Despite a hundred mostly-green tomatoes that are being eaten one at a time by mice, our garden has been a joy this summer. We got dozens of adorable little carrots, gorgeous lettuces and arugula, rhubarb, of course, by the several pounds, and lots of green peppers and poblanos. The marigolds we grew from seeds to keep away the bugs have grown gigantic on woody stems, leaning over into other people's kale. Now if only I knew the flower to chase away mice.
It is harvest-time, it is past harvest-time. Still you note your gardens are producing if indeed you have a garden: these plants push it till the bitter end, tomatoes still dangling from sagging vines, leaves gone yellow and crispy and still the tomatoes are there. Pepper plants still producing flowers, absurdly. Marigolds getting thicker and thicker and oranger and oranger until the whole thing seems like it's going to blow. They must know what's coming--winter, the end. So they're throwing every last bit of wild life-force they have left, throwing it out like sparks, bright orange and smoking, ephemeral, until the lights burn out.
I love this about a garden. About living green things. They really go for it, they go nuts, they live while they're living.
And best of all, you get to eat what they work so hard at creating.
Here are four garden stories, with recipes.
But It Was Labelled Eggplant
Kay more or less runs the community garden adjacent to her south side high rise. It is a beautiful place, roomy and quiet, with grassy paths between each patch, a blend of flower and vegetable gardens, and a tidy composter in the way back. Indoors there is a shared garden tool room; "well-organized" doesn't even begin to describe this immaculate space. Another room holds everyone's boxes of their own supplies, and again, neatness rules here. Outdoors there is a wide expanse of open lawn with the occasional bench, and 40 private patches plus 2 which are shared. Several gardeners put plants in the shared patches, used for vegetables mostly this year.
One of those plants was a bit of a mystery for awhile. "They told us it was an eggplant at the Hyde Park Garden Fair," Kay said as she showed me around the garden. "But as we began to see the leaves, we knew it wasn't an eggplant."
"Mrs. Hano, she's 94, our oldest gardener, she has eggplants."
She showed me more eggplants in the back...
...by "our gooseberry collection." My heart skipped a beat at the mention of gooseberries. Gooseberries are old school. "Do you do anything with these?" I asked as we waded through the 6 foot tall bushes. "Every year I put them up for my friend whose plants these are," Kay told me. "But gooseberries come in the spring, nothing left to see now."
Well that not-an-eggplant-after-all grew taller, much taller. Past squash, past cabbage, past kale. The leaves grew broad. The gardeners wondered.
My neighbor and garden-sharer Shawn saw them and knew. It was collards: thick broad leaves, fan-like, springing out all the way up a tall stalk. He also knew how he wanted to prepare them. So he asked for a few leaves, took them home, and subjected them to a treatment for kale: crispy chips.
The end result definitely retains that distinctive collard flavor with only olive oil and salt to compete. It would seem healthier to eat them if they weren't so addictive. When Shawn made them they were bright green, salty, and to my son's mind, like eating autumn leaves right off the ground. Tasty leaves.
I made them again because they were so delicious and because I wanted to try chopping the pieces in small rectangles, like fritos, to see if I could get a less leafy experience. For sure they were more beautiful Shawn's way, and they were certainly more of a chip-like experience my way. If you want your crispy collard chips artsy, cut them large; if you want them junk-foody, cut them small and square. My daughter and I ate an entire pan with no help from anyone.
The high-rise community garden was absolutely a delight, as was talking to Kay, collard-supplier, gardener, organizer, baker, gooseberry jam maker.
Is Oregano Supposed to Taste Like a Slap Across the Face?
In our community garden space we inherited two plants, two giant plants. Rhubarb, which you can read about here and here, and oregano. When the oregano was bushy, but before it had flowered, I grabbed armloads and proceeded to wash it and hang it inside my house upside-down from ceiling beams, window frames, and door frames.
