I was going stir crazy last week, so I decided, despite the frigid spring temperatures, to go for a little walk and check on my not so secret spot for wild ramps. It is still very early in the season, but I figured a status update would be beneficial, and I needed something to do. Lincoln was all in for a walk by the river, so off we set, basket and digging tools in hand.
Ramps are a type of leek that populate forest floors and river valleys. They are difficult to domesticate, but are abundant in the wild in some areas of the United States. They have a mild onion flavor and are simply delicious.
My little spot is right on the side of a dirt road that is a very popular walking spot, even more so now that everyone is seeking escape from confinement. In fact, it is so close to the road that I hesitate to go when I might be seen, for fear of others finding my spot and cleaning out all the ramps. This type of secrecy is symptomatic of a condition is called ‘locaphobia’. It is very common in foragers, and causes all sorts of subterfuge and erratic behavior. (Just kidding, I made that up. Not the condition, but the name for it. The condition is very real.)
The ramps were there. I made my introductions, asked permission of the grove, and ‘heard’ an assent. (This hearing, I’ve learned, is a skill that develops with time). They were small, but there seemed to be plenty. Baby spinach, baby carrots, baby lettuce, why not baby ramps? As I was on my knees in the dirt, a meanderer ambled along and asked me what I was doing. I tried to hide behind a tree, but he wasn’t fooled. “I’m harvesting baby ramps” I mumbled. “What are they?” he wanted to know, so I told him. He said “Wow. Free food.” I agreed and he went on his way.
When I had enough, I offered a thank you and packed up my things. As I was walking back to the car I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. The whole hillside above where I harvest was covered with wild ramps. Acres were blanketed with them. They were everywhere. Amazed, I suddenly wished I had someone to show.
I thought of the man walking. Something about our conversation niggled at me. Free food, he had said. Was it really free? Certainly no one had to pay for it. But free has connotations of disregard, of lack of value, and possibly of neglect. Free comes without conditions. That didn’t feel right. The ramps weren’t free, they were a gift. A gift denotes a relationship. A gift involves generosity, caring and even love. A gift requires a response. The forest gives to us. It’s up to us to give back.
The ramps I collected require not only gratitude, but compassion, thoughtfulness, protection and respect. I want my relationship with the earth to be reciprocal, not based in abuse or greed. As such, I never take the first. I never take more than half. I always say please, and I always say thank you. Just like I would do with a friend.
I decided to make a quiche with my ramps. The very flexible recipe follows.
Ingredients for Ramp Quiche
1 bunch of ramps, washed and dried.
I TBSP butter
8 eggs (or 6 if that is all you have)
1 cup milk (or half and half)
1 cup sour cream (or other dairy like ricotta, yogurt, cottage cheese)
1/2 cup Bisquick
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (or any cheese)
1 pie crust.
Roughly chop the ramps an saute them in the butter. Allow to cool.
Mix the next 5 ingredients and add the ramps. Pour into the pie crust and bake at 350 for 1 hour. It’s not necessary to preheat the oven. Enjoy!
Apparently, the next commodity in short supply, after toilet paper and hand sanitizer is …. Drum roll, please … vegetable seeds! That’s right, friends, the New York Times reports a seed buying frenzy across the country. If you haven’t already made your plans for the garden of your dreams, you might be behind the curve.
It’s unclear if people are buying seeds as fast as they can because they have nothing better to do than work outside in the garden, or if they actually fear for their food security and are wisely planning for the future. Regardless of the reason, seeds are in high demand and many seed companies are running a wait time of several weeks. While I’m delighted that the country is turning towards the dirt for solace during these crazy times, I’m equally delighted that I ordered my seeds during the garden doldrums of January.
I have a confession to make. I’m a seed addict! I love seeds. I actually have card catalogs (yes, plural) to store my seeds alphabetically. I have a box specifically for bean seeds, and another for pea and corn seeds (seeds that are too big to fit in the card catalogs, obviously) When I get those color glossy catalogs from the seed companies like Baker Creek and Kitchen Garden and Territorial, I spend hours reading descriptions and oogling the pictures of luscious shiny vegetables. “Vegetable porn” My girlfriend calls it. I don’t know about that, but I will confess that I save the catalogs.
