Thursday, June 26, 2014

Salads straight from the ground

These are the days of the garden of good eating. Every night: fresh Asian greens, Hakurei turnips, and Easter egg radishes along with salads. I've concocted a new kind of salad mix lately, drawing basically on an array of available lettuce greens, herbs, and baby spinach, which actually isn't young at all but is the result of a plant that survived last winter's snow and this spring's mud as well as a transplant from one bed to the other. I wasn't sure whether the plant that had survived the winter could survive a transplant and by the time the plant proved itself worthy, it had begun to flower and bolt. So I've been clipping off the top and selecting a handful of small tender dark green leaves in hopes that the plant will experience yet another renewal and start to bush out into a full spinach plant once again.

In the meantime, the leaves pair well with the remnants of another soon-to-bolt lettuce green. This one is a kind of hybrid romaine plant that came from a set of seedlings that one of the Saratoga Farmers Market vendors gifted us with back in March. Like the spinach, the romaine survived the winter but faced an uncertain future when its leaves began to wilt in the container in which I was growing it around mid-April. I moved it into sun-warmed soil alongside a series of baby bok choy and tatsoi seedlings that seemed to be outgrowing their starter pots faster than I'd envisioned. Then, the spring warmth returned to a glum damp grey chill, and I thought I'd lost the whole lot. Hoping to salvage at least some of the plants, I clipped baby leaves off the bok choy and tatsoi in early May, then experienced the delight of watching the plants bounce to life. We ate from that garden nearly every other night for about a month, until the plants produced their final leaves and found relief in going to seed. By then, there was a healthy crop of arugula, basil, and mint growing in other beds, all of which combined with the struggling spinach and lettuce to produce salads that are a myriad shades of green and super-crisp.

As I've been scavenging and salvaging salad leaves from the gardens, I've also been trying to clear my refrigerator of various condiments that have found a home in the shelves over the past couple of years. Happily, the refrigerated shelf life for foods like miso paste, Worchestershire sauce, mustard, and Bragg's amino acids are fairly long. A little bit of label reading, common sense and creativity have led to some new salad dressings.

I never was very good at creating salad dressings from the basic balsamic vinegar and olive oil base. The vinegar always seemed too sharp and softening its edge with the smooth flavor of the oil seemed to blunt the fresh crispness of the salad greens I craved. My understandings of dressings improved, however, after I consulted with a coffee vendor at the Saratoga Farmers Market who encouraged me to go light on the oil and soften the balsamic vinegar's sharpness with honey, maple syrup, and a bit of fresh lemon. Another farmer was selling greenhouse-grown lemons at the time so I gave it a try and enjoyed it. Over the past few months, I've broken the dressing down into a formula that consists roughly of 1) an oil; 2) an acidic ingredient; and 3) some flavoring. With that formula in mind, I've created one dressing that blends miso paste, water, lemon juice, and sesame oil; another that mixes the olive oil with Worchestershire sauce; and a third that retains the basic olive oil and balsamic combo alongside the juices that spill out of freshly cut tomato slices and a few crushed leaves of dried stevia.

The challenge with these combinations is that they are un-measurable. This means that the quantities of each ingredient vary as do the combinations of items that get tossed into the salad spinner for a cold water cleansing and fast dry. I think, however, that the uncertainty works as long as the leaves stay small and green.

In the meantime, a new crop of lettuce has started to flourish, in the spaces where the first round of baby bok choi and tatsoi initially reigned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Alleged Simplicity of Food

Tonight I made a white-bean hummus, using dried European Soldier beans (a large variety), garlic scapes, cumin, lemon juice, and olive oil. Once the beans were softened through a one-hour soak and low boil, the entire preparation took about five minutes. My husband and I sampled the mixture as it was whirring in the food processor, and after I had scooped about 95 percent of it into a storage dish for refrigeration, we enjoyed what was left in the mixing bowl. So flavorful. So easy. Just a few minutes, and it's done.

Only it's not quite as simple as that.

The beans came from our backyard garden, as did the garlic scapes. Although I can't claim credit for producing the cumin, lemon juice, or oil, working the land as we have for the past three years makes me acutely conscious of the fact that these items, too, were produced by someone somewhere on this planet initially. In many ways, the flavor of the hummus was enhanced by the fact that we grew its main ingredient ourselves. But as I was marveling at how quickly the preparation came together I started to remember the labor that went into producing that main ingredient: the beans.

From that perspective, the main ingredient for the hummus took about a year to migrate from farm field to fork. We planted our dried bean crop in late June of 2013, and spent a summer watering the plants, weeding the spaces in and around them, beating back a small bug infestation, and building a solar-powered electric fence around all of our fields to deter the area deer. When we harvested our dried beans in October, we were ecstatic. Our harvest filled two empty chicken feed sacks, each of which had held 100 pounds of grain.

A mistake in planning meant we spent the winter, spring, and now the early summer slowly husking all of those beans. To this date, a four-foot-tall garden bin still remains half-full of unhusked beans. With husking came sorting, and as spring advanced toward summer, we found ourselves in the midst of the next garden season. Quickly, we chose about 100 black turtle beans, 100 Vermont cranberry beans, and 100 European Soldiers to plant for this year, along with some pinto beans we'd acquired from a local farmer and some garbanzo beans from an Indian grocery store that we decided to try planting on a whim.

This year's beans have sprouted and are growing fast. Still, there's more work to be done: more weeding, more fertilizing, more harvesting, and husking.

