15 January 2012

From Seed to Spaghetti al Pomodoro

snowy garden
The snow is here.  I can't complain though.  We harvested lettuce into December and pulled carrots just last week.  Harvesting. In January.  In Northern Illinois.  Awesome.
kale under snow
The garden is under a blanket of snow, but the 2012 gardening season has officially started for us because we are placing our seed orders.  In just a few months we will be breaking ground and getting our early spring vegetables in: radish, beets, lettuce, peas.  Even sooner than that, we will be starting our transplants from seed.  By the end of February, we will have rows of various seeds under grow lights. 

our dining room table rigged as a makeshift nursery last winter--I'm sure our neighbors weren't at all suspicious

the formal dining nursery got a little out of hand
we had to eat meals on the couches and floor for months

That spaghetti al pomodoro doesn't begin on the stove or even when we harvest the tomatoes.  It starts before we transplant, before we harden off the plants, before the plants even exist.  When one starts a garden from seed, spaghetti al pomodoro begins on a snowy afternoon in January while browsing the online seed catalogs.

Our primary seed source is Seed Savers Exchange.  They are a great non-profit organization that focuses on the conservation and distribution of heirloom seeds and plants.  They began in 1975 and have a wonderful mission.  Also, because they are based in Iowa, we know that the seeds they carry work well in our hardiness zone

Another similar source for seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, based in Missouri.  Last year we used them for several of the seeds that were sold out or unavailable through Seed Savers.  Baker Creek has a wonderful story, founded and run by the very homesteady Gettle family.  They also offer a quarterly magazine and book focused on heirloom gardening.

We will continue to grow the majority of our plants from Seed Savers and similar seed providers because we like the idea of propagating heirloom seeds:  it promotes genetic diversity and the plants are unique.  Also, we like supporting local seed providers.  We are adding some hybrid seeds because our garden repetoire was lacking a few key Italian plants central to our cuisine.  Obviously the growing conditions in Illinois are quite different from those in the majority of Italy so I can forget about artichokes, blood oranges, olives, and Sangiovese grapes.  Seed Savers does offer many Italian vegetables suited to Zone 5.  For the necessary items they do not carry, I use Seeds from Italy.

Unfortunately, they were already sold out of San Marzano Tomato seeds, the primary tomato in Italian sauces and pastes.  The search led me to a gourmet seed site, Gourmet Seed International, where I not only found San Marzano Tomatoes, but a few other good discoveries: Melrose and Banana Peppers, a gourmet zucchini cultivar, and some specialty onions and herbs.  I'm excited to see how they grow and taste.

Vivienne helping harden off the seedlings last spring
For us, gardening is very much about the act: being outside, growing our food, keeping our food source as close as possible.  But just as important is the final product, the meal that results from the seeds that turn into plants that are harvested for comsumption.  Yes, growing our own plants saves us money.  The $2.75 that we spend on a packet of tomatoes saves in what we would spend otherwise on properly grown tomatoes, sauces, and pastes.  But it's more than that.  Even the wealthiest of investment bankers (Are they still wealthy? I don't meet very many anymore.) can't get his hands on the flavor of a home-grown tomato at Whole Foods or the best specialty market in the city.  It's not just about the saved expense, it's about the best flavor one can achieve in a meal.  Save a trip to the Mediterranean, the tomatoes that can be plated minutes after harvest are priceless because the flavor is unparallelled.  Furthermore, that spaghetti al pomodoro is a culmination of months of work and anticipation, which does add dimension to the flavor, at least in the gardener's mind. Beyond tomatoes, a snap pea is never as crisp, lettuce as flavorful, or corn as sweet as that with the shortest distance from garden to plate.  I'll save the controversy of the nutritional value and carbon footprint of growing one's food; that's not the priority of this blog.  But the superior taste of garden fresh food is hard to dispute.  After all, it would have to be truly remarkable in order to take me out of my stillettos and 45 miles from the closest Starbucks.         

Italian Heirloom Tomato almost ripe enough to harvest


  1. I never knew what produce was meant to taste like until I was in Italy -- especially tomatoes. I fell in love with tomatoes on that trip. And while Evan had to have gelato on a daily basis (I certainly obliged), I had to have bruschetta al pomodoro.

  2. That's also how I had my tomato awakening! It's unfortunate that we've come to think hothouse tomatoes are the real thing. Bruschetta al pomodoro was the very first thing I made with our tomatoes last summer and the taste immediately transported Italy! Plan a night in August to come out--I'll bring the bruschetta, you bring the gelato ;)

  3. I remember eating my first garden ripe tomato (I was in my 30's)! Ahhh....heaven. Ms. Paisana, your post makes me crave pasta at 830a! Buon appetito and good morning!

    1. Ms. Mig, there are plenty of mornings where Viv requests (and served) pasta for breakfast. Maybe you two are on to something!

  4. Our dining room table has lots of history! I, too, used it to grow seeds. Not to mention quilting, scrapbooking, lesson planning, homework....

    1. We're lucky to have a porch this year for seeds, but I'm sure the table will still see its share of projects between the cooking, baking, beer brewing. By the time we're ready to just use it for dining, Viv will probably have a whole set of projects of her own.