27 March 2012

La Dolce Vita

One might say that the gardening season begins with the garden plan or the starting of seeds indoors.  Both are reasonable assertions, but it really feels like the gardening season has begun once one begins working the ground, which is what we've been doing over the past few weeks. 

helping us prepare the beds

Our garden beds required some serious clearing before they could be worked and planted.  For days I pulled dried pepper and eggplant roots, cleared tomato and pea vines, and dug up fall kale and turnips.  Most noteworthy though is the cornstalk removal:  clearing and piling hundreds of cornstalks and hoeing the tough, spidery roots sounds really simple, and it is, but it is also very exhausting when one does it for several hours per day.  These aren't small garden beds we're talkin' about here people.  We garden over 8500 square feet.  That might sound like annoying labor, but actually, it feels great.  And with my daughter playing next to me, the sun on our skin, and the mind-boggling warm March breeze in our hair, it feels like paradise.  The farm is already so beautiful I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real.  

one of hundreds of corn roots

We're trying something different with those 8500 square feet this year:  we are taking a no-till gardening approach.  That means that the rototiller isn't doing the work.  I am.  In addition to removing obvious debris, I'm hoeing, by hand, all the clumps of grass, clover, and weeds in order to least disrupt the soil.  Last season we overtilled; this year we're compensating. After clearing the beds, we are heavily mulching them and then pulling back the mulch for planting.  The heavy mulching strategy is to save weeding time and retain moisture.  Nick and a friend have been getting hay from a nearby generous farmer's haymow for mulch.  Last year I did much of the mulching which severely aggravated my allergies.  This year I've taken to the hoeing, which is physically demanding, but saving us a lot in Claritin expense and, I'd like to think, balancing out my craft beer addiction.  Nick confirmed that this was a good idea when he discovered that the haymow is not only a hangout for the property cats, but also a cat cemetery.  He and his friend are counting cat carcasses.  You'd be surprised by the numbers.  I'm happily hoeing knowing that both my asthma and stomach are undisturbed.  Gross.

On the bright side, I get some hot, rugged, manliness happening in my backyard.  Guys like girls in bikinis washing cars.  I'll take guys in work boots throwing bails of hay.

Nick's anonymous ponytailed friend didn't get the tank top memo


With such promising weather, we've gotten most of our spring crops in the ground: Amish snap peas, green arrow peas, four types of lettuce, two arugulas, two types of chives, several types of radishes and beets, and some Parisian carrots.  I'm insanely excited about the arugula.  Expect many photos in the near future of grilled pizzas with arugula and shaved Parmesan.   

After a week of clearing, hoeing, and planting I had a decent farmer's tan.  I also took the welcome opportunity to indulge my cosmopolitan side and go downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago for The Tuscan Sun Cookbook book tour and signing with the authors, Frances and Edward Mayes.  It was a great chance to meet the authors, get a signed copy of the book, and maybe most exciting, have several of the recipes from the book prepared by the kitchen of Terzo Piano in the new modern wing.  The wine pairings didn't hurt either.  The meal was fantastic, but also timely.  We will have chickens arriving in just a matter of weeks.  Ed's Crostini Neri is a delicious manner of preparing chicken livers.  Also, the Mushroom Sformato that accompanied the Quail Braised with Juniper Berries and Pancetta with roasted vegetables is a tasty and elegant use of eggs, which we will be plentiful when our layers are in full swing.  I greatly enjoyed the roasted fennel in the roasted vegetable medley, but I'm a real sucker for fennel.  We are starting a Florence Fennel and Romanesco Fennel in our perennial bed.  Lastly, Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake, a ricotta cake, with Cherries Steeped in Red Wine is possibly one of the best cakes I've ever had.  Not only am I always looking for another purpose for the homemade ricotta we often have in our fridge, but the cherries from our cherry tree will definitely end up in this dish come June.  The Tuscan Sun Cookbook recipes are wonderful and the book itself is a beautiful testament to Italian culture and cuisine.
Olive all'Ascolana and Ed's Crostini Neri

Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake with Cherries Steeped in Red Wine

My father gave me a signed copy of Under The Tuscan Sun years ago.  Apparently, Frances Mayes is a family obsession.  For some reason I didn't read it promptly, but it ended up being one of the first books I read upon moving to the farm, which is very fitting given that she writes about transforming a house and gardens.  It's admittedly a little different since my garden is in rural Illinois and hers is in Tuscany, but the sentiment is similar: enjoying food, family, land and living la dolce vita.  That's what this garden adventure is all about after all: sharing a satisfying family project, harvesting and preparing the best food, enjoying each other to the fullest, and ultimately, experiencing a highly aesthetic life.  

