brought in peppers, the last eggplant, basil (but unfortunately, not enough of it), a bunch of late-maturing winter squash (spaghetti, moschata, butternut and one lone delicata that was hiding in the foliage) and then we took a hard look at the tomatoes. Sure enough, many had split and rotted after the rains. But looking closer, there were still a lot of really lovely tomatoes in there, so we harvested.

And harvested, and harvested. We made an ample last harvest delivery to everyone on the farm and still there were over three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. Eighty-eight pounds of tomatoes—in November, no less. So we pulled out the canning equipment, from its brief rest in storage and set up for one last (no, really) run. Twenty-three quarts later, we are finished. We did extra thick sauce infused with basil (for pizza or spaghetti); we did tomato pieces, most sorted by color—red, orange or yellow, which will be lovely for stews or soups; and we did some fancies—mixed colors in patterns—which are almost too pretty to eat and will probably be gift items. (So if you’re family and you’re reading this, close your eyes on this part.) Then we washed up and put all the gear away again.

It was a welcome reprieve from regular life, which has had some twists of late. Anyone who is the parent of a teenager can relate—a runaway with issues and attitude. As much as you ache for their safety and mental state, you also wish you could can them, too, safely into tidy jars, tucked into the pantry until they’re ready for real life. Once we’d done all that we could do, a little tomato therapy of peeling and dicing and canning was just the ticket. And by the end of the weekend, she was home, safe, and probably already gearing up for her next snit. You wonder, was I ever that young and clueless?

By last evening, the kitchen was clean, the jars in neat rows, cooling, and we relaxed in front of the fire. Winter is coming and the early mornings are decked out in frost. Stupidly, I left a lot of the basil in the garden and the cold burned it to a blackened, limp mess. A day earlier and I could have dried it for winter. Oh well. In the daytime it’s too warm for a fire, but by night the chill is in the air and it’s time for some heat. This morning, I noticed that more tomatoes are ripe. No way. I’m not canning them. I’ve already put the canning stuff away twice. But, I may take some and dehydrate them. I heard from an old Italian friend that the secret of great cooking with canned tomatoes was to dry some too, and then snip bits of the dried tomatoes into the pot twenty minutes before the meal is ready. Supposedly the dried ones bring back the aroma of summer.

Last night, friends called. Their neighbor has an excess of apples—did we want any? Plenty for applesauce or the emus. Applesauce is always a lovely treat in the winter. Oh, on second thought don’t go too far with all that canning equipment; we still have some empty jars. And, more emu news, next time.

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A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.

Gluten-free is all the rage right now. I guess I’m the lucky surfer riding that wave, since it has resulted in many new products and labeling that makes life easier for those of us who cannot tolerate gluten. I guess I’m a trend-setter. What’s gluten? It’s a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It used to be that only celiacs avoided gluten, but they’re discovering that there is a whole range of people whose lives are easier and more comfortable if they follow a gluten-free diet. Now there is more accurate testing for the various gluten related ailments. Still, many doctors are completely ignorant of the symptoms and the treatment for folks who are gluten intolerant. I don’t blame them, the symptoms can be wildly diverse and confusing. The only real solution is a gluten-free diet, which isn’t easy in this world of processed foods. Still, since I quit eating gluten (and in my case, cow’s milk products, too) my life has completely changed. The first 46 years of my life I struggled constantly with many, many health problems–but my doctors just shrugged. Now, as long as I watch what I eat, I am one of the healthiest people I know.

What are the symptoms? They are wildly different for many people. I guess I’m lucky that my symptoms were “classic” celiac. They included gastro-intestinal problems, a chronic rash, aching joints, infertility, chronic upper respiratory problems and a continually growing list of foods and drugs that triggered allergic reactions. I remember feeling frustrated that, at some point, it felt like I’d be allergic to everything. I was afraid to end up like the boy-in-the-bubble. I always was the sickly kid. Little did I know I was the poster-child for Celiac Disorder. (aka Celiac Sprue, aka Celiac Disease)

I wish I could say that a kind and conscientious doctor listened to my complaints and did the detective work to find out what was wrong with me. Nope. Despite the fact that I presented with all the classic symptoms, and even endured years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, nobody ever suggested that we take a look at my diet. Long after childbearing was an option, I discovered I was a celiac, while driving down the road, listening to NPR. That’s it, my medical provider of choice, National Public Radio. It was December 27, 2004 and a talk show host was interviewing a man about his mysterious ailment. He went through his symptoms. I pulled over to the shoulder. By the end of the program I was weeping behind the steering wheel; this had been my problem all along. I stopped eating wheat the very next day.