While I’m confessing, I should also tell you that I’m a seed snob. Not all seeds are created equal. The tenants of slow living mandate that when I evaluate my purchasing, I regard provenance, equity, sustainability, history and justice with at least as much weight as I give to economy and facility. I choose seeds that are unique, rare, and unusual, not only because they are interesting to grow, but because my dollars promote the safekeeping of those seeds, and enhance the lives of the small farmers who grow them. My seed dollars promote biodiversity and global health. GMO and hybrid seeds that are mass produced in colossal greenhouses not only contribute to global warming, but make vegetables that can’t even reproduce themselves. You couldn’t save and re-grow those seeds even if you wanted to. They may cost a few cents less, but the hidden cost to the planet isn’t worth it.
Seed are truly miraculous. They are the great multipliers. One seed can produce hundreds, if not thousands, of new seeds. They hold secrets. Different kinds of seeds need different conditions to germinate. Some need fire. Some need freezing. Some need sunlight and some need darkness. They contain life. While we can alter them, we still cannot create them. Without seeds there is no life.
I buy new seeds every year. In the past few years I have been learning about traditional seed saving techniques, but with the vast array of amazing varieties that come out in the catalogs each year, I feel like buying and planting rare and heritage seeds is a way of promoting and protecting biodiversity. Every year I buy something I have never grown before. This year it’s artichoke.
If you are looking for seeds and can’t buy them from a seed company, you still have might options. Try looking in a gift catalog. Often companies that sell Christmas gifts offer gifts for gardeners, and may have kits for herbs, lettuces or other groups of vegetables. Try to contact your local library. Many libraries have a seed exchange, and you may be able to convince your librarian to get some seeds and leave them out for you. Ask your friends who have gardens. Most gardeners don’t use all their seeds each year, and most are willing to share.
For those of you who do have seeds, you might be wondering what to do with them. I’m starting tomato seeds in the following pictures, but you can modify this tutorial for any seeds you want to start growing indoors.
Vegetable seeds fall into roughly two categories: those to plant outside, and those to start inside. Almost all seeds can be planted right in the dirt, once the weather cooperates, but many need a longer growing season than we have in the Northeast, so to give those plants an advantage, we plant them indoors first. They include the brassica family, (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.) the cucurbitas (squash, melon, cucumber etc.) the solanales, or nightshade family, with the exception of potatoes (tomato, pepper, eggplant etc.) If your seeds fall into one of these three families, keep reading.
Sprinkle the seeds on top of a moist seed starter mix, or potting soil if that is all you have. In a pinch, dig some dirt up from your garden (but make sure it isn’t cold). It should be light, not packed down. A rule of thumb for seed starting is that you need to cover the seed as deep as the circumference of the seed itself. For my tomato seeds, this means 1/4 inch or less. Loosely cover the seeds with a layer of moist soil commensurate with it’s size, water lightly, (soil should be damp but not mushy), close the lid and leave in a warm, sunny place. If you have a heat mat, place the seed containers on it to start the germination faster. Unless you like surprises, DON’T FORGET TO LABEL!
Voila! Baby Tomatoes. Next they will need little pots to grow in. You can use pretty much any container with a hole in the bottom, like a plastic bottle, paper cup, Tupperware, ceramic pot. Anything. Choose a pot that will be able to hold your plant until it’s time to put it into the garden. I use leftover plastic seed pots from the greenhouse that I re-use each year. Potting soil is a good medium. Pack the soil in firmly, but not hard.
Next, move the babies to their new homes. Make a deep hole in the center of the pot. Use a tool like a bamboo marker (or chopstick, butter knife, pencil) to loosen the soil and lift the seedling from the bottom. Use your fingertips on the stem of the plant. IMPORTANT- Don’t pull. Don’t touch the roots. Don’t touch the leaves. Separate it from it’s siblings, and gently place it into the hole you have created for it. If needed, poke the roots down into the hole with the tool. Gently pat the soil around the stem. If you bend a plant, discard it and try again.
