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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

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For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

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That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

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Lettuce: The Shoulder Season Crop

My garden is planted. The carrots, beets, and kale are poking through the ground, the strawberries still little green orbs. Tiny flowers adorn the tomatoes and peppers in preparation for their future bounty. The rhubarb is mostly finished, having been transformed into many toothsome desserts. Alas, as far as gardens go, the middle of June is known as “shoulder season.” We are waiting, waiting for the vegetables we have planted to be laden with their bounty. Yet something is ready to be picked and eaten in all its tender beauty, lettuce.

A Time for Lettuce

My garden is bountiful with a host of lettuces. Purple and red varieties, lettuce with red speckles, lettuce with curly edges, and of course, green lettuce. These colorful leaves grace our gardens and plates.

This green loves to germinate and grow in the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer. In fact, it has a hard time germinating in the heat of midsummer. In the early spring and late fall, however, it goes to town.

The ground was barely free of snow when I planted the first seeds this spring. I’ll do this same thing again when the crisp days of fall are on the horizon. Planting in a sunny spot or one that gets a bit of afternoon sunshine will ensure that the plants quickly poke their little heads through the earth’s surface.

The spring rain showers help keep the ground moist. I usually scatter the seeds randomly in a square space. When they come up, they’ll be very crowded. I thin them as they grow, eventually leaving several inches between plants. In this way I get to harvest lettuce for weeks. I always leave a few plants to go to flower and then to seed. The flowers serve as food to the bees and little beneficial insects that drink their nectar. Once they go to seed, these seeds drop to become new plants next season.

Eating Well with Lettuce

We used to think that lettuce was basically just glorified water. We thought it did not have much nutritional value, but we now know this is absolutely not true. Lettuce and greens of all kinds are packed with nutrients, vitamins A and K, folate, and molydenum to name a few. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are just a couple of the antioxidants present that work their magic in you to help prevent diseases and keep you healthy.

If the nutritiousness does not propel you to make lettuce cups for your grilled salmon salad, the fresh crunchy flavor will. The taste of just picked lettuce is unlike any green I have tasted all winter. This is my launchpad into summer garden goodness.

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Garden lettuce is the first ingredient in any number of salads. It is the thick layer of crispness in my sandwiches. It adorns my platters of hors d’oeuvres. I fill the thicker romaine cups with endless variations of meat or vegetable salads.

Cleaning Garden Greens

One of the deterrents to eating garden lettuce is cleaning garden lettuce. I have found the fastest way to clean a pile of dirt-laden lettuce is to soak it in a sink full of cold water. Stir gently with your fingers to dislodge any soil from the leaves and stems. The dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink so that when you drain out the water, the dirt drains out first. I then refill the sink with cool water and repeat the process until the leaves are clean. This may take two or three rinses.

Finally, I scoop out the leaves and spin them in a salad spinner for a minute until they are dry. You can store it for a few days in the refrigerator by wrapping it loosely in a paper towel and sealing it in a plastic bag. Personally, I upped my intake dramatically once I started washing my lettuce in this way, and I always tend to use things faster that are washed and ready to go in the refrigerator.

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It is the season for eating lettuce. Just picked leaves of all stripes and colors is waiting for you. I, for one, will thoroughly enjoy waiting for the second wave of produce from my garden as long as I have lettuce on my plate.

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Bugs, Bees, and Butterflies

Insects Galore

The other day, when picking produce from my community garden, I was enthralled by a bumble bee buzzing in front of a cucumber blossom. It landed on the edge of the flower, burying its head inside. Soon it moved on to another blossom, then a third. Later, little hoverflies worked their way across a collection of white cilantro blossoms. It is the height of summer; plants have full leaves, and they are flowering. Fruits and vegetables are growing larger and ripening.

All of this verdurous growth creates a buzz in the insect world. A number of years ago, after deciding to garden organically and soaking in the wisdom of entomologists I have had the pleasure of learning from, both my tolerance of and fascination for bugs have markedly increased.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on three categories of insects. First, there are the insects that eat or otherwise destroy your plants, like the cucumber beetle I recently killed. Second, there are the insects that are very helpful, the above-mentioned bumble bee and hoverfly are two examples. Finally, there are the insects that “worm” their way into our hearts because they kill harmful insects (we love these guys!).

