Hope and Humidity

We’ve got ourselves a good case of the Marches.

I’m hungry but picky at the same time lately, like I don’t know what I’m hungry for. The house plants are reaching hard for the window sun and the starts are still too young to baby. The front yard is busy melting and freezing and refreezing into a treacherous topography. (Around here we rarely see a midwinter melt, so the returning heat has to burn through all of the piled-up ice and snow, all the way down to October’s first layer. It’s an ice crust that contains history.)

In other words, we really appreciate the spring here in Minnesota. Honestly, just the prospect of wearing real shoes again after months of clomping around town in snow boots—or as my mother would call them, clodhoppers—thrills me. So when that electric-green chive spire finally pokes its brave tip through the earthen matting of the herb bed (not yet, but really soon) I might choke up a little. I will definitely slip my feet into my cold, stiff, long-lost shoes and walk out into the sog and pick it.

But as for now, back in the kitchen, I am still making cold-weather food: huge meatballs bobbing in marinara over cheesy polenta … potato-bacon soup ladled over quick-boiled cabbage … vegetables with cream, pasta with bacon, squash with coconut milk, all new kinds of creme caramel. There’s not a single thing here that can stand up on its own. Everything squishes and oozes dramatically into its own luscious puddle—which might not be a bad definition for winter food. Good stuff, for sure, but I’m ready for the upright, energetic ingredients of summer to start walking through the door. I miss the brittle green beans, the light tufts of lettuce, the crisp hollows of the shelling peas. Even though I don’t love them, I miss the zucchini flowers attached to the ends of the baby zucchini and their five fleeting minutes of puff. They remind me of the soaring bangs I created in middle school: the stiff crest of curls that began to wilt soon after I exited the hair-spray cloud. Similarly, zucchini blossoms taste rather airy to me, but I do admire them for their volume and good looks, and I’m not opposed to frying up a few when they arrive.

We’ve started a bunch of garden seeds already. Last year, after losing most of my starts in our little unheated greenhouse (great for growing greens but not newbie tomatoes at the moment) I decided to farm out the lot to our friend Christine at Forest & Floral in town, so that they could grow up right in a controlled greenhouse. She planted our onions and brassicas (cabbages, collards, broccoli and the like) a few weeks ago, but called us in to plant the tomatoes, and I’m glad she did. It was heaven to sink my hands into her trough of potting soil. My niece, pictured above, did an excellent job helping out. Turns out, her tiny fingers are good for dropping single seeds. (Hank and her brother much preferred to scale the snow mountain outside.) It felt glorious to just be in the greenhouse, back in the land of the living. Even in mid-March, the air in the greenhouse feels heavier—bound down with growth and humidity, but high on hope.

Speaking of that, here are some of my garden hopefuls this year. We will plant so much more—four kinds of tomatoes, four kinds of beans, two kinds of winter squash, two zucchini, two kinds of eggplant, two kinds of peppers, three kinds of potatoes, and of course all the lettuces and asian greens and root vegetables, and I know I’m forgetting something. We pack a lot into that garden, or try to.

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Fava beans. These grow very well in Minnesota, and if you can keep them upright long enough, they’ll fruit twice. Aaron runs a midsection of twine around them for stability and I harvest fresh favas in June and then again in September. Some people say that you can eat the baby favas raw and unpeeled, but please enlighten me, because I just don’t get that one. I slip the raw beans out of their fleecy pods into a pot of boiling water for a bare minute, drop them in ice water, and then squeeze them out of their skins, and they are amazing. Meatier than green peas, but just as sweet, and larger. This year I’m growing these purple ones.

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Kohlrabi. Mine never grow to this size, but they’re fast sprouters and we might have some to nibble on by June. If layered in crushed ice or soaked briefly in ice water, they turn impossibly crisp and sweet, becoming the kings of the crudité plate.

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Cour di Bui cabbage, prettiest conehead ever. These varieties are usually earlier than the massive ballheads and meant for fresh eating, not storing. The bluish tip-blush and lovely crooks and corners of these leaves reeled me in.

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If it was all for fresh eating, I’d only grow a couple of cucumber plants, but I grow at least twenty—all with the intention of making lots of pickles, mostly my grandmother’s fermented dills. For these I need a variety that stays petite and slim and doesn’t get too seedy. I always grow one called Homemade Pickles, but in recent years I’ve been supplementing with an Israeli-type, burr-less and slender, and they make excellent fermented dills.

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My interest in eggplant has grown into a full-blown weakness. Fresh eggplant is so delicate, sweet, subtle but somehow addictive. And they’re gorgeous. I think that the West African name for them—garden eggs—is exactly right.

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This will be the year of the Japanese squash, as I fell for two kinds. This  goofy, corseted one and another bumpy blue-green monster. Oh, that they will actually get 95+ days of sunshine to fully ripen! Let’s hope.

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My German Pinks. I grow them nearly every year. These tomatoes actually feel heavier for their size than the other beefsteaks, and I can’t get over the color, which seems to hover indecisively between red and pink. They’re even lovelier in person.

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Black Trifele, a pear-shaped black tomato from Japan. I love the slow, sneaky flavor of a good black tomato—and the way their richness stands out against the pop-sugar of the cherry tomatoes—but one in this shape? I  just couldn’t resist.

Happy gardening to all! And to those who don’t grow their own, happy eating.

(By the way, these images came from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog, from which I did a fair amount of ordering this year. But I always get my reliable bulk seeds from Fedco, and most of my pretties from the pre-eminent Seed Savers Exchange, out of Iowa.)

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