Thank god for the internet. I did all my own research and completely reformulated how I eat. At first my family thought I was crazy, but within a month or two, even the doubters could see the improvement. I never looked back. My doctor initially resisted my self-diagnosis, but it’s hard to argue with a sudden attack of good health. For a while I was angry. I could have felt good decades earlier if the medical people had listened, and had known about the condition. Maybe I could have had children. Often with celiacs, especially younger celiacs, a year or two gluten-free can reverse all the symptoms. A niece of mine, also suffering from infertility issues, was able to conceive after changing her diet. Many gluten issues are hereditary. My discovery has changed everyone in my family. Three of us have gone completely gluten-free, with great results. Others are considering it–but it’s a big step and requires some sacrifices. (One just isn’t willing to give up her fancy micro-brew beer! Sheesh! Believe me, even though I like beer, too–it’s worth it.)

Why am I coming clean now? Someone I know through blogging has complained of similar symptoms. I occupy only a tiny corner of the blogosphere, but if, by writing this blog, I can lessen the suffering of just one person, then I should make that effort. I’m not NPR, but since my recovery I have made it part of my mission to help others transition to better health when the learn that they, too, have won the gluten-free lottery. So, Nick, look into it. Find out and choose health. It’s worth it.

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

Patience in Small Batches

A.V. Walters

This is the time of year when, as a kid, we picked berries and fruit and my mother made jam and preserves. Mornings were for picking and, after lunch, it was time to do the canning—the already hot, summer kitchen sweating with the aroma of fresh fruit, sugar and paraffin. (Yes, paraffin. We did it the old way.) We’re a large family and a successful summer could be counted in the Mason jars lining the pantry—enough to tide us over until the days lengthened and we’d be at it again.

With so many pickers (there were seven of us and that probably equaled five actual pickers) we brought in gallons of fresh fruit. You could count the season’s progression as the jars filled—strawberry, plum, blackberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, blueberry, peach, pear, and finishing up with apple. . My version of summer includes the bubbling of veritable cauldrons of jam and the jiggling rattle of jars and lids boiling on top of the stove. There were enough of us that we needed to do jam in quart jars.

My dad was in charge of paraffin. As the steaming jars were filled, each got a thin coat of paraffin, followed, after it cooled and turned translucent, with a thicker coat that filled in the deep well that formed in the cooling wax cap. He melted the paraffin in bent tin can, simmering in a pot of water. When he wasn’t looking, we’d quickly dip in our fingers in the hot wax, making perfect, inverted copies which my mother would find later. Canned goods, other than jam, actually still got glass lids with rubber gaskets and bails—the way my great-grandmother did it. When we modernized using the fresh, new, gummed caps and screw top lids, my father’s paraffin job was displaced. He resisted some, until he found out that the post-canning plunk, as the jar cooled,was the sign of yet another perfect seal.

My grandmother dragged us on the annual tour of her old, Finn lady-friends—them all exclaiming at us; a swarm of towheads, lined up in stair-step, chronological order. All of the old Finn ladies baked and canned—it being a measure of one’s housekeeping prowess. When one of them died, the others would assemble to grieve and compare notes. No funeral gathering was complete until they’d made an accounting of preserves in the decedent’s larder. (The old men, when they passed, were judged by the size of their woodpiles—winter’s warmth, split and stacked, ready for the widow.) So summer canning runs deep in my bloodline.

My adult life demanded smaller yields—there was no way that my smaller family could consume at that level. Still, there were gifts to consider and enough to get the two of us through winter, with enough to remember the flavor of summer, but nothing compared to the cornucopia of jars from my childhood. My parents continued to make big batches of jam, especially thimbleberry, which they shipped across the continent (and even across the ocean) to those of us far away from our childhood berry patches.

Eighteen months ago my dad passed away. True to tradition, he left an impressive wood pile, but the loss left a huge hole in our lives and my mom cut way back on her canning. Picking and putting foods by is, in large part, a social experience. Last year she hardly made any jam at all. This year, her berry season came early. It’s been happening a little earlier every year. Climate change isn’t fiction. It’s here—with Northern berries in mid-July, and ticks! (There weren’t ticks back home when I was a kid because the winters were too cold and too long. Now, they have to worry about Lyme disease.) Nobody believed that those early berries were really “the season.” Just some fluke—a smattering of early. My mother went out for just a few minutes, every day, and made small batches of jam, a couple of half pints at a time. Each day she’d report on her progress—she had set herself a summer quota. It worried me, a bit. It was not our normal, marathon method. I was afraid she’d lost heart in it. I thought she might be getting too old. Then, at the end of July, the berries dried up. (Usually that’s peak season!) The annual vacationers came, looking to recharge their own larders, but the berries were already gone! My mother sat smug—she’d reached, and then surpassed, her quota—all in small batches. I had to set aside my concerns. There’s more than one way to fill the pantry.

Thinking of her, I’ve been making small batches of peach jam as they come ripe on the tree (great peaches by the way—this is the tree from which we stripped all the leaves back in May.) But, they’re coming faster now, so I anticipate a large batch of peaches, any day now. Today I made 11 pints of plum jam. Our friend’s tree was laden, and so it all came at once. I still have blackberries to go and of course there’ll be tomatoes to can if they ever decide to ripen. (Still paying the price for our late start.)

