My garden journal tells me it was May 1 that I planted my bed of cucumbers, onions and Italian "striata" squash. I also planted edamame, or soy beans, for the first time. We pulled those plants weeks ago and blanched the beans, freezing most of them for later.
Yesterday was time to dig up the rest of the bed and start thinking about a fall or winter crop. I sank the forked spade into the soil and started lifting around the weeds. Up came onions I had not seen--set those aside. Out came the squash plants--they are sprouting new leaves and blossoms, but really they've done their job. The cucumbers are looking tired as well. I've trained them to grow up strands of butcher's twine hung from a PVC frame. I'll let the few remaining fruits grow a few more days. Then it will be their turn to contribute to the compost pile.
As I turn the soil, I see the remnants of the layer of straw I laid down three months ago to hold back weeds. The straw is half-rotted, telling me I'm not alone here. The soil is teeming with micro-organisms munching away on the organic matter. They give the soil that fresh, fecund aroma that can only be described as "earthy." That is a sign of a healthy soil that is getting healthier all the time. The bacteria and fungi and nematodes and other creatures--all too small to be visible, but numbering in the billions--are the real workers here, breaking down matter into molecular bits, releasing nutrients and feeding my plants in the process. I am just a walk-on player, the guy who comes along and stage-manages.
In the end, this is where food comes from, that part of an endless cycle of birth, death and decay where we get to interject, gathering what the good earth offers so that we, too, can play in the cycle.
This is the second day of full-on harvest from our front yard garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House. I am not trying to invent anything new by way of cuisine, not trotting out any fancy recipes. We are just eating from what we have sown, food simply and efficiently prepared in all its freshness and fullness of flavor.
In another bed we planted more than two dozen potato sets. The plants have since faded. You'd be hard-pressed to know they were ever here. But when I turn the earth something magical occurs--along with the clods of soil perfectly formed red and purple potatoes appear. There's a bit of searching that goes on. Did the first spade-full turn up all the potatoes? Or are there more down there--deeper, deeper--waiting to be discovered? I sift through the soil with my hands, breaking clods apart, and quickly have a bowl full or potatoes. We wash and scrub them, cut them into pieces, toss them with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and roast them in a 325 degree oven until tender.
We love Swiss chard and it thrives in our garden. Do we have the perfect conditions for Swiss chard here, or is it really so easy to grow? I don't know. I am always tempted to plant more and more of it. We even had a couple of volunteers this year. They came up in the flower bed, where I'd sown tansy and coreopsis. So it was the volunteers I harvested first, gathering the stalks in one hand, then cutting them close to the soil with a serrated knife.
Most recipes focus on the leaves of the chard, something I don't quite understand. The tastiest parts are the stems. After washing them, I roll the stems and leaves on a cutting board and chop everything roughly into pieces. This will make a large pile. I toss these into a heavy skilled where I've been sauteeing sweet onion in extra-virgin olive oil, a bit of chard at a time, since all of it would never fit in the skillet. Place a handful of leafy chard into the skillet with a bit of water, cover the skillet for a minute to let the chard cook down and reduce in size. Then add more chard until the whole pile is in the skillet, simmering.
Season with salt and pepper and continue cooking gently until the stem parts are tender, about 30 minutes. If you are using red chard, the stems will be much paler now. When they are cooked, I like to add about a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses (available in Middle Eastern groceries), a sprinkle of sugar and a splash of red wine vinegar. All of these flavors mingle well with the earthy tartness of the chard.
Finally we had some cucumber to make a salad. I planted cucumbers mostly for pickling. But when you leave your garden to go on vacation, cucumbers will grow out of control. Some of the cuckes grow to the size of small torpedoes. They turn a light orange color at that point--like a squash--but they are still perfectly edible. I peel them, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Then I slice the two halves thinly on the mandoline.
Place the half-moon slices in a colander set over a large bowl. Season the cucumber generously with kosher salt and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight. The salt will draw out much of the water. I now dress the cucumber slices very simply with white vinegar and finely chopped dill. You could also add a bit of heavy cream to make a finished salad.
When everything was finished--prepared simply, mind you, no fussing--we sat down for another dinner out of the garden. The flavors were bright and strong, the food could hardly be fresher. And of course we were feeling proud and satisfied, having grown it all right outside our front door.