Cousins

A version of this article appeared last year in the Addison County  Independent.

There is still snow under the piles of leaves in the corners of the yard, but the sorrel is up. And not just peeping through the mulch of ground up leaves; it is really up. Like my garlic, which has grown six inches in a week, the sorrel is starting to take off.

The sorrel is up

I am looking forward to next week,  when sorrel’s lemony leaves will be ready to harvest.

Last year, when spring came earlier, after several weeks of tangy sorrel soup and tarts, and luscious rhubarb pies and rhubarb wine (!!), I wondered if the slightly sour tang of these two early-season ready-to-eat plants could possibly be related? To my astonishment, I discovered in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen “Sorrel is the startlingly sour leaf of several European relatives of rhubarb…”

Though the sour of sorrel is, for some, an acquired taste, it goes well with fish as a natural lemony green sauce.  It is also tempered by the sweetness of potato, cream and egg in a soup (eaten warm or cold, which, given the vicissitudes of spring temperatures in Vermont, is appropriate). The sour of rhubarb is tempered with sugar (or your favorite sweetener), or the addition of strawberries and sometimes a sweet flakey pastry, but it too, can accompany meat as a tangy sauce.

There is something about the sour fresh taste of these “cousins” that, in my mind, mimics the freshness of the air of early spring mornings. Or maybe it is just that I particularly relish the first food that comes out of the ground after our winter hibernation.

Where the emergence of rhubarb marks the coming of the garden season for some, my patch is only in its second year. But sorrel has been my harbinger of spring for as long as I can remember. My mother’s sorrel soup graced the table every early May. In late March, when the internal debate about whether I can get away with planting peas begins, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to think about unfurling, sorrel, with its red tinged leaves, pokes through the wet leaf mulch in my herb garden. A perennial, it is unfailingly punctual, and comes back each year more vigorously than the year before. There are years when I must divide it (giving some away to friends) so it won’t crowd out the sage next door.  My patch of sorrel came as a division from a friend, Martha, fifteen years ago, when we started the garden.

The garlic has grown six inches in a week

The first leaves are a delicious tangy addition to a salad. The larger leaves – and they come quickly — can be wilted into a sauce with a bit of olive oil, or butter, in a pan; or added to soup; or layered into a potato gratin. The older leaves become tough and sour, and it’s important then to strip away the tough stems when cooking. Don’t let the flower stalks take off, pinch them back. Sorrel must be picked constantly: since it grows so vigorously, I find I have to literally hack it back, trying to keep it under control, which means that all summer long I make small batches of sauce, which I freeze in zip-lock bags, or layer into freezer containers.

Also vigorous, and best grown from divisions from a friend’s patch, rhubarb can be left alone once planted – so site your patch with a mind to leaving it there. It needs rich soil, and sun. During the first couple of years do not harvest any. Let it grow. (When “picking” rhubarb, tug the stalks out; do not cut them off. The base of the stalk is the most tender). Like the sorrel, nip off the flower stalks during the “eating season.” Like many folks, I have always thought of rhubarb as a fruit – perhaps because frequently it comes with strawberries, perhaps it is the addition of sugar – but in fact the part we eat is the stalk of a huge leaf. Only the stalks are eaten, as the leaves contain Oxalic acid, which is poisonous.  It is the Oxalic acid, present in a much-diluted concentration, that gives the slightly sour tang to both rhubarb stalks and sorrel leaves.

Rhubarb Run Amuck!

My father sits behind a Rhubarb plant in mid summer in Connecticut. Note the flower stalks have not been pruned, but clearly this plant has energy to spare. To the left is a patch of Sorrel, also unpruned. Photo credit: my wonderful cousin, Nini Gridley

SORREL SOUP

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil); 1 pound fresh Sorrel leaves, washed, dried, thick stems removed (yes, this is a lot of sorrel, but, like spinach or mustard greens, it shrinks when cooked); 1 good sized yellow onion, chopped roughly; 3/4 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, diced; 4 Cups of chicken (or vegetable broth); 1 cup of cream; Optional: 2 eggs yolks.

Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter or oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add Onion and stir till translucent and limp. Add Sorrel, and stir so that butter coats it evenly. It will wilt rapidly, turning a drab olive green.  Add potatoes and toss. Add broth and bring to a gentle simmer till potatoes are just cooked.  If you like a rich soup, mix one or two egg yolks thoroughly into a cup of light cream and add to the soup. Otherwise, omit the yolk (s). In fact, you can omit the cream. Salt and pepper to taste.  The soup can be eaten warm at this point, or it can be refrigerated and eaten chilled (fabulous on a hot day).

RHUBARB DESSERT

1 Pound of Rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces; 3/4 Cup of sugar (or less if you like it sour); 1/2 Pound of strawberries, washed, hulled, and cut up (if large); Vanilla Ice Cream, or Crème Fraiche

Place the Rhubarb, sugar, and 1 – 2 Tables of water in a medium saucepan. Stir. Simmer gently over low heat, shaking (not stirring) the pan to prevent sticking, until the rhubarb is tender (not long: 5 – 7 minutes).  Remove from heat and add in the strawberries, which will soften and juice from the heat.

Serve this mixture at either room temperature, or chilled, with a scoop of ice cream, or a generous dollop of crème fraiche.


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Time to plant?

Beginning of April

So the talk at church yesterday in all that beautiful sun was “Can I plant something?” “Is it time for peas? Lettuce? Spinach?”  A year ago at this time it took all my will power not to plant the peas in the beginning of April. After a week when temperatures had risen into the sixties and a succession of blue sky days and bright sun, it was almost impossible to hold back.  The sap had stopped dripping into the buckets. The Farmer’s Almanac read “Chipmunks are waking up and coming out of their burrows.” For a moment, listening to the cry of returning geese overhead, the cacophony of robins, the love calls of cardinals, and even the discovery of the remains of an egg ( surely from one of last year’s broods), I was tempted to think “Tomorrow I plant!”

But not this year. When we lifted the mulch yesterday while repairing the raised beds and building a tunnel over one of the beds, the soil was still completely frozen.  And today, instead of planting in the tunnel, it is snowing outside, dark and damp.

I gaze at the bits of green under my grow lights with love.  I have been thinning the seedlings and transplanting some of the larger ones. They are not going anywhere yet.

It is a precious moment when winter starts to dwindle in fits and starts, and spring begins to gain confidence as the days get longer, first slowly, then faster, and it is finally time to get our hands back in the soil, smooth out the lumps, cast off the winter coverings, and put peas in the ground.  It is like the first stirrings of excitement when I begin a new painting:  the markings of the design, the early splashes of paint, the careful building of layers, all herald something new.  With plants, so much is beyond our control, and yet, at this time of year, it is all about planning and potential.

The raised beds between the house and studio where I paint every day are moist, the heavy cold water of melted snow drained away. Covered with the leaves and flecks of detritus from winter blows and bits of straw mulch from last year, the tips of garlic plants are peeping out of the soil. Sorrel, with its red-tipped green tinge is emerging, iris leaves tentatively poke through the leaf mulch, and some of the thymes that line the path have new tiny green leaves.

At church I asked my friend Abi who has a soil thermometer if she has taken a reading yet.  It is more fun to ask her repeatedly over a season for the temperature of her soil than it is to buy my own thermometer. This way we chat about what we are planting, how it is going, what is different this year from last, and share part of the excitement of another growing season.

“Soil Thermometer? I haven’t even thought about it yet — though Bill did go and look for the cold frame yesterday. I can’t believe it, but I think we have lost the cold frame.” How do you lose a cold frame?

Cold Frames. That could be the key for this need I have right now to dig. The one time I built a cold frame, I moved too fast and situated it below a south-facing roof. When the inevitable early April snow came, it slid off the roof and smashed the glass.  We have found another south facing spot under a gable, and I could build a new cold frame in the next few days. Then again, there’s lots of room in the tunnel.

New tunnel over raised bed

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First Harvest?

April 2: Finally a saturday with some warmth!

Change of season: the pvc pipes for the tunnels that will fit over the raised beds fit in the ski rack

Yesterday’s nor’easter did not materialize, so we’re proceeding with mending the raised beds, and the hoopla of putting in our first tunnel. I may also sow a few early seeds: spinach is on my mind.

The garlic is just up. And the sorrel over in the herb garden is showing it’s first growth of pale green leaves tinged with ruby.

