This week, there was a real nip in the early morning air (and my trusted thermometer confirmed that night temps had dropped below 13C), and I decided that my green tomatoes would never ripen on the vines, nor would the last blooms ever fruit. So I declared the official start of my fall garden, by harvesting all tomatoes, red and green, pulling out the plants, and planting cabbage instead.
What I normally do with my green tomatoes is to put them in a paper bag with a couple of apples, and let them ripen (an old farmers trick from around here, with a scientific explanation: apples produce ethylene gas which promotes ripening of the tomatoes as well). Yet although green tomatoes ripened this way do eventually turn red, they never acquire that full tomatoey taste of fruit vine-ripened in the summer sunshine. So this year, I decided to use them as they were - green - in a mexican green tomato salsa verde recipe I found on the Internet.
I don't know whether it was the fact that I substituted tunisian harrissa for mexican jalapeños, or my omission of cilantro, which isn't available in this country, or because I didn't add as much sugar as the recipe called for (sugar with tomatoes? I wasn't trying to make tomato jam...). But this salsa verde didn't do much for me: it tasted of unripe, sourish, green tomatoes. Or maybe you have to be born and raised in Mexico, instead of Italy, to appreciate green tomato salsa verde. Or was it all of the above?
At any rate, it was a culinary experiment that I'm glad I tried. Now I'm moving full speed ahead with fall gardening, and plan to grow heaps of ripe, green cabbages.
When we came back home last week from our six-week trip to the States, our fridge was totally empty, but we weren't entirely without food. When you live in the country, the land is one of the greatest assets, and savvy country people always know how to eat from it. I'm still learning, but I'd planted my garden knowing that it would be neglected for several weeks in the summer, and I was happy to find some food among the weeds.
The green beans, it seemed, hadn't suffered too badly. I'd planted them a week before leaving, and they were just sprouting when I said good-bye. When we returned, they'd become bushes, with their stringy fruits hidden away under their leaves. One side of the patch had been invaded by hungry beetles, so I had to harvest all the healthy beans and pull up the plants to prevent the infestation from spreading. Still, a basket-full of beans that lasted several meals wasn't a bad harvest.
Also, on the kitchen counter a kilo of anchovies I'd cured in salt before leaving was now ready. Or to be more exact, the kilo of anchovies that had been forgotten on the kitchen counter instead of storing it in a cool place, and had been giving me nightmares throughout our trip: it was my first attempt at curing fish, and what if I'd dones something wrong, and found rotting fish and maggots all over my kitchen instead? I didn't, and as it turned out, my kitchen counter grew a harvest of cured anchovies in my absence, which seems almost miraculous.
One of the best dinners I made since coming back, we all agreed, came from the sea and the land: focaccia with red onions, anchovies and our neighbor's fresh oregano. And green beans in a salad.
This weekend I picked the very first zucchini of the season. Three whole zucchini!
Clearly not enough for a family of five, but when a garden starts producing, it usually happens in fits and starts: one spring day you look out the window and notice with joy the first blossom. Then come the first handful of fruits. And before you know it, the garden is producing more than your family can eat! The first tender spring vegetables always taste the best: they're proof that the plants are thriving, and that we can finally say goodbye to winter fare.
Those three zucchini, combined with other spring vegetables from the garden, were enough to make a quiche, which is our favorite way to use spring vegetables, besides the usual pasta primavera (and even an Italian sometimes tires of pasta). When the other week I posted on Instagram an image of a spring quiche with "pompoms", as Rebecca called chives blossoms, I was asked for a recipe. Although there isn't a real recipe for quiche primavera, here are some indications:
extra virgin olive oil pie crust:
Mix the ingredients, kneed, and let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature before rolling it out.
A word on olive oil: I have almost entirely substituted butter with olive oil in the kitchen, and each time I write this, someone will point out how butter, and animal fats, are good for you too. True, but if one eats a varied "omnivore" diet (which we do), then you will get your intake of animal fat mostly through meat. The main medical concern is that there is in fact too much animal fat in our diet, which is high in saturated fat and can lead to health problems. On the other hand, there aren't any health risks associated with extra virgin olive oil, just a long list of benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet (you can read more about this on Tom's site). So, in the kitchen, I use extra virgin olive oil almost exclusively, even when I bake, because it's healthier (and it tastes better, in my opinion).
filling: (all quantities are just an indication - use what you have available, and above all follow your own tastes to modify them)
Bake for 40 minutes at 180C. Serve at room temperature.
Although I spend 676 hours in the kitchen a year, my favorite culinary time is when I'm out the house, in the garden. Looking at what grows there in all the particulars - the texture, the colors, the aromas, the beauty of the plants at different stages of growth - always fills me with a special cooking creativity, and desire to be in the kitchen that I never experience when I open my fridge, or shop at the grocery store, or leaf through a cookbook.
I was in the garden the other morning, surrounded by the pink and blue blossoms of my herbs in bloom, when I suddenly had the impulse to taste them, and make something edible with them right now. So, I picked a few blossoms of each: borage, thyme, savory, chives, rosemary, a clump of jasmine and some lettuce leaves. And at 10am, I made myself a salad of spring blossoms (with olive oil, of course, salt and a dash of my berry-infused vinegar).
Are your herbs flowering right now? If they are, give it a try: an aromatic salad of fragrant spring herbal blossoms is a celebration of Springtime.