As I walked down Michigan Avenue this week, the old sights and sounds of the city were refreshing.  I embraced the anonymity.  Driving among the cabbies had a nostalgic annoyance.  Even the blisters from the heels I took out of storage felt oddly good.  And while the city has much to offer by way of culture, I missed the country.  I missed the sound of the wind and the open spaces.  I missed being outside with my daughter.  And by the 20th block, I was really starting to miss my gardening clogs.  I wanted to get back to the daily life we have here, the unencumbered daily life.  We don't have highlights like Michelin star restaurants or world-class museums and you won't stumble upon a gem of a cafe or discover a new bistro.  I love strolling the streets of the cities of the world.  It's what I loved about living in Chicago and Seville and the many European and American cities I've visited.  But when it's time to come home, I appreciate the uninfringed personal space and time of the country, the simple beauty of nature, and the quiet.  There is such freedom and comfort in that quiet, the quiet that allows your thoughts to meander wherever they like uninterrupted by sirens, strangers, and street life.  That quiet allows my mind to find peace, or maybe it allows peace to enter my mind.  The manner in which it happens isn't as important as the fact that it does indeed happen.  Somehow in a chaotic world on a farm in the middle of the Midwest, I found peace of mind.  The irony of that statement is great given the many places and manners in which I had been seeking it.   

If you had asked me ten years ago where I saw myself in the future, I could not have foreseen my current life.  Living quiet family life in the countryside with a big garden anticipating the arrival of our chickens and bees would have sounded more foreign than taking up Tango in Argentina or living in an ashram in India.  I haven't become less adventurous, but more balanced--the balance of seeking beauty and creating beauty.

The crux of the matter transcends city versus country living.  It's about finding joy internally as well as externally.  It's about discovering the beauty of the world and expressing it.  My young life was consumed with what the world had to offer me and as I discovered those offerings, I began to wonder what I had to offer it.  Someone somewhere created those discoveries and maybe I am obliged to do the same.  I don't have a fully developed idea of what that offering is quite yet.  Perhaps I never will.  But if one believes as I do that our outside world is a reflection of our inside world, and vice versa, then it's important to start in a place of peace and beauty and happiness to allow those things to emerge from within.  In other words, to spread la dolce vita, one must live it first.  And for me, that begins in a humble house full of love with my family, good food, and a garden.

dusk scene: child with dog, husband with grill, garden debris burning

18 March 2012

Garden Surprise

Our lucky warm spell prompted me to prep one of our many garden beds earlier this week. 

trellises for peas

While pulling fall peas and kale, I found something:

a delicious surprise

the fall carrots that weren't ready before the ground froze were popping up.  I'm not crazy about scrubbing root vegetables, but I am so sick of canned/dehydrated/frozen vegetables that I happily dirtied my kitchen counter for something crunchy.

they clean up nicely
I diced them and whipped up a vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, honey, olive oil, and some scallions.  I've been growing scallions on my windowsill from the onions that were sprouting in the basement.  I know, it's almost too Pinterest-y for me.

nothing says 'I'm not 20 anymore' like putting onions on your windowsill

The evening we discovered our overwintered carrots, we enjoyed a deliciously crunchy carrot slaw.

my teeth were so happy to be in use again

The generous March weather was begging us to pull the Weber out of storage.  The next night we grilled the rest of the carrots with some scallions, olive oil, and kosher salt--a very nice accompaniment to grilled Italian sausage. 

a great 'between seasons' side dish

I didn't think I would ever be so excited about carrots.  Spring, we welcome you.

17 March 2012

Ridin' the Gravy Train

Something had to be done about the endless canned tomatoes in our basement.  With winter at its end, my creativity has run out.  Any original or unique aspirations I had for the contents of those jars have subsided.  It's time to make gravy.  With Spring teasing us, my taste buds were primed for something fresh so I decided on a simple, versatile tomato-basil gravy.   

one tomato shelf is cleared!


7 quarts canned tomatoes
garlic to taste (I used two heads)
frozen basil pesto (about a cup)
1/4 cup olive oil
kosher salt to taste

One could use fresh or dried spices.  I used basil pesto because I had about a cup of it on hand--the last frozen pesto in the deep freeze.  The basil holds its flavor well that way.    This is a very simple gravy--no fancy ingredients or techniques.  It highlights the tomato, which deserves attention.  A homegrown tomato has unparalleled flavor. 

Coarsely chop garlic and add to oil heated in a stockpot.  Sauté , but do not let it scorch or turn brown.

the end of the garlic is almost in sight

Add tomatoes.  Stir in pesto.

it will boil down to a nice consistency and more homogeneous-looking gravy

Simmer on low until reduced to viscosity of your liking.  Mine had to reduce for 4-5 hours because my tomatoes had a high water content.

the Italian Heirloom seeds came in the mail the same day--if that's not a sign to make gravy . . .

Once gravy is reduced and your kitchen is sufficiently blanketed in tomato matter, there are many traditional Italian-American dishes to create with a marinara.  For starters, Spaghetti with Marinara.  I know this is so simple it almost seems silly to post, but never in my existence have I wanted spaghetti more than during the hours this gravy was cooking.  Gravy-making day calls for pasta.  My husband had to wait an hour for dinner in the tomato aroma while I went to the gym.  When I came home, I realized he could not be trusted alone with the gravy:  he was just shy of climbing in the pot and taking a marinara bath.  We were both ready for a marinara orgy.