Imagine my delight when I discover that the rows of leeks that were solidly frozen into the ground at Thanksgiving have wintered over. I had planned to serve them at Thanksgiving with a “Not only are these local, but I harvested them myself a few hours ago!” It was not to be. The ground was cement; and there was snow on top. One of the beauties of snow however: it was so deep and consistent this year, the leeks are still edible.

Leeks after winter's snow

Partly this is because I grow leeks in trenches. Over the summer, between rains, weeding and my own brushing of earth towards the leeks, soil washes from the sides of the trenches onto the leeks. The part of the leek that is covered with soil stays white and tender, shaded from the sun.  Last fall, after the ground froze, we had early snow cover that protected the leeks inside the trenches.

In fact leeks are sweeter after a frost has nipped them. That’s why I usually leave them in the ground until Thanksgiving. Sometimes even later.

Leek Harvest

Leeks are a member of the onion family, but unlike many varieties of onion, they do not form bulbs. Folks either grow them in trenches, or they build up hills around them to maximize the amount of white. When leeks are cooked (all of a leek is edible, though the green parts have less flavor), they are slippery in texture. We eat them in soups, in tarts, sometimes layered on a flatbread, and occasionally braised in lemon and chicken broth to go along side a winter roast.

While John fixed the corners of the raised beds this morning, and prepared to place a tunnel over the bed nearest the house, I harvested the leeks, cleaned and sliced them, and sauted them slowly in olive oil. We’re going to have a tart tonight with winter-sweetened leeks,  fresh chicken eggs from my friend Bay’s chickens, and a little light cream from a nearby dairy.

Mending corners of raised beds

Is this the final harvest of 2010, or the first harvest of 2011?

My friend Ilaria who writes about her childhood in Italy and the relationship she and her family had/have with food, tells me that “what is going on right outside of the doorstep is always related to what’s on the table….and this is one more reason why I love Vermont, because here, too, the seasons come straight to the table.” She thinks my leeks are the final harvest of 2010.

But I am thinking that they are the first harvest of 2011 because today, for the first time, I feel spring. I am going to put away my cross country skis. In fact, I’ll take the ski rack off the car. And then I am going to get my hands dirty.

Leek tart with lemon thyme

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Recipes, recipes, recipes

Hopefully the last of the snow

 

It is bright and a mere 30 degrees this morning, a good sign. Yet there’s still plenty of snow on the ground in my garden.

There are days when I think that gardening is like cooking is like painting.  My husband gets upset when I grind pigments with the kitchen mortar and pestle and when I borrow the double boiler to cook glue. This morning I am mixing potting soil with water in his pasta cooking pot. But don’t tell.

This is because of the time I ruined his favorite enamel pot when I decided to make charcoal following a 15th century recipe from Cennino Cennini. Fill the pot with straight, quarter inch width twigs of willow, wrapped in little bundles with a wire; seal the pot (lute it) with clay; and place it in the embers of a fire, with more embers piled on top. Cook slowly over night. Well, the pot was destroyed, but I got some fine drawing charcoals!

We’ve been happily married for twenty five years. Poor man,  I use the kitchen for almost everything creative I do.  Most of the time the materials aren’t toxic.

Transplanting and planting

I am transplanting the exuberant Bok Choi, which begs to go outside under a tunnel. Not yet. Recipes, recipes, recipes. “Mix six cups of water with nine quarts of soil.” I  estimate – how many quarts of soil in a pasta pot and how much water?  Out come the measuring cups, the spatula, and a tiny silver spoon that used to belong to John’s grandmother. It is the just right size for spooning in potting soil around the seedlings I have pricked out, their delicate roots dangling for a second. Will this work? I finish the bok choi seedlings, all twenty of them, and then go ahead and plant some leek seeds with the silver spoon for good measure.

Crocusses

I order a few more seeds over the computer. There are never enough, and these are seeds for things I have never grown, that Barbara loves to grow: Fava Beans, Lemon Grass, and Epazote.  I am hoping to expand my cooking palate. Just like she expanded mine earlier this spring with the bok choi.

My friend Vint writes from Connecticut; he is going to share some tomato seeds with me: one variety came from tomatoes in a friend’s patch in Germany, and the other variety came from a friend’s mother’s garden in Italy.  I call my friends Margy and Jordan.

First Snowdrops

We’re planning our communal raspberry patch over supper this evening. Not only that, they are going to order chicks and one turkey for me: they have offered to share their henhouse. Perhaps I’ll name the turkey “Snowdrop”. We’ll eat the turkey for Christmas.