Tomato plants can grow roots from their stems, so you can put them into the hole deeply. Each time it gets transplanted, bury part of the stem to give it added stability. This is not true of other plants.
Once they are all tucked in, sprinkle them with water to settle the soil around the roots. They may look sad, but they will perk up in a day or two.
Different plants have different needs once they are started. Warm weather plants like tomato and pepper will benefit from having a light on them for at least 12 hours a day. Special bulbs can be purchased at a hardware store for use in a regular lamp. I use an ultra thin LED panel that sells for about 20 dollars on Amazon. The brassicas will not need extra light or warmth, and it’s still a bit early to start the squashes in New England, so I recommend starting out with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
For the next few weeks you should check them daily and water as needed. If you have started tomatoes, let them dry out a bit in between watering. A little stress will help them develop strong roots. This is true once they are planted in the garden as well. Over watering will result in weaker plants and less fruit, but never let them get so dry that they wilt.
If you have questions about specific seeds, or just want to share your experiences with seed starting, I’m happy to answer. Comment below or find me on Instagram. Good luck with your new seeds and happy gardening!
I have always defined the quality of my life in terms of my choices. Can’t take your car? Call an Uber. Hitch a ride with a friend. Take the bus. Walk. Ride a bike. Heck, roller-skate if you feel like it. These are all possible choices. But what if you don’t have a friend? Or a bike. Or money for the bus. Or working legs.
A few days ago I went to the store to get a cabbage. Sounds like the start to a pretty boring story, right? It is. There was no cabbage. And no Napa cabbage. No radicchio. No escarole. No romaine, bok choy or endive. Nothing that resembled a cabbage. Neither was there lettuce, nor carrots, nor vegetables of any kind. As I stood looking at the empty racks, I realized that I had to change my plans for dinner. I had no choice but to make something else.
No choice. This was the first Covid-19 blow to my life.
I consider my life to be rich, because I have many choices. I can choose how I spend my time, for the most part. We can choose where we want to live, within our means. I can choose my work, which doctor I go to, which stores I shop at, who I vote for, and a million other choices that make my life seem rich and easy compared to some. When it comes to food, I might even have too many choices. If I get an idea about what I want to cook, there is no stopping me. Forget about what’s in the cabinet; I’ll drive to the Asian market forty minutes away to get fresh turmeric, if the recipe calls for it. That’s beyond living richly. Than’s just spoiled.
I was unhappy with no cabbage, but I recovered. I chose my dinner, a chicken, took it to the check out, and waited behind a woman and her partner, both in masks and gloves. Together they rang up 3 carts and more than 700.00 in groceries. Including 3 cabbages. I watched as they proceeded to pack them all into their fancy car with out of state plates.
Will a Land Rover full of groceries save them from the Corona virus?
I admit I was a little miffed. Interestingly, my first thought wasn’t to tell them off, it was to go get another chicken. But a chicken instead of a cabbage is not a hard choice. After a minute, I decided that a chicken was a lovely dinner, and I was grateful that it was available to me.
I think I am well prepared for food shortages, although there has been no evidence that I’ll need to be. I am able to grow much of my own food, and it is almost the growing season here in the Northeast. Our family hunts, and I have food reserves from previous harvests. What I am not prepared for is the idea of hardship. As was evidenced by my irritation (ok, anger) at not being able to buy a cabbage. I am unaccustomed to having limited choices.
My out of state grocery shoppers chose to hoard food. Their plan was to save themselves by buying all the food they could carry and going into isolation. They hope that the virus will pass them by. Nothing wrong with that. Good luck to them. I hope for their sake that when they come out of isolation in a few weeks to get more food, they get a pass again. And that there is still food to be had.
In the end I chose to pass on the second chicken. If this is the apocalypse, a second chicken probably isn’t going to save me. A second chicken is only going to guarantee that someone else isn’t going to have a chicken when they want one for dinner. I’ll have two, but they’ll have none. I decided to pull on my Corona pants, tighten my emotional belt, and not only accept, but welcome this limiting of my choices. I’m going to chose to be more frugal, in lifestyle and in material things. I am choosing to welcome a smaller life.