I know it is humble looking, but it's a tomato party in your mouth.  good ingredients=good eating

The 7 quarts of tomatoes along with the few other ingredients yielded about 1.5 gallons of gravy.  That might sound like a lot.  I made it on Thursday.  It lasted until Monday.  Here's why:

Eggplant Parm:  crispy eggplant topped with gravy, mozzarella di bufala, parmesan and broiled to perfection

I'm still amazed that this . . .

came from this.

but something delicious happens when you do this

Lasagna:  lasagna noodles, gravy, ricotta-egg-parmesan mixture, topped with mozzarella di bufala and parmesan.  My formula isn't very hard to identify.  It's also not hard to enjoy.

I haven't made a lasagna all year. Layers of homemade gravy and homemade ricotta is a good final winter meal

Monday night fast flour tortilla pizzas:  This isn't traditional--it's my in-a-pinch meal.  Flour tortillas make a great, fast, thin-crust pizza.  Make fun if you want, but Jacques said it's ok.  I really like tortilla pizzas with roasted brussel sprouts and shaved parmesan.  It feels like a splurge, but is very reasonable calorically, which is a hilarious point to make after posting eggplant parm and lasagna.   

a fake margherita, I know

And indeterminate amounts of marinara were sopped up by multiple baguettes.  That's my favorite way to enjoy a good homemade gravy.  I needed a bread intervention.  My last meal on earth would be my mother's sausage gravy and three loaves of Italian bread.   

Vivienne has also taken to gravy-eating.  She would have had macaroni with marinara for three meals a day if I let her.  She hasn't quite taken to the bread-dipped-in-gravy phenomenon, but I'm confident she'll learn.  By the time we work our way through the rest of the canned tomatoes, she'll be a pro.  Like her mama.

08 March 2012

The Long Winter Pantry

Although winter is soon coming to an end, our winter pantry is still very full.  We had no idea how much preserved food we would need so I canned, dehydrated, and froze in abundance.  In typical fashion, I went overboard.  It's a perfect time to review our inventory now that the 2012 garden season has officially begun (we're starting seeds!). 

a few trays of onions

As we design and redesign our garden layout, we are adjusting quantities from last year.  For example, 100 tomato plants last summer might have been too many for a family of three.  Feel free to stop by for a complimentary quart of canned tomatoes.

Despite the quantity of preserved food in our winter pantry, there is still a limited variety, which challenges my culinary creativity.  The thought of another soup or stew couldn't inspire me less.  We had guests over for lunch.  Here's what I came up with that didn't bore me to tears:

A simple antipasto of preserved, spicy marinated eggplant (it tastes better than it looks),

think of them as Italian pickles

a winter caprese salad consisting of mozzarella di bufala drizzled with a basil pesto and sun dried tomato pesto, 

tomato, basil, and mozzarella: the holy trinity

and rustic sandwiches.

I think we're onto something with pureed peas.  Any new idea is great when introduced with bacon.

The first sandwich is a play on one of my favorite pasta dishes: pasta in cream with pancetta and peas.  For the sandwich, we used the amazing local bacon instead of pancetta and melted provolone as the 'cream'.  The coarsely pureed peas have the texture of hummus with a fresh, sweet flavor that perfectly compliments the salty bacon. 

intense green

The peas are fantastically green.

The second sandwich is heartier, kind of an alternative to a meatball sub:  grilled Italian sausage, pisto manchego (tomato-garlic-pepper-eggplant spread), and goat cheese.  Both went down easy with our home-brewed Brown Ale and Imperial Pale Ale.  The IPA went particularly well with the rhubarb crumb bars for dessert.

rhubarb puree can be substituted in any of your favorite jam cookie/bar recipes

The rhubarb bars are definitely one of the better desserts I've come up with in order to use the dozens of frozen bags of stewed rhubarb in the deep freeze.   The vanilla cake with rhubarb glaze and whipped cream didn't receive any complaints either.  And the zucchini-rhubarb oat muffins proved an easy way to get my suddenly picky two-year-old to eat something other than pasta or bacon (or as she calls it, 'that good steak').

The aforementioned meal may not sound particularly special, but it provided new uses for many items in our winter pantry.  The winter salads contained marinated eggplant, frozen basil pesto, and sun dried tomatoes.   The sandwiches included frozen peas, canned tomatoes, dried eggplant, dried peppers, onion, garlic.  The dessert was yet another incarnation of frozen stewed rhubarb.

If you're tired of hearing about the above ingredients, you can imagine how tired I am of finding something interesting to do with them.  The end of preserved food is quickly approaching though.  Soon we will have fresh vegetables and a new set of ingredients with which to experiment: namely, eggs, poultry, and honey.  In our efforts to augment our homestead, we've decided to add chickens and bees this summer.   

As we get closer to breaking ground and transplanting our seedlings, I get more and more excited about choosing ingredients from the garden instead of the freezer and winter pantry.  However, we still have a few months to make our way through plenty of dried vegetables, a few more heads of onions and garlic, and lots of frozen zucchini, peas, and rhubarb.  Oh, and let's not forget the canned tomatoes that could last us well into 2015.