This may sound charming, but trust me, the effect was a little more unkempt garden shed than French provincial kitchen. My family wondered how long they were going to have to duck their heads going from the dining room to the stairs. I wondered too, never having dried oregano before. I kept it there all summer until I considered the threat of hibernating insects finding a nice winter home in the bunches. I cut them down and crunched off the leaves into a large ziploc bag, removed the woody twigs, rolled the leaves with a rolling pin, and bottled them up adorably for my family, and for friends.
Then I tried a little pinch.
Suffice to say, this was not your Spice Islands oregano.
It practically burns going down, this oregano. It makes me worried that it's not actually oregano at all, maybe it's nightshade, or hemlock, or some other evil herb of fairy-tale fame. I only need use the tiniest pinch in whatever I'm cooking, and it goes a long way.
So far it's graced, or dared to destroy, some cabbage soup, a chicken pot pie, and a pot of stock. Since we have all survived the consumption of these dishes I think we're not actually dealing with evil fairy tale herbs, just an occasional robust slap across the face.
What I Was Waiting For All Along
When last we spoke of them, my poblanos were thread-wispy seedlings being shuttled from sunny windowsill to sunny windowsill.
Look at them now, back in the windowsill:
This, my friends, in case you don't know what you're looking at, is a miracle.
They're robust and sizable and gorgeous, actual edible delicious peppers that came from a seed the size of a crumb that you'd hardly bother sweeping up off the floor. Well anyway I would hardly bother.
I made them into a big platter of of chiles rellenos and we ate them with our garden-plot sharing neighbors, just as planned way back in April when the poblanos were just a slender reed of hope. Neither of us--the poblanos nor I--knew what sort of summer lay ahead, what sort of dry punishing heat would characterize the whole growing season.
Fortunately for poblanos, they love that weather. The hotter the better, and they don't even care too much about being thirsty.
And most happily of all, these peppers all seem to be mild, kind poblanos, not the evil, trickily too-hot variety. You never know when you're going to get those--either in the garden, the market, or the restaurant. This time, we didn't.
We got golden-fried, queso-filled, roasted poblanos and it was exactly what I was waiting for all along.
There Are Two Kinds of People in The World. Those Who Get Chutney, and Those Who Don't.
David is a south side home gardener with a single 8 foot by 3 foot raised bed. He built it several years ago and the bounty has reached nearly ridiculous levels. This year they planted and harvested: yellow pear tomatoes, gathered by the thousands, peppers--serranos, jalapenos, and poblanos, melons, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash, concord grapes, raspberries, blackberries, and red currants, and yes folks, an apple tree. I actually can't even picture this, and since I offer no photograph you'll just have to use your imagination.
He buys most of his plants from an enormous greenhouse and nursery an hour south of Chicago in Grant Park, IL called Woldhuis Farms. It is a long way to go for plants, David admitted, but they are just better than he can find around here.
What could he possibly do with all this bounty? Beyond eating it, he cans.
As readers of Cook's County know, I am a little phobic about canning and am fascinated by anyone brave enough to do it. This is not how David looks at the matter. He comes by his canning honestly, coming from a serious canning family. Preserving, freezing, and canning were a way of life for David's grandmother. She used to have a little shed outside just for home canned good storage--shelves and shelves full, which the family ate all year long, fresh summer produce all year. David especially remembers the green beans--something many canners won't do today at all because of the higher risk associated with them. When his parents got married, his grandparents' wedding gift to them was a deep freeze filled with home-grown, put up produce. What an awesome present! Perhaps because of her mother's overacheiving awesomeness in this regard, or simply due a diminished necessity for continuing the work, David's mom preserved less food. Mainly she would do beets, David says, "when she was feeling nostalgic."
The tradition carries on now with the grandson. David freezes some of his produce, cans a few things. Mainly a few jams and some chutneys. Such as, for your consideration, this green tomato chutney.
It's the second year he's made this, and it's exactly what he wanted it to be. He wanted it to be like ploughman's lunch pickles. Ploughman's lunch? you ask. So did I. You know, the English rustic lunch of cheese, bread, and pickles or chutney that can be found in the rustic English working class pub, or here, in hipper Britishy joints. It's not a horseradishy chutney that he's after, it's more of a vinegary one, and this green tomato chutney is it. In this batch he mixed three types of vinegar: malt, sherry, and apple cider--mostly because he needed them all to get enough for the recipe.