I could tell you about the incessant sound of the rain that we hear these days, or this spring's cold, wintry weather . . . but I'm not going to. From what I hear, in fact, most of Europe is suffering through the same kind of spring. What I will tell you, instead, is that on Saturday when I looked out at the puddle of mud that is my garden, I felt so tired of seeing the poor soggy winter cabbages out there that, armed with a knife, I ventured out to harvest the leftover vegetables.
The theme of our dinner that night turned out, in a completely unplanned way, to be "yellow": in fact, the stirred fried cabbage with turmeric rice, the cabbage salad in home-made mayonnaise, the candle holders, and the soft flames that gave us light: all were yellow. Yellow too was the bough of broom that I'd found in the woods, its flowers reminding us that spring will eventually win this battle against winter.
My kitchen was overflowing with tomatoes one day, when I harvested all the beef-hearts after high winds and heavy rains were forecasted (and, oh boy, they sure came!). It's the end of the tomato season for us, and we've been having tomatoes daily for a couple of months now. Plus I was in one of those experimental moods that sometimes happen when I'm in the kitchen, so I tried something I hadn't cooked in ages: stuffed tomatoes.
I stuffed them with a mixture of millet, buckwheat, quinoa and dry split peas, all cooked in scooped out tomato together with fresh herbs, chopped red onion and garlic.
When I took them out of the oven they looked to me like pretty tomato nests filled with tomatoey goodness. Why on earth hadn't I made them in so long?
They're funny vegetables, these heirloom zucchini from Liguria (trombette, "little trumpets", as they're called around here). Long, thick and twisty, with a large seed bulb at the end, they grow from vines that are very similar to pumpkins. The skin is edible, but thick enough that you can let the plants trail on the ground: the hardy trombette won't suffer. I plant them at the edge of the garden, and let the vines grow and grow. Like zucchini, it's a prolific plant, but, unlike zucchini, one single trombetta is often big enough to feed a family: heirloom zucchini are a gardener's joy to grow.
When cooked, trombette have a mild zucchini-like taste, but keep their firm texture, which makes them perfect for grating, and making a nice pasta sauce. We like them sautéed with garlic and parsley, and often I also add a generous amount of clams (which I buy shelled and frozen).
Now, though making a tasty pasta sauce with one heirloom zucchini is as simple as it sounds, the tricky part is choosing the correct pasta shape. If you were to ask Chef-Francesca, she'd tell you without hesitation "spaghetti". But if you asked Mamma-Francesca, well, she'd give you a different answer, and would recommend a short type of pasta, like fusilli, because in her experience children between 5 and 15 years of age have an uncanny ability to roll up spaghetti on their forks, while leaving all the heirloom zucchini sauce - a big part of the nutrition of the dish - on their plates. Fusilli, on the other hand, do the trick: their spiralling shape is perfect for trapping heirloom zucchini sauce.
Heirloom zucchini with fusilli: from the garden, to the table ... to children's mouth!
By now, I know what plants thrive in my garden, and what don't. This is the kind of specific knowledge that can't be learned from books, or quite often even from neighbors. It's a knowledge that comes from being aware of your own abilities (in terms of time, dedication, and willingness to experiment) and knowing your garden (the type of soil and micro-climate).
For instance, I know that bell peppers don't grow well in my garden: because of its north-facing orientation, by the time the green peppers are ready to turn yellow and red, and become sweeter, it's usually September, when nighttime temperatures drop. So I have to harvest the peppers while they're still green, or they'd die. Unfortunately we don't like green peppers, so I don't grow them. Though I do I grow littly hot chili peppers (here), and, as of this year, friggitelli peppers.
Friggitelli are a Southern Italian variety of small pepper that's mild in taste and is usually fried (hence the name). They were totally new to me, a Northerner, and I took a chance when the vendor at the garden center proposed them back in the spring. Would they be small enough to ripen fully before the end of summer? Throughout August, I watched and nurtured my little green friggitelli peppers, wondering whether they'd turn red before the evening temperatures dropped. Imagine my happiness when one day I found that, seemingly overnight, they had!
Then I grilled them - which only took a few minutes - and served them with a fresh oregano sauce that is also a new and successful experiment this year, and that has evolved from my increasing knowledge of what our wilderness can offer.
In fact, I'd never considered using fresh oregano before: isn't oregano a herb that you only think of as dry, really? Like, dry and sprinkled over pizza? Well, this summer I learned that the oregano bush that grows wild near the house can be picked and used fresh too. It makes a very simple and tasty sauce which has accompanied many of our grilled vegetable dishes this summer: finely chopped with garlic, a pinch of salt, and olive oil.
Our dinner of grilled friggitelli peppers with oregano sauce, and freshly baked focaccia with sliced tomatoes and herbs (it was one of those inspired cooking days!), was full of the flavors and aromas of summer - in the garden and in the wilderness.
I still can't quite wrap my mind around the fact that this is a meager year in terms of zucchini. What? The vegetable that seemingly grows overnight, and produces in such huge quantities, day after day after day, that it's always a struggle to use up, and trying to give it away never works because everyone else is submerged in zucchini too? Yes, that vegetable.
I am harvesting some zucchini each time I go to the garden, but they're few, and small, and even when I purposely neglected them to see if they'll produce one of those gigantic zucchini that can feed a family for an entire season, even then, all I find are tiny little zucchini. So be it: it's the summer of the bonsai zucchini.
The good news about bonsai zucchini is that they're really quick to prepare. I typically make a frittata with them, or cut them lengthwise and grill them.
Together with eggplants, bonsai zucchini have become one of our favorite summer dishes: lightly grilled, sprinkled with fresh chopped herbs, drizzled with olive oil.
Family life at the edge of an ancient rural community near the Mediterranean
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