It doesn’t seem like the corona virus is giving any of us much of a choice. No matter how rich your life seems, no amount of wealth, or food seems to prevent it (although I hear it can get you a test). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have choices. We can chose to be people who support our neighbors. We can chose to be kind, helpful and compassionate. We can chose to consider those who have fewer choices than us. We can chose to leave the second chicken.
The world is a nutty place to be right now. From people hoarding toilet paper as if Covid-19 was an intestinal disease to our fearless leader acting as if nothing is the matter at all, my world, at least, is a little shaken up. The school where I work is closed, as is almost every school I know. I’ve got bored teenagers draped around the furniture, moaning at their loss of friends and freedom, and a fridge bulging with extra groceries, not because I believe there will be a supply breakdown, but because my neighbors are hoarding, and I don’t want to get left with the last jar of, say, hearts of palm, for dinner.
Truthfully, I’d be perfectly content if I stopped going to the grocery store. Perhaps now is the perfect time to really delve into what I preach. I can reach out to my local network of growers and farmers for eggs, milk, flour and meat. My favorite family farm stand still has onions, garlic, potatoes and squash. I can (and will!) have spring greens in my greenhouse in a matter of weeks. I can look for spring vegetables in the woods. I bet I could harvest cattail roots today. See my post about eating cattails from April 2013 https://eattheseason.com/2013/04/15/cattails-yum/
I’ve always been an advocate of slow living. I try to adhere to the principles of slow food, for example. No, that’s not like eating snails. Slow food is the practice of planting, tending, harvesting, cooking and serving food. It takes time. Alternately it is buying healthy local food that reflects your understanding and thankfulness for the process of how food comes to us. It is built on a reverence for the natural world. It centers around community. It fosters patience, flexibility and gratitude.
Slow food’s opposite is, of course, fast food, where the focus is on expediency instead of quality, economy instead of value. It is harmful to us psychologically as much as it is physically. Just so fast clothing, wherein the Costco leggins that you picked up for 7.99 don’t advertise on the label that they were made by children in sweatshops in Bangladesh, out of cotton picked in El Salvador by workers who are paid pennies to be sprayed with chemical pesticides. I prefer homemade, handmade, and local-made. Slow living is living out social justice.
So is this Corona virus the apocalypse or what?
I say no. I say now, this crazy time, can be the perfect time. The perfect time for what, you might ask? To which I reply, the perfect time for anything you want. It could be the perfect time to fix your grill. Or the perfect time to start walking outdoors again. The perfect time to learn to cook. The perfect time to think about planning for the future, or to try some new software, or to learn to knit, or plant a garden. Read to your children. Write a letter to an old friend. We have endless opportunities in this moment in time to do community in a small way. It is the perfect time to slow down, finally, and really experience your life. How many times have you said to someone “I’d love to do it, but I’m just too busy”. Guess what? You are no longer busy! You have some time. Some perfect time.
What will you do with your perfect time? If you find yourself working from home, have been laid off, or simply have extra time due to this unexpected pandemic, write a comment below and let me know what you are doing to make this time the perfect time. Be safe my friends.
Welcome to springtime in the New England! It is 70 degrees today on March 8th in Northwest Connecticut, and in order to mitigate my rising alarm at the wicked respiratory cold they call Covid-19 racing across the globe, I’ve decided to take a break from the news. It’s time to pull on my gloves (the dirt protection kind, not the medical grade germ protection kind) and venture into the garden. Since cold season clearly isn’t over, and the best thing for a bad cold is a bowl of hot soup, I have my favorite spring soup in mind.
Pistou is a Provencal pesto of sorts, made with basil, garlic and oil. It is used primarily in a northern Italian dish called Soupe au Pistou. When I think Pistou, I don’t think of basil as much as I think of fresh peas, which is one of the necessary ingredients for this light, bright, healthy Mediterranean soup made with pasta, beans and spring vegetables. For Pistou later, I need to plan now. Click on the link under the photo for one of my favorite French versions from The French Barn.