What do you do with this? Who eats it? How do you eat it? The questions come pouring forth. Because I am one of those people who just don't really get chutney. David admits: many don't. But those who do--love this. It's best eaten with bread and a strong cheddar--just like a ploughman's lunch. And if you're lucky enough to be on the receiving end of David's green tomato chutney, but benighted enough not to know what to do with it, now you do.
Crispy Collard Chips
This recipe was adapted from a Food and Wine kale treatment.
Preheat the oven to 275 or 300 degrees, no hotter. Wash your collard leaves and dry them well. Remove the center stem and chop the leaves up as you wish. Place them on a cookie sheet and brush olive oil on both sides of each piece. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt. (Well, I like kosher salt best. You can use whatever you have.) Pop your pan, or pans, in the oven, and let them cook for 20 minutes or so. Keep a close eye on them, though, because they can turn from glorious green to an unappetizing brown very quickly. Remove from pan and eat them all at once, feeling virtuous.
To me there is only one way to fix this dish. Do not overthink it, do not overdo it. Stick with the basic treatment and you will never go wrong.
1/2 lb. queso, Mexican white cheese, cut in finger-size pieces
flour, salt, pepper
3 eggs, separated
oil for frying, about 1/2" depth in the pan
First, the tedious part. Roast the chiles. Put them under the broiler, turn frequently and watch like a hawk; or a 450 degree oven for a longer time, flipping occasionally to get all sides roasted. Pull the roasted peppers off the pan and place in a large ziploc or paper bag, zip or roll up. You are letting the peppers sweat it out, and their skins will ostensibly be easy to remove after this treatment. Give them 15 minutes or so to cool off.
Take them out and under lightly running water, laboriously remove the skins. When you've finished this, now cut a tiny lengthwise slit in each pepper and run the water inside to get out the seeds. If you like to play Russian roulette with poblano seeds, leave them in and then you can worry about whether they will be too hot to eat. I hate those pesky seeds, so I take the extra time to remove them. At the top of the poblano, a large clump of seeds is connected very ferociously to the stem, so remove this part with a knife.
After ten of these you may be ready to give up and go take a nap. If you're not up to this kind of thing, and I'm not, ever, except for those precious poblanos I raised from seeds, then you can buy very nice roasted seeded whole peppers at the grocery store. I'm not above this.
For a break from your peppers you may now beat the egg whites until stiff peaks. Stir up the yolks but otherwise set them aside for the moment.
Fill each pepper with a few of your sticks of cheese so they're nice and plump. When the whole plate is done, sprinkle them with a few tablespoons of flour that you've seasoned with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and several grinds of pepper.
Heat the oil in the pan--fairly hot, you're going to be doing a shallow fry and you want to achieve golden brown.
Now fold the yolks into the whites and turn them into a large shallow bowl. Gently roll each stuffed poblano in the batter until it's covered. This is a complete pain in the ass. I'm just saying. Don't give up, though. Drink a swig of wine and carry on.
Put each one in the hot oil as you complete it. When you have a pan full--say, three or four--stop the dipping for now and turn your attention to cooking them evenly. Turn carefully when golden, till you have golden all around. Remove each poblano when you've reached that, and place them on paper towels to drain a bit. Serve that pan full, then repeat the process with the rest.
These are best eaten right fresh out of the pan with your favorite salsa and a tortilla. So someone else will have to keep cooking as you eat the first round.
Green Tomato Chutney
David loosely follows this recipe from the Southern Food category at About.com. As mentioned above he tweaks with the vinegars. Usually he includes diced apples as well.
2 1/2 pounds firm green tomatoes, about 6 cups diced
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger
Trim the stem and blossom ends from tomatoes and cut into 3/4-inch dice (you should have about 6 cups). Combine all ingredients in a heavy kettle; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for about 1 hour, until thickened.
Spoon chutney into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space; wipe jar rims. Cover at once with metal lids, and screw on bands. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner. Be sure you listen for the schwoop.
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