Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mixed Plate: The Lazy Garden and the Hungry Eater

It's something special to walk into your own backyard and pick things from your garden for the day's meals. And I'm not even an avid gardener, I've lost a lot of this year's seedlings and starter plants to slugs and snails, thanks to the extra-long rainy spring, and I'm the first to admit I'm a follower of the Ron Popeil School of Gardening: Set It and Forget It! If something doesn't take off like gangbusters in the soil, I'm not going to baby it to get it big and strong. I've done that before in seasons past, and I feared becoming Crazy Plant Lady. But that doesn't mean we don't eat a lion's share of greens and fresh produce in our regular diet, thanks much in part to CSA delivery every other week. I'm reminded of how fortunate we are to be in a region that has so much fresh produce, especially given the disastrous drought conditions that have plagued much of the country. The little kid in me may cringe, but it makes my grown-ass self thankful for the chance to eat my greens!

A little smooch of basil-love from the garden - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Back to my Lazy Gardener's Green Thumb -- it's beyond lazy, it's a severity of sin no one bothered to jot down because it's so wrapped up in its slothful glory. But somehow every year we manage to have at least a few things in our raised vegetable beds, usually herbs like parsley and chives, which I snip as needed and just let go to seed for the next season. I still stuff little bitty garlic cloves into planters so the greens can grow like scallions, or what I like to call Suburbia Ghetto Ramps. I've long been a big fan of sugar snap and snow peas -- they grow quickly, are fairly bug-free, and if you give the plants something to crawl on, they'll grow tall and be lush with pea pods. I didn't even fuss with snipping the pea greens this season because I was so anxious to just let the plants grow during the agonizingly slow spring. And my laziness was rewarded -- I was picking pounds of peas for a few weeks, before the summer heat really hit, slowing the pea patch production down. But in the pea patch's heyday, I didn't even need to get leafy greens, I could just slice the crisp snow pea pods into slivers and make crunchy salads with diced kalamata olives, pickled peppers and feta cheese for a Mediterranean style lunch.

Goods from our garden and gardens nearby - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But one cannot subsist alone on a Lazy Garden. This is of course where our CSA or Community Supported Agriculture delivery comes in. I've talked about this a million times before and I'll keep talking about it because it's something everyone should do at least once. Vegetables and fruit are good for you, and even if you're not eating fresh produce nonstop like a rabbit, you'll at least be regular and you and your doctor will be happy to skip that colonoscopy for another year. The excuses over not taking advantage of a CSA program usually go like this: "I don't eat that many vegetables." "I'm never home, so I don't have time to cook." "I'm not a fan of vegetables, so what if I don't like what's delivered?" The answer is simple: those are terrible excuses! No one eats as many vegetables as they should -- the soggy piece of wilted lettuce on that quarter pounder with cheese doesn't count as a vegetable. Even with our CSA delivery and periodic grocery  trips to pick up filler produce, I still don't feel confident we eat enough veggies. And as for not being home, skipping takeout and cooking a few meals in your personal Kitchen Stadium would be kinder to one's pocketbook as well as one's waistline. I know I make more sound nutritional choices at home than in a restaurant of endless caloric possibilities. When I'm at home, I know for a fact fries do not come with the meal. As for not wanting to eat your greens, shame on you -- you're not five, squinching your nose at the thought of brussel sprouts or onions on your plate. You can customize orders for larger CSA programs -- ours is with Full Circle Farms, which is gigundo-big, and their partnerships allow for order customizations like fresh eggs, meat, even ice cream and kimchee. Not together, of course. That would be weird. Or possibly awesome...?

We should feel fortunate to be armed with the knowledgeable benefits behind a fresh diet. It's what's going to stave off the forces of time and delay that inevitable intestinal reckoning for all those chicken nuggets and Twinkies that line the inner walls of our small intestine nether-regions like a processed food geode. I should know, for the entirety of my college years I lived off packaged foods and the drug-like high that comes from concentrated amounts of sugar and salt. But I also grew up with a mom who cooked meals nearly every night. My bad choices came about like anything else, a little taste of freedom turns into one long Leaving Las Vegas Oreo cookie binge. The Dark Side beckoned, I did my Darth Vader time, terrorizing vending machines for meals that came out of snack-sized bags, but I went into the light like Carol Ann and came out like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption, standing in a rainstorm with a handful of carrots and a bundle of kale. We have to hit rock-bottom and rattle through a lot of movie references before we find a way to pick ourselves up and pry that Snickers bar out of our ninja death-grip.

Figuring out a plan of action for produce - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The bottom line is, fresh produce is a creative challenge to be welcomed every week. We don't have to eat it immediately, guzzling kale smoothies every day, although fruit and vegetable smoothies is one quick way to power through your greens. One of the first things I do on CSA delivery day is to make sure all the vegetables and fruit are bagged and stored in order of use. Onions and potatoes go into the pantry, since they can hang out in a cool, dry place for a spell. Fruit can be tricky -- apples and pears last for a week or two a fruit bowl, but it's stone fruit season right now, and those are more delicate and ripen quickly, so I opt to keep nectarines, apricots and the like in the refrigerator. I plan meals around the most volatile ingredients, the produce that will be most likely to get moldy and mushy fast, like mushrooms, green beans, summer squash and fresh greens. It's a bit like cooking on a ship when you've got a set quantity of items and need to make all work with ideally no waste -- you go through the fresh, delicate items first and save the heartier ingredients for later. I don't always feel inspired (who does?) so it's a lot of stir fry dinners and vegetable skillet hash topped with eggs, but I can honestly say the meals leave you with a feeling of fullness, but not heavy and tired. Maybe it's all in my head, but the food feels clean when the ingredients are kept simple.

When in doubt, pickle it! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
That's not to say processing your food to a certain degree is a bad thing. The CSA box sometimes throws in some curveballs like a random beet or two. And sometimes I'm stuck with more carrots and radishes than I'm wanting to eat in a salad. So I make a pickling brine with a mix of vinegar, sugar and some whole spices, and into the briny deep the sliced vegetables go for quickie fridge pickles. Maybe they'll wind up on sandwiches, chopped finely and added to a relish or salsa -- the bottom line is, they're preserved for the moment and I can figure out what to do with them later. I also rely on oven-roasting to help develop flavor and transform ingredients into something better. I found myself with pounds of eggplant, so I peeled and chopped them up, tossed with oil, salt and pepper, and roasted them down. Eggplant is just a big sponge, like a mushroom, and they shrink down quite a bit when cooked. Roasting some red peppers and onions along with the eggplant, they all wound up in a blender to become a dip that was quite delicious. Dips, pastes, marmalade -- all different ways to process a fruit or vegetable, developing its flavor, and making it into something you can get excited about. And maybe that's the secret behind eating one's greens and vegetables, making a dish that you can get excited about, so that your inner-child will never turn its snotty nose up again.

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