St. Patrick’s day has always been my rule of thumb for the time to plant peas. In this region it is generally the time when the soil can first be worked, and in the past I’d wait for a sunny day soon afterwards. But the times they are a changin’, as they say. Climate change has done away with the regular patterns, and we have to adapt. For my purposes today, the sooner the ground is thawed, the better.
When I chose my peas from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in January, I was, as always, enchanted by the color glossy pictures and delicious descriptions of the vegetables. As always, I couldn’t decide on which varietals to choose, so I chose several. I may be sad when the weather warms and there is no room left in my garden for the tomatoes and eggplant!
Peas are very easy to plant. They love cool weather, they can handle a light frost, and they don’t mind soils in the 30’s. This makes them the perfect spring vegetable for our inclement Northeast weather. Once your soil is loose and has been amended with compost, simply poke them in the ground with your finger to a depth of about 1 inch. Space them 3″ apart in rows at least 24″ apart.
Most peas grow in vines, and need something to cling to as they grow. A trellis of some sort, either a net attached to stakes, such as I use, or a mesh fence or a woven panel will help them grow tall and make harvesting easy. It should be at least 5 feet tall, or higher, depending on the variety. Some peas can grow 10 feet tall! New this year for me is a bush type varietal called Kelvedon Wonder. Topping out at 18″, it needs no staking, and therefore even less work than usual.
A word of warning: New pea shoots and leaves are a favorite of some songbirds, and if found, they will peck at the leaves until there isn’t much green left for the new plant to photosynthesize. If you find your tiny new leaves are getting eaten, it’s wise to cover them with row cover for protection until they are strong enough to withstand a bit of abuse. A cover is also in order if a heavy snow is expected.
When I think of those first fat pods of sugar snaps dripping off the vines, and then lightly sauteed snow peas in butter, and finally thumb-sized shelling peas bursting with flavor to store for the winter, I’m ready to get them started. It’s easy to sit inside and panic, to worry and watch the numbers and listen to the talking heads squawk fear and discord, anger and accusations. Panic is antithetical to the gardener. If a gardener falls into the mindset that the world is ending and all is lost, he/she/they will no longer garden; hence they cease to be a gardener. Without a future, there is no point in a garden. The act of gardening is an act of hope. In fact, gardening is the natural response to fear and panic. It provides stability, a plan, future security and a firm foundation in a hope for better things. Let’s focus on what is important. Try to stay home. Try to stay healthy. Eat soup. Plant peas. Sow hope. Go put some seeds in the ground and see if you don’t feel better about your world. I dare you.
Any Ravelers out there? You might be familiar with the term yarn chicken. It’s an actual term, and not one I can take credit for. I first heard it from Patty Lyons, my knitting hero. It very accurately describes the experience of, when making something out of yarn, fearing you will run out of yarn before the project is complete.
I’m writing about this not only because it’s a common experience, but because this is what gardeners do for fun in February.
Here is the scene. You bought some wonderful, dreamy, creamy, hand died skeins of your perfect weight in your perfect color from that special place you were that you’ll never return to. You have picked the project that absolutely matches your yarn, your style, your fundamental character. You did due diligence, swatched your yarn, got your gauge, did the math. Your project needs 1275 yards for your size. You have 4 skeins of 320 yards each. You’ll totally make it.
Than an interesting process happens. It usually involves two stages. Sometimes three. Often three.
#1 A realization.
The yarn seems to be diminishing exponentially to the rate of the growth of the project. This means either there is some warp in the time space fabric of physics, or, less likely, you were stingy at the yarn store. This always happens once you are well past the halfway point. You have already committed an embarrassing amount of time to this project.
#2 A decision. You have a choice to make. You can:
Choose some other yarn to finish the project and have a sweater that is entirely unique. (Read absurd)
Scrap the project and make something that requires less yarn. (NEVER!)
Put the project aside until you can spend time searching other people’s yarn stash online for your particular color and die lot number, and then proceed to email complete strangers and beg them to sell you one of their skeins (yes I have actually done this.)
Forge ahead, for you know in your heart your yarn will not run out before that last cuff is cast off.