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Compost, Part One

The Compost is shaded in the summer by the lilac. Note the Day Lilies starting to peek through the soil.

I am thinking about compost. Here’s why: Ben Hewitt, farmer, writer, activist, and author of The Town That Food Saved, How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, led a discussion up at the college recently.  He admitted that rather than focussing on sustainable agriculture, he prefers to frame the food discussion around restorative agriculture.   Can we farm in a way that is circular? Which is to say, can we create systems where what we put into the soil  — the fertilizers, the enrichments, the compost and what we take out of the soil – the food – are more interconnected?

How do we close the circle? Hardwick, Vermont, the town he writes about, now boasts food related businesses that run the gamut: from  High Mowing Organic Seeds, to Jasper Hill Cheese, to Vermont Soy Company, to Buffalo Mountain Coop, to Pete’s Greens, to Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, to The Center fro Agricultural Economy, to Honey Garden Apiaries, to The Highfields Center for Composting.  I sense a hint of a circle forming there.

But when I think about compost, I can’t help it, my mind turns to worms! That’s the tiny agricultural circle my three tenths of an acre could support.

I almost bought worms last year.  I visited my friend Colleen who has a worm bin in her garage. She has composted all her food scraps in it for years. The scraps go in, and worms do their work, and the crumbly compost goes on the garden. In the winter, she keeps the bin in her garage, where the temperature is just above 50 degrees.  Amazingly, it does not smell.

My friends Mike and Tawnya had worms for several years. The day their worms arrived by post,  they came in to the driveway to find their mailbox dripping with red worms –they’d gotten out of their cardboard shipping box and were trying to escape.

When my friend Emily worked for the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, she described the bins of worms in the basement of their building. The worms were eating all of the white paper waste and churning out the compost that she got to take home for her garden.

Even my Aunt Anne, who is 84, remarked one night at dinner “You know, Granny always attributed the quality of her compost to Minerva’s worms.” Minerva’s worms? Turns out Minerva was a worm farmer in Maine, and that’s where Granny ordered her red wigglers from.

Composting is tricky in our yard. The sunny spots are filled with gardens. The corners, mostly shady come summer, are where we hide our composting bins. I would like to have three piles of compost, but frankly we don’t have room.  So, my theory is that a worm composting bin will introduce some efficiency into my little system; the kitchen scraps will turn into compost more quickly.

Mike and Tawnya have an extra worm tower. I am going to call them and see if I can try one out. Gotta order some worms. I wonder if Minerva is still in business….what about compost tea….

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Fixing Raised Beds

Busted Raised Bed Corner

The snow has finally melted and I have started the inventory of winter damage. For the first time in fifteen years, there are corners to repair on the raised beds.

This takes me back to when we built the beds, shortly after moving in. The first thing we did was move a ten foot high arborvitae hedge to create a sheltered, south-facing spot for a vegetable garden.

The man who moved the hedge came all the way from Newport, Vermont, hauling a goose-necked trailer on which perched a bobcat with a cone-shaped tree digger on the front. As he settled into the cab to drive the rig off the trailer, loud music suddenly erupted from two speakers on the side of the bobcat. “What’s that?” yelled my sons, then ages eight and five. “I like to work to music,” the driver shouted. Puccini’s “Tosca” poured forth, each aria soaring above the houses in the neighborhood as the machine twirled back and forth across the driveway.

Three hours later, suddenly quiet, the hedge was moved and we had a place in which to build our raised beds.

Raised Beds Facing South in early May

In a yard as small as ours on South Street, raised beds are the way to go. Drainage, vital for healthy plants, is good.  You can plant many more plants in a raised bed than in a flat garden. It is easier to tend because of the height.  And you can organize the soils and the plants by variously amending the soils in the different beds depending on what you plant.

We planned the dimensions and lay out of the beds on graph paper.  I needed to be able to reach the plants easily without walking on the soil so it would not be compacted.  Then, after plotting out the beds with measuring tape and string, we dug down 12 – 15 inches in each rectangle, removing either gravel from the old driveway, or sod from the former lawn. We nailed together rough-cut fir boards for the sides, 2 X 12’s, 7 and 8 feet long and placed the rectangles on the ground. We shoveled topsoil into the four (now seemingly enormous) holes. Then we top-dressed the beds with composted sheep manure.

