This week’s share: Bok choi, Shell beans, Cabbage, Garlic, Onions, Parsley, Peppers, Hot peppers, Squash, Tomatoes
In case you are wondering, I do not spend a great deal of time thinking about what vegetables feel like.
Well, I suppose I do in a way care about their well being. Whether they are the warm enough, well fed, properly hydrated, have enough space, are safe. But I don’t know that I would actually talk about their well being in terms of feelings. I don’t spend much time worrying about their emotions. For all I know, our tomatoes feel grumpy and resentful all the time. But as long as we get decent production and good flavor and can keep the diseases at bay well into the season I don’t care.
It’s funny that having put that in words it almost sounds cruel. How can I be so indifferent to the emotions of all these plants under my protection, plants that are only on the farm because I forced them to be and that put all their effort into serving me? The relationship sounds a little abusive. My stated indifference sounds maybe a tad uncomfortably reminiscent of the sort of thing plantation owners used to say.
Except that I am talking about vegetables. I do not doubt there are farmers who actually talk seriously about their vegetables’ emotions, who believe some kind of universal spirit courses through all living things, who hear mother earth crying out in anguish over what we do. But, as you may have surmised, I am not one of them. Are plants more sophisticated than we think? Certainly. Is mankind’s existence tied to other living systems around us? Unquestionably. Do my tomatoes have emotions? No, they do not. As I like to remind my crew from time to time when things go wrong or they get too caught up in some task, these are just vegetables. You don’t have to take them that seriously.
All of which is one giant aside since what I meant all those paragraphs ago is that I don’t devote much of my day to contemplating the textures of my produce. I don’t sit around running my fingers over the various crops, admiring the rough skin of a melon, the smoothness of a pepper, the slight fuzziness of turnip leaves, the ridges on chard stems, the papery outer layer of onions. Not that texture is unimportant. In fact, in some crops it matters as much as flavor. But for the most par the texture just comes as part of the crop. All we can really do is mess it up by picking a crop at the wrong time or failing to cull the mutants or storing it improperly. If we decided we wanted a crunchy tomato or a lettuce with a pulpy interior we would be out of luck (or at the very least in for years of bizarrely selective breeding). We are pretty much just trying to let the vegetables be themselves.
I save most of my worries about texture for the soil. Soil texture matters a lot, and it is something I can affect, for better or worse. More often for worse, I fear, but we keep trying to improve (the soil and ourselves). We have had the greatest success in the field houses, where we have dug in huge amounts of compost and have irrigation so we can keep the soil moisture from going too far in either direction. All that organic matter and steady moisture help promote soil life, which is crucial.
Good soil texture is a little harder to achieve out in the fields. We have to deal with a number of soil types, with drainage issues, with shallow bedrock, with inconsistent rainfal–this year has gone from more or less nothing for weeks at a time to five inches one afternoon and then back to almost nothing, with odd winters, and with our own growing needs, which do not always coincide precisely with the right moments to work the soil. Work clay ground or till through a wet patch at the wrong moment and you will end up with some awful lumps for the rest of the season. We have some lumps.But we keep trying, keep putting in drain tile, keep adding compost, keep turning in cover crops, keep hoping we will at least make things a little better.
I dream of acres of dark dirt that feels soft and little springy when you squeeze it in your fist, almost like a sponge, but crumbly too, and loose enough that you can plunge your hand into it–loose enough that plunging your hand into it feels good. Find a patch of dirt like that and you will probably find a farmer there down on his knees just running the dirt through his fingers, staring blankly off into the distance, smiling a little.
Vegetable notes: Shell beans are dried beans that have not dried. Well, that or they are green beans that have gone too far. The point of green beans–from the bean’s perspective–is to provide a place for the plant to form seeds. Wait long enough and any green bean will turn from a tender. juicy vegetable into a leathery pod full of seeds. Leave it even longer and the pod and seeds will dry out and be ready to wait until the right conditions arrive for sprouting. Or for being cooked, which takes a while because the beans have dried out and don’t easily soak up moisture again (so they don’t rot before they have a chance to sprout). Pick the pods, however, when the seeds have formed but not dried out, and you have shell beans, which take a lot less time to cook and have an excellent texture that’s hard to get with dried beans in less than half a day in a slow oven. To cook your beans, take them out of the pods and cook them in well salted water at a gentle boil for about half and hour until just tender (you can vegetables, herbs and/or spices to the cooking water–such as garlic or bay leaf or hot pepper–as you see fit). You can eat them as they are or add them to a soup or have them cold. I like them best cold in a salad with a lot of onion, some garlic, some roasted pepper and parsley.
The large green pepper in your share is either a Newmex (paler green and pointy) or a Poblano (dark green). In your tomato bag you have Japaenos and a Biquinho, a very mildly spice, fruity Brazilian pepper.