You, in this scenario, choose the last, for experience has taught you that faith has a place in the universe. Plus, your love for this project goes beyond the boundaries of physics, and miracles do happen.
And then you play Yarn Chicken.
I tell you, not proudly, that I have been in this situation more times than I care to admit. After thirty plus years of knitting, I have most likely frogged more stitches than I have actually knit into usable items. People say I’m a fast knitter. I say I’m a slow learner.
And then #3. Frogging.
This is when you finally admit that it’s a lost cause. You will never have enough of the right yarn to finish the project and you rip out all your stitches. You unravel your project, and re-ravel your lovely overworked yarn back into sad little balls, to sit patiently in your stash, waiting for the project it was REALLY meant to be.
I recently joined a KAL. This is an acronym for Knit-A-Long, for those textile neophytes among you, where everyone who joins knits the same project at the same time with the same type of yarn. I had never done one before. Why knit something everyone else is knitting? What’s the point of a hand made hat/scarf/sock/sweater if everyone else has one just like it? But this time I decided to give it a go. I liked the project, and I thought I would expand my repertoire, learn something new, jump in to the online knitting community. What a mistake.
Of course I didn’t use the same yarn. I can only bend so far.
And I won’t bore you with the tragic details.
The good news is that I didn’t have to play Yarn Chicken. This was because I ran out of yarn before I even noticed it was happening. I was just knitting along until I came to the end. Whoops.
My mother-in-law, after hearing the saga of my first and last KAL, said to me something along the lines of “Following the patterns has never been a major aspect of your knitting experience”. What I heard was “When are you going to recognize your nature and adapt your behavior?”
My dogs especially love to eat frozen poop. Poopcicles.
My dogs love to eat frozen poop and wipe their faces on the back seat of my Subaru.
OK, stay with me people. This actually is about gardening and food and seasonal living. Sort of.
So lets think about poop for a minute. I’m talking about horse poop, although I’m sure they would eat cow poop too, if we had a cow. The horses eat the grass. They digest the grass. That keeps them warm. Then the horses poop out the grass. It goes onto the ground and the worms come to eat it, and they digest it, and they poop too. (yep, Everybody Poops) THAT goes into the ground, making healthy soil, and the grass grows healthier. And the horses eat the healthy grass. The magic that is happening in this very specialized system that I have grossly oversimplified is called …..Drum roll please….Bacteria.
Enter the Dogs. What is actually going on here is the dogs are capitalizing on a healthy system. They are trying to get something they need into their diet by eating the poop of other animals. It’s not because the poop tastes good, although it might. I wouldn’t know. Dogs, being carnivores, don’t have a ton of naturally occurring good bacteria in their guts, but horses do. That’s why we put their poop on our gardens. The dog eat the horses’ poop to get the good digestive bacteria.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
I just finished reading The Mind Gut Connection, by Emeran Mayer. I strongly recommend that anyone anywhere sick with anything read it immediately. Even though I know you all will, I’ll give you a synopsis anyway.
The gut is larger than the brain and every bit as complex.
The gut has trillions of microbes, including bacteria, in it. The microbes are our personal ecosystem.
The Microbes (actually the metabolites they produce), interface with our brains. They control most of our hormones, as well as our immune responses. They can also produce cytokines when they are unhappy, which cause inflammation.
Personal microbial stability = good health and emotional wellness.
Things that kill our personal gut microbes are bad for us. (pesticides, antibiotics, corn syrup, commercial wheat gluten, emulsifiers etc. etc.)
Things that are good for our microbes are good for us. (organic produce, fermented food, wild foods)
We must ‘farm’ our microbes to keep them healthy.
I’m not saying we should be eating poop, although that’s fast becoming a treatment for certain illnesses. Just consider, the next time you stop for a doughnut and a caramel mocha latte, what is happening to your gut bacteria. The next time you have to take a Z-pak, realize that it’s wiping out all the good guys along with the bad. No wonder it gives you the runs.
