Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Now That The Ground Has Frozen ...

November entered my life very quickly this year. With it came Diwali and a nine-course meal; a four-day trip to New York City to attend the Hip-Hop Education Center's third Think Tank and to do archival research at the Schomberg Center for Black Culture; a quick rush to get our garlic planted before the ground froze; a sprint to finish harvesting and storing all of our root vegetables; my birthday, the Veteran's Day holiday, and beginning tomorrow another round of festivities: the annual Squashville bonfire, Thanksgiving, and the day before and day after, and then it will be December.

I have been gardening less, and writing and cooking more. Along with everything else, November brought National Novel Writing Month, and with that came a determination to begin a long-delayed task of trying to assemble together all the research I've done on community based hip-hop over the past four years into a coherent fashion so I can see what I've got along with a determination to complete the similarly delayed task of completing revisions on my other book manuscript.

These projects are moving along pretty steadily, but tonight cooking is on my mind. Specifically, I am wondering how to create a wonderful, filling easy meal out of four featured garden ingredients: radishes, sweet potatoes, squash, and collard greens. And, along with that, how to create a dessert from a quince.

Radishes were a surprisingly sweet success in our garden this year. We did a planting in the spring, and ate both the greens and the radishes themselves in stir fries, roasted, or raw. After we harvested our garlic in July, we did a second planting of several quick-growing crops, radishes among them. Then, because August was filled with eating tomatoes, summer squash, eggplants, peppers, beans, peas, and all of our greens, the radishes grew bigger and bigger without us noticing much. When I finally got around to looking at the radishes in mid-September, after our first light frost, they were bulging out of the ground in hues of pink, bright red, purple, and beige.

I didn't think they would taste very good because radishes tend to lose their crispness if they're left in the ground past their prime. But when I picked one particularly large pink bulb and cut it into slices, I was surprised. The sharp, almost peppery taste that young radishes often carry had matured to a sweeter, more mellow flavor that lingered sensually on the palate. When roasted, the sweetness grew even more pronounced. We began trying to figure out how we could preserve these flavorful roots for winter use.

Some local farmers had told us that radishes don't store well in anything other than a refrigerator
and that even when refrigerated they would only be good for about eight weeks. Then, we discovered a tactic used by a backyard farmer in the Yukon to preserve all of his root vegetables. He placed them in large containers such as garbage cans, covered them with peat moss, capped the cans, and stored them in his cold basement. The method is meant to simulate the underground growing environment that helps radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, leeks, onions, and potatoes thrive. The cans keep the space where the vegetables reside dark and cold (but above freezing) while the peat moss provides both the texture of soil and enough dampness to let the vegetables stay fresh and crisp without turning
moldy. The plan made sense to us, so in mid-October we invested in several large aluminum garbage cans and three jumbo-sized bags of peat moss. It cost about $150, but we figured that even if the tactic failed, nothing would go to waste. The peat moss would help freshen up the chicken coop in the spring, which in turn would help generate more and better compost and fertilizer for our soil. And garbage cans are always going to find a use, one way or the other.

So far, our root vegetables that have been stored in this way have retained both their crisp textures and their sweet flavors. They do require a fair amount of cold water rinsing and scrubbing, but they're otherwise intact. In the meantime, however, we also found ourselves with refrigerator bins filled with carrots, turnips, and radishes that we didn't want to store because these particular vegetables were too small, too soft, or bore cracks that might have resulted from pest damage or weather changes. Such issues don't make the vegetables inedible so we've been going through them first. And in the process I've discovered that the steady cold air of the refrigerator seems to be especially good for the radishes. Every time I've pulled out a few to roast or to eat raw, they've seemed to taste better and better.

And, so I decided, some night before November ends, I would like to make a meal in which radishes are not a casual side dish but one of -- if not the one -- focal point. A couple of days ago, my husband Jim decided he wanted to hold our annual backyard bonfire tomorrow night -- this is an event in which the two of us burn the brush, old wood, and other yard debris that accumulates over the year in one fell swoop. The bonfire lasted four nights during our first year in our current place. This year, it'll probably burn good and hot for several hours but probably not more than one night. At any rate, the bonfire creates an opportunity to eat outdoors at a time of year when it's usually too cold to do so because the warmth of the fire keeps the immediate area warm for a few hours. It also is a large controlled fire, which is joyous in and of itself. Before I quit drinking, the bonfire involved swigs of wine and vodka; now, I'm anticipating seltzer water and possibly hot chocolate -- along with a meal that features four vegetables, one of them being radishes.

A few Internet searches revealed a variety of intriguing recipes that I look forward to trying out as winter deepens. Tomorrow, however, I'm thinking I'd like to keep it as simple as possible: radishes wrapped in foil and baked in the oven; sweet potatoes, boiled and perhaps mashed; squash diced up and stir-fried; and greens cooked down with a little water. The quince -- supposedly the apple that Eve bit in the Garden of Eden -- is a purchase last week from the area's top apple growers: Saratoga Orchards. Our research has produced a slow-cooked approach: 250 degrees for about four hours. It seems that it will emerge from the oven just as our bonfire embers are cooling, ruby red and sweet. A perfect dessert.