Fostering a Healthy Insect Population

There are many things one can do to foster the symbiotic relationship that insects have with one another and with our plants. As a baseline, it is wise to take the time to search for and plant disease resistant varieties of seeds or plants. I learned my lesson this year when I planted four kinds of cucumbers. A couple are resistant to cucumber wilt bacteria and a couple (that I just HAD to try) were not. Guess what? The varieties that aren’t resistant have cucumber wilt. This is a disease that is spread by the cucumber beetle, and the bacteria overwinters in the soil. This is happening in my community garden, where the history of what was planted in years past is unknown. (I might have been given a little bit of a break if I had known where cucumbers had been and planted this year’s in a different spot.)

A great way to help the pollinator insects is to let some of your plants go to flower and then seed. The butterflies, bees, and hoverflies will love you for it! I always leave a portion of my cilantro, arugula, lettuces, bak choy, basil, mint, among others to flower and seed. Those plants are very busy places right now. In addition, I scatter flower seeds throughout my garden. Nasturtiums, marigolds, and sunflowers are all edible and thus beneficial in several ways. Then there are the blossoms on tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, squash, peas, beans, etc. What a plethora of options for our insect friends!

Another helpful practice is to plant things that are specific foods for certain desirable insects. I let my fennel reseed itself every year and plant dill everywhere because that is what the black swallowtail butterfly larvae eat. With Monarch butterflies, their larvae only eat milkweed, so including that in your landscape will help them multiply.

One of the more interesting groups of the insect world are the predatory insects. We all know about ladybugs eating aphids, but other examples include the cicada killer wasp as well as spiders. One of the more voracious predators, and maybe the most maligned, are spiders. Let’s just say spiders are not vegetarians. They eat other insects, many of them harmful to our yard and garden plants. So instead of cleaning up all those cobwebs in your garden, leave them. I’m not saying to leave the cobwebs around doors, windows, and house. But in your garden, these hungry critters are doing your work for you.

Think twice before you buy packages of earthworms, lady beetles, praying mantis, etc. I could write an epistle on the downsides of introducing foreign bugs into your environment. Instead, foster the conditions to help the native bugs that are already present thrive and do their thing.

It goes without saying, use insecticides either not at all or very, very sparingly. Most insecticides don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

It doesn’t take much to change your way of thinking and your practices. Just like many of us try attract birds to our yards, we can attract insects. In fact, it is easy to do this because much of what attracts insects is leaving your garden alone. Don’t harvest some of your greens, don’t apply insecticides, don’t pick all your flowers. This laid-back approach will, in the end, increase your insect population, which will increase the health of your plants and lead to higher production.

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Early Summer Bounty

Abundant Produce

Now that summer is in full swing, gardens are following suit. I find myself wandering to my garden beds before almost every meal prep, snipping this, gathering that, filling my basket. After all, marinated Italian white beans need mint. Furthermore they have to be served on a bed of bitey arugula. Lettuces are necessary for a whole host of summer salads. Bok Choy works itself into almost every meal; a tossed salad with mulberries, a quinoa salad, marinated in lemon and oil then served in a pulled pork sandwich. Because I tend to put everything in my morning smoothie, in goes the extra Bok Choy. A vase of its tiny yellow flowers even sits on my counter.

Grilled peach arugula prosciutto pizza anyone? How about mulberry mojitos? Frosty cucumber mint brews straight from the garden? Purple basil blossoms seem to dot everything nowadays. Baby Italian kale sauteed with almonds and lemon zest makes a delicious side.

While my tomatoes, beets, and eggplant are at least a month from being ready, there is still plenty of produce to get crazy with right now. Our strawberries are so sweet that the only option is to eat them straight up, unadorned. I planted these beauties three years ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to produce. This year’s bumper crop has been much anticipated.

A Garden’s Fine Routine

It seems that summertime brings an interesting shift in routine. All winter, we walk the produce aisles, filling our carts with those cold-weather staples like potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Sweet Texas grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges notwithstanding, there isn’t the same olfactory allure to the produce. These dog-days are different. Right now, I wait to plan menus until after scoping out the farmers’ market and bringing home what catches my eye. Even more, what is ready in my backyard garden or my community garden makes all the difference as to what meals I make.

Harvest, then create. It seems backwards compared to wintertime ways. But I can’t help myself; cooking this way is truly satisfying! When purple or green cauliflower or oyster mushrooms somehow end up on my kitchen counter, my mind starts racing…grilled veggies, oyster mushroom crepes…the dishes start rolling out. Freshly slivered basil and freshly cut cilantro inspire me, so one only needs to eat and enjoy.

Summer bounty is a long awaited pleasure. In these cold climes, when the grey days call on us to light candles, listen to Bach, drink lavender lattes, and peruse seed catalogs; this is what we’ve been waiting all winter for.

I, for one, am taking full advantage.

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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.