Sunday, August 5, 2012

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Profuse weeds, tendonitis, and tainted compost—the garden has presented more than its usual share of challenges this year. Weeds are nothing new, but with the record-breaking warm weather they’ve been more out of control than ever. Keeping up with the weeds brought on a flair-up of tendonitis in my elbow, something I’ve dealt with before but this time it’s been particularly tenacious. And then there was the contaminated compost, a mysterious occurrence that has devastated hundreds of Vermont gardeners who thought they were buying organic compost, only to find out that it was polluted with two herbicides that are banned in the state. Not the best gardening season by a long shot.

Despite the setbacks, the garden has had its rewards. Early crops of French breakfast radishes,

 broccoli raab, 

and various lettuces 

were excellent. Although the peas and beans were a bust (the herbicides prevented most of the seeds from even germinating), the Lacinato and Red Bore kale and the Swiss chard were so vigorous that we couldn’t eat them fast enough. The baby kale made a tasty salad combined with walnuts, basil, and a light vinaigrette, 

while the mature Swiss chard, sautéed in a little olive oil, 

was a satisfying topping for homemade pizza, combined with Gruyère and a handful of fresh  herbs, all on a light and crispy Red Hen Pizzaz crust.

Homemade pizza is one of our family favorites, especially this time of year when the combinations are limitless. This one featured pan sautéed eggplant, sliced garlic, fresh oregano and globe basil, and Blue Ledge Farm's Riley’s Coat goat cheese. 

My own garden's eggplants didn’t amount to much, thanks to the herbicide, but my zucchini has steadily put forth regular blossoms since early summer. 

I haven’t harvested many zukes themselves yet, though, since I snap off the blossoms almost as quickly as they’re produced. Thinly sliced, they’re a colorful addition to salads and pastas, but my favorite way to  eat them is stuffed with cheese (my preferred cheese is Grafton Village Cheese Company's Maple Smoked Cheddar) and then pan fried in olive oil, with whole wheat panko bread crumbs sprinkled on top for a little crunch. It’s a lighter variation on the Italian fried appetizer and a fun way to start a meal.

The tomatoes, another compost casualty, have been slow to come in, while the basil has flourished in the heat. 

I cut the plants way back a few weeks ago and made a big batch of pesto, freezing several servings to be pulled out for a summer meal in the middle of winter. Fortunately good local tomatoes are easy to come by, so I’ve been able to have Insalata Caprese, my quintessential summer salad, whenever I want it. Fresh tomatoes, basil (Genovese or spicy globe), and local Maplebrook mozzarella, dressed simply with EVOO, a little salt, and a generous grinding of fresh pepper: perfection. Maplebrook's handmade mozzarella is rich and smooth and a taste of Italy made right here in Vermont.

The herb garden has been going gangbusters this summer, abuzz with bees since mid-June thanks to its early flowering.   

I don’t fertilize it at all, so it was spared any ill effects from the compost, and fortunately most of the herbs I grow here are woody perennials so their flavor isn't affected as much from flowering as basil and cilantro are. The herb garden is just a few steps from my kitchen door, so  I snip from these plants pretty much on a daily basis: thyme, winter and summer savory, lavender, oregano, sage, various mints, and two globe basils make for endless possibilities.

Last but far from least, the raspberries 

and blueberries 

have been bountiful, providing plenty of fruit for us and for all the birds they attract to our backyard. We have two different varieties of each berry, with one of each ripening about two weeks before the other variety (a happy accident), keeping us well supplied with berries to snack on for a good six weeks. I always plan to make a beautiful tart or other dessert out of them, but hardly ever do. They really can’t be improved upon. Eating them right off the bush is my favorite way, when they’re warm from the sun and their bright flavor is most intense.

To me, this is one of the best parts of summer—eating fruits and vegetables that you’ve grown yourself just minutes after they’ve been harvested. That fleeting moment of satisfaction makes all of the preceding labor (tendonitis be damned) well worth it.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

12 unopened zucchini blossoms
12 pieces of cheese cut into matchsticks sized to fit in blossoms
3 T whole wheat panko bread crumbs
Extra virgin olive oil, enough to coat bottom of pan
Freshly ground pepper

With a knife, make a small slice in each blossom and slide in the matchstick of cheese. Gently press blossom to close. Heat oil in frying pan over burner set to medium high. Place blossoms in pan in a single layer and cook until cheese starts to melt, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle half of bread crumbs over blossoms and then turn blossoms over in pan one by one. Sprinkle the rest of the bread crumbs on top and continue to cook about a minute longer until cheese is fully melted and sizzling. Serve immediately.

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