I raise these points because growing one's own food increasingly calls attention to the value of food itself. Knowing what it takes to grow a meal -- or even a simple snack like hummus -- has made me increasingly conscious of how, when, why, and how much I actually eat. I find myself treasuring every bite, and feel compelled not to let anything we cook -- or others cook for us -- go to waste. This consciousness of food seems better than the best diet because you're always eating just enough to satisfy you and you're always appreciating every bite.

It surprises me increasingly that this simple level of awareness disappears in a society of gluttony, eating that is so fast-paced that it seems to be more like scarfing, and over-indulgence. That, of course, applies to the "haves" side of the spectrum, and does not include the tens of millions who suffer chronic hunger because the means to produce what one needs simply does not exist for them. These conditions cause me to wonder how we grew so alienated from the means of production of food in the first place, and what it is about modernity that enables us so gleefully to accept those circumstances.

The garden that grows in our backyard has expanded over three years. It provides nearly all of the vegetables we eat year-round, eggs, and, as of this year, strawberries and chicken. We are hoping to grow other berries, revitalize the apple trees, raise bees for honey, and over time other animals for meat. While we are far from poor, we live with a small bank account: We stretch the bi-weekly paycheck hard to pay our bills and count many things that friends and colleagues take for granted as rare luxuries. Still, in our home, there's always enough to eat and usually some to share. While we try to eat mindfully, we do not go hungry. That equation of low cash and high yields seems so simple.

Yet, it's one that is based in a ever-evolving understanding of value. I thought of that as I scraped the mixing bowl in which I'd made the hummus striving to not let any of it go to waste. A lot of hours of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and husking went into that hummus. The least we could do was slowly savor every bite.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

A New Normal

I ended the month of May with a short piece about being "on call" as my mother entered the hospital near the first of the month and remained there for much of the time. As she was treated for a stomach infection via intravenous tubes, antibiotics, an emergency surgery, drainage tubes, and CT scans, I was in a position of waiting: Waiting for phone calls that would give me updates on her health, checking in with my father on how well he was coping, trading e-mails and texts and phone calls with my sisters as we grappled with an unfamiliar situation, trying to figure out what next to do. Amid that all, I tried to rise up to the challenge of trying to go on with life as usual -- going to the office, checking up on students, reading and commenting on assignments, preparing to attend conferences, just generally trying to keep up with meetings, projects, and other commitments, and continuing to try and write and do workouts at the same time.

As May spilled into June, I found myself in Muncie, staying for ten days with my parents in their new retirement community townhouse and adjusting to a life that saw my mother using a walker to move around the house, relying upon others to provide her with food instead of insisting on preparing elaborate meals for others, asking for help with an array of tasks, and generally trying to do as much as she could on her own.

The move to the townhouse had occurred the previous fall. It was a smart move on the part of my parents -- providing them with living quarters that were still quite spacious and suited for independent life but smaller and more manageable than the homes in which they had lived for the prior four decades. I remember my father telling me as I helped them sort through their possessions and make decisions about what to keep and what to pass on to others that he felt as if he and my mother would be quite happy there. He particularly liked the backyard, which featured a pleasant patio, a wooden pergola, and a small gurgling fountain amid a series of small, manageable gardens.

In June, the pleasant air of the townhouse seemed to have been put into disarray: four-foot tall dandelions had taken over the gardens, along with a series of other weeds. The fountain was shut down, and the patio and pergola sat alone in the pleasant sun receiving very little use.

I decided that bringing order back to the backyard might be one way to re-establish a sense of normalcy, for my father particularly, as my mother recovered. Over their mild protests, I went out and uprooted the overgrown dandelions, and filled a thirty-gallon garbage bag with weeds. I re-located some solar lamps, and my sister brought several potted tomatoes, summer squash, peppers and herbs that she and I proceeded to plant in the backyard. As life returned to the yard, it seemed to perk up my father's spirits, as well. On the day before I left, he went to the grocery store purportedly to pick up some daily staples. After he returned, I spotted something bright hanging from the pergola: a basket of hanging flowers. He had purchased two of the baskets to enliven the space.

Two days after I left, my mother returned to the hospital for a follow-up CT scan. All of us -- my father, my sisters, close friends and other relatives, and even her doctors -- hoped and expected the image to reveal a clean bill of health because, it seemed, that she was recovering so well. She had been gaining strength and weight with each passing day, and just before I left, had been able not only to cut a few vegetables on a chopping board but also to check on a meal-in-progress, stirring the pot and offering an assessment with her expert eyes of what more needed to be done to complete the preparations.

Instead the scan reveal a recurrence of infection. She was re-admitted to the hospital. New tubes were inserted, and more antibiotics were given. A series of new tests were administered, as well.

I received this news while on a work trip, via the same technologies that had dominated May: text messages, e-mails, and phone calls between myself and my sisters. Once again, I found myself watching my phone, waiting, and wondering what was the best thing to do.

I am not a weepy emotional person. I do love and care for my parents and my sisters, but I do not demonstrate these sentiments very often in the warm-and-fuzzy Hallmark-esque kinds of ways that celebrations of such things as Father's Day and Mother's Day seem to demand. I also realize that life needs to continue, that the ailments of one individual will only grow worse if those around her fall ill, as well. And so I enter the week before the Summer Solstice with a sense that any aspect of daily life is now subject to change. I can make plans, set goals, and establish deadlines as I have always done. But I cannot guarantee that those plans, goals, and deadlines will be met. Perhaps this is the new normal that all of us with aging parents and/or ailing relatives must ultimately confront.