I know we all get sick, and the best treatment for severe bacterial illness is strong antibiotics. But remember that a healthy gut can (and does) wage war on invasive bacteria. Your personal army of microbes, if you keep it strong and healthy, will prevent you from getting sick in the first place.
Once you’re there and you’ve been coughing for weeks, fever of 103, chest x-ray, and you’re gulping down those steroids and antibiotics and sucking on the nebulizer, it’s time to do some serious bacterial rebuilding. If you just plain refuse to eat poop (just kidding!) there are other ways to rebuild your internal microbial army. They are called FERMENTED FOODS.
Kim chi, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, fermented cheese, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh, sourdough. These are some of the common ones available at the grocery store. Get them and eat them every day. Or ferment your own. It couldn’t be simpler. Put some vegetables in a crock with some salt. Cover them with water. Wait 4 weeks. Eat. It is actually that easy.
So go forth my friends, and colonize your guts with healthy bacteria. Farm your internal microbes. Eat well, live well, be happy.
Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate. Just so seasonal peaches. The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether. But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.
Peaches are one of my favorite fruits. Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious. I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it. I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer. Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe. I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious. When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste. Into the compost they go. How did I get fooled again?
The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree. And not always those. Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts. We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue. Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control. You make your own luck, my dad used to say. God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past. Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true. If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it. A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight. Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches. But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential. Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest. Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.
If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.
Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground. If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off. Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness. A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach. If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe. When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch. This should just give under the finger. If it is still firm-not ripe. If it yields, give the peach a twist. If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet. It’s telling you to wait another day. Accept it.
There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first. Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over. They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact. They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit. If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe. A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits. Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.
Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave. At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day. Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat. It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.
All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps. Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin. This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water. One minute. Time it. Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam. Less and the skins won’t slip off. You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath. If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking. See the difference in the picture below.
Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them. If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags. This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare. Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer. To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it. Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing. When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first. I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.
Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment. While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree. I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.
If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair. Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area. Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try. Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits. If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later. Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.
If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.
I bought myself a new pair of galoshes. I love that word, galoshes. It brings to mind yellow rubber duckies and chubby kneed toddlers jumping in puddles. Purple umbrellas, rain streaking down window panes, and good books. So I have a new pair. Sleek, navy blue and mid-calf, with a bright orange lining, they are my new favorite shoes. Partly because I get to wear them every day, morning and evening, and sometimes in between. They are made by a company called Hunter, the Rolls Royce of rubber boots. The last pair I had were made by Hunter too, although I cheaped out and bought them slightly used on Ebay. I got what I paid for, by the way. They must have been more than “slightly” used, because they only lasted a few seasons. After a few weeks of doing my chores in wet socks this spring I broke down and bought a new pair directly from the company. And not a moment too soon. The pretty box lined in bright orange with the fancy Hunter logo gave me almost enough gratification to justify the price. At least they are getting a good workout.
It’s been a wet summer here in the northeast. Wet and hot. A wet summer following a cold late spring. Following a weird winter. But no one needs me to tell them that the weather is out of whack, all you have to do is look out the window, or better yet look at your garden. I’ve got tomatoes splitting open on the vine before they ripen, peppers dropping all their leaves and huge eggplant bushes with no blooms on them. My carrots are two inches tall and as fat as sausages, the watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins have no fruit at all, and the raspberries mold before I can pick them. I have cabbage spitting open like hatching eggs and basil plants with leaves as brown and slimy as pond scum. Things are composting before I can harvest them. It’s wet.
It’s in my nature, sadly, to point out the tragic and flawed first. When someone comes for a tour of the garden, or is just walking through, I’ll delightedly complain about all the garden failures. Maybe it’s my way of deflecting blame, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather. I need everyone to know that despite all my efforts, things are not perfect, and I recognize it. I make them note the worst so they know that I know the flaws exist. That I’m not proudly displaying what is obviously not the way it should be. It’s a terrible way to behave, and not very self-serving. Most times, not only would they not have recognized the not-perfectness of things, but it robs them of the desired delusion that things really are perfect, and just the way they should be. They leave thinking either I’m a downer, or just not very good at what I do. Or worse, they feel the need to reassure me, and make me feel better for my multitude of failures. Ridiculous.