I feel as though my dad is there with every jar, hovering— just in case we need paraffin.

 

Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.

Gardener, Florist

A.V. Walters

I always thought that there were two types of gardeners, the ones who grew flowers and the ones who grew vegetables. I do recognize that there is some overlap. I grow a few decorative plants while my mother dabbles in lettuce and radishes. But I’ve never known anyone, with a feel for dirt, who didn’t lean strongly in one direction or the other. I’ve known some who gardened vegetables with a decorative eye. (Something I admire and need to work on.) But vegetable gardeners concern themselves with producing food instead of the less tangible, visual rewards. Flower gardeners must also address an aesthetic aspect of gardening, unless they focus just on a cutting garden. Regardless, gardeners are gardeners, and true practitioners come to it with an understanding of space, light, soil and plant needs. (I mean, doesn’t everyone know that you don’t plant a cactus next to a begonia?)

That old pseudo-spiritual expression comes to mind here, “As above, so below.” From a gardener’s perspective, I always thought the expression related to an understanding that whatever plant you saw, there was as much, if not more, going on down below the soil.  Planning a garden requires more than just visualizing what you want to see growing in a particular spot. You need to consider what the spot has to offer and exactly who, in the plant world, would like to live there. Most unsuccessful gardens failed at this stage of the game.

A falling out with a friend made me realize that, in fact, there’s another type of gardener entirely. For decades, my friend had planted profusely every year. An artiste, she enjoyed the over-planted look, veggies, flowers (and anything else that stood still long enough at the nursery) mixed together. It was a fecund and lush look–plants cheek to jowl, a veritable jungle. Like my city turf, she had a very small yard. She maintained that profusion with regular and ample infusions of cash. Her nurseryman was like a permissive psychotherapist. If she wanted a spot of red in the corner, he sold her the plant, without inquiry as to what kind of neighborhood it would enjoy. It was a MiracleGro extravaganza. She disdained my pedestrian goal of high yields and bed rotation.

And so, this continued year after year—me, with my own form of vegetable order—a mini-farm oasis in the city—and she, with her wild-and-wooly lush, instant-gratification, plantings. Of course, she liked her results, so I let her be.  She occasionally made remarks about my garden “rigidity,” to which I could only shrug. I once bemoaned that I didn’t have room for a persimmon, and she chided me that there was plenty of room, suggesting several, inappropriate, locations in my small yard. Her own tiny backyard boasted at least eight different fruit trees, some planted as close as a foot apart, abutting a small rose “forest” with at least forty varieties. Needless to say, her plants would do well initially, but she was always having to remove “problem” plants from the mix. Her interest wasn’t in food production, so to her, her low vegetable yields didn’t signify a larger problem. Admittedly, her back yard was quite something to behold.

Thus we co-existed for years, each of us generously,  and quietly, looking down our noses at each other. That is, until she asked for advice. (I ignored the alarm bells and flashing lights.) Sometimes asking for advice is really just soliciting for approval. Bonding, not solutions, being the objective. This is a typical misunderstanding in between-the-genders communication, but I didn’t expect it in the garden world. I actually thought she wanted gardening advice.

She certainly seemed impressed by the bags of beautiful produce I delivered to her on a regular basis, as did others. Her low yields didn’t bother her, but the scrawny vegetables did. I started, cautiously, indicating that, well, I wouldn’t recommend anything “chemical” as a fix. (She knew me well enough to know that I’d never go there.) So, I pointed out that to enhance quality, she might need to reduce the demands on her soil. You know, too much competition in the root zone could be the problem. What I was suggesting was something entirely foreign to her way of thinking. Not only was I recommending she her reduce her profuse planting, but to actually cull existing (and apparently sacred) plants. She responded in horror, what kind of gardener did I think I was—obviously I was anti-plant! She implied that I was just jealous of her lush sanctuary and only bent on denuding it.

I tried to explain about root competition, pointing to her fruit trees, how you needed to allow them root space of their own, and not entwine them. Well, that was beyond the pale.

It was the beginning of the end of the relationship. Other annoyances soon erupted, but it all started with a difference of style in gardening, of the rhythms between orderly and dramatic.

I’ve adjusted my view of gardening. Flower or vegetable—it’s not really so different. Gardening is about a commitment to soil and plants and nurturing them on their own terms. That other business, it’s not gardening. It’s not sustainable in the way I understand the word. Hey, they’re florists. The objective is the show. It’s not my place to challenge those values.  It’s just a different way of looking at dirt. I don’t always agree because from my side of the fence, it looks extractive. But pointing fingers won’t solve it. We have two entirely different value systems. A florist is a plant arranger whose focus is on the visual presentation. Whether or not dirt is involved, the objective is flora as painted canvas. So, there are gardeners and there are florists. We should nod, wave and appreciate each other’s art form…  and never talk shop.