We top-dress the beds every year with ground up leaves from our yard, compost from the kitchen along with garden clippings. We also add ashes from the woodstove from time to time, or lime, to sweeten the soil. We added sand to the bed designated for herbs, many of which prefer somewhat less rich soil.

That first year garden, fifteen years ago, was miraculous. There were no pests, no rodents, no bugs, no woodchuck  (they all arrived the second year) — the garden was new, and “the word” had not gotten out.  The amount of produce, using a square foot gardening system, was astonishing.

Here are some raised bed basics:

Note the shade of the crab apple; every year, we have to prune it.

 

Site:  Try for a spot that gets lots of sun, and where water does NOT collect. My beds face south. They are sheltered (which makes it warmer), and the ground gently slopes to the south, which is ideal. Ask yourself the following questions: how near is the bed to a water source? Are there big trees nearby, whose surface roots could compete for moisture and nutrients? Is the sunlight consistent (this might affect what you can grow)?

Size:  Walking on soil compacts it. So design a bed that you can easily access. A width of 4 to 5 feet should suffice, 4 feet is ideal.

Paths:  Some people have lawns between their beds – so design a path that is wide enough for your mower. My friend Margy removed the topsoil from the paths, and filled them with wood chips. Barbara’s paths are filled with gravel, and her beds come in a variety of shapes. Last year, my husband and I laid blue stone between our raised beds.

Facts:

The soil in raised beds warms up faster, so your vegetables get a head start.

Raised beds are easier to tend.

Raised beds dry out faster, so monitor them carefully for watering. Ideally, you should mulch, a topic for another day.

Different beds can contain different soils, depending on what you want to plant.

Raised beds can be planted intensively, but watch out: plants tend to really thrive, so don’t over – plant!

Early May

Not all vegetables work well in a raised bed, like corn, squash and pumpkins: they need more space.

If you haven’t gardened before, start small. We started with four smaller beds and now have six large ones.  Some people have both raised beds and flat beds (in the ground).


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What’s Up

A version of this post appeared on Eating Well Magazine’s website

There’s an old Vermonter’s adage that you plant seeds on Town Meeting Day. It’s a big day: not only do we practice direct democracy here (we’ve dragged our kids to Town Meeting since they were little so they could grow up seeing democracy in action), but it’s generally the day the sugar makers hang buckets on the trees (they’ve already had a couple of runs through the tubing). It is also when, in Middlebury, we take the Christmas Wreath off the front door.

radicchio seedlings

The sap is rising. And now there are lots of green shoots under my growing lights.

Spring teases us right now, as is her wont in March. Some days we let the wood stove go out. Other mornings, there are snow flurries, and the mercury goes back below freezing, so we re-light the stove. We spent Friday biking in 60 degree sun, but then spent the weekend under snow flurries, with our friend sugar maker Kenn Hastings, and his wife Val, at Bread Loaf View Farm in Cornwall, Vermont, as he boiled sap.

Kenn started making sugar when he was in tenth grade at Middlebury Union High School. And he’s got the sugar making “bug”. “Though it’s not a bug,” he says, ” it is more a personality type that allows the bug to enter your psyche. Like the rising of the sap in the trees, the desire to sugar thaws within the true sugar maker when the spring breezes blow.”

Sugar Season

Val commented about how much work it is when “the rhythm changes from winter life to sugaring time. It takes over our lives for six weeks.”

It’s exactly this transition of season, the rhythm change, that I am grateful for, along with the joy that the seeds I have planted are coming up. Meanwhile at the sugar house, the steam is rushing aloft. Kenn is tinkering with the evaporator, watching and measuring, always in motion, always thinking.

I feel the change all around outside: the rushing water, the streams of geese overhead, the twelve hours of day light that trigger something in the trees, the roadside ditches overflowing with snow melt, the fields that resemble shallow lakes. Otter Creek gently slides over its banks to make sanctuaries for migrating waterfowl.

Bike in snow

Maple sugar might be the sweet core of mud season, along with the shoots of green under my grow lights. Here’s what’s up this morning: Artichoke, Fennel, Radicchio, Bok Choi, English Lavender, Lavender Lady, French Rosemary, Sweet Marjoram, German Chamomile, Hyssop, Sage, Calendula, Tarragon.

But there’s still snow outside.

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