So, now that you’ve heard the worst, both practically and subconsciously, I’ll tell you the good news. Onions the size of softballs. Leeks that are three feet tall. Abundant parsley, mint that is overflowing (isn’t it always) and cucumbers that just keep coming. The garlic harvest was successful, fat white and purple heads drying on racks in the garage. The kohlrabi, while a bit tough on the outside, was none the less plump and crunchy. And the summer squash. Oh, the summer squash. I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle where she informs her children that they lock the car doors in summer not to deter someone from stealing the car, but to prevent neighbors from dropping off bags of calf sized zucchini on their back seat. Lock your doors folks, it’s that kind of year.
And I can’t forget the flowers. Almost everything was abundant, tall, vibrant and with enormous blooms. My ‘Dinner Plate’ dahlias are actually the size of dinner plates. It’s the best year I’ve seen for poppies, and the Sunflowers are 10 feet tall. Of course the weeds are 10 feet tall too. Some of the grasses growing in my flower beds have become ornamental. I’m trying to go with it and resist loudly declaiming to whomever will listen that I didn’t plant it there, and I haven’t gotten around to pulling it out yet, and if it weren’t for all this blasted rain you wouldn’t notice it.
I’ll let out a little secret. We harvested about 6 gallons of honey from our two hives last week. This is big news for all the folks to whom we give honey as a Christmas gift. While a few of them no doubt have jars of honey stacked in the back of the pantry, I know for a fact the majority can’t wait for their Christmas bag of goodies from the Winter Pantry, the honey being the golden prize. This years honey was pale, golden and sugary, redolent of clover blossoms, honeysuckle and apple. Much different from previous years, when we’ve seen honey that has been almost molasses-like, dark amber and thick. The weather makes a difference for the bees, too.
Not being a bee person didn’t stop me from helping this year. Helping is a misnomer, really, but I was there, standing several yards away and trying to breathe deeply and radiate calm normality. As if that’s my natural state. Ha. Only once did I do what I had promised myself not to; shreek, hop, and swat hysterically at my hair in an attempt to dislodge one furious lady trying in vain to defend her home. Of course my husband, who is a bee person and for whom calm normality is a way of life, came to my rescue, and plucked the poor thing from my head before she could sting me and ruin both our lives. He had repeatedly picked the angry things off his arms and neck without a peep, lifting out the heavily laden frames with calm aplomb. Different nature, I guess.
And I must mention the fruit. The abundant rain and humid weather has certainly been a blessing for all the fruit setting plants. Fat yellow plums are dripping off our diminutive trees and for some strange reason the birds haven’t yet discovered them. Perhaps they are thrown off by the color? It is wonderful to harvest so many unblemished fruits. The downside being that they don’t spoil as fast, so I’m disinclined to make jam, or even to freeze them. Sorry friends, no plum jam in the Christmas bag. Instead they sit in big bowls on the counter and get gobbled down five at a time. This time of year it’s not unlikely for me to make an entire meal of plums, blueberries and peaches while I stand at the counter dripping juice on myself. Elegant.
Conclusion? The weather is weird. It’s different than last year, different than any other year before. Science says it’s going to get weirder. But nature will win out, in the end, I think. And us gardeners, what can we do in the meantime? We have to deal with what we get, acknowledge the bad and celebrate the good, and then go forth and try to be more responsible to the planet. We plant and harvest and eat, we fail and succeed and mostly do the best we can. It’s in our nature.
You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog. Well, I’ll tell you. Last spring I was offered my dream job. I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend. I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt. It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better. I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter. I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too! I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts. Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though. Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.
It’s freakishly warm, right? What the heck! I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall. Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing. I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows. Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.
I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth. My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud! What gives? Anyone? Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end. Enough already.
I’m trying to pretend it’s winter. Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today. They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now. Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend. I could have probably left them in another month.
I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood. I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.
I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah. For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl. That’s right…pig cheeks. and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item! It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy. More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish. Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.
The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy. After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat. Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit. Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?
The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy. It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend. Happy Holidays!