This week’s share: Lemon basil, Husk cherries, Leeks, Lettuce, Candy onions, Peppers, Newmex and Poblano hot peppers, Potatoes, Tomatoes, Zucchini
I always look forward to Fair week. Not so much because of the Fair these days. There was a time. The first few years we lived here we were avid fairgoers. It was the most concentrated exposure to local culture, plus funnel cakes. We would go through all the cow barns, admire the full array of poultry, watch the out of field tractor pull, check out the farm diorama contest, and, of course, chat with the various acquaintances we met about the weather that year and how the crops were doing.
At some point, though, the thrill began to wane. Maybe once you have lived in a diary farming community long enough, cows don’t seem quite as interesting. Maybe we got just local enough not to need a massive infusion of the culture. Maybe it got too crowded. Whatever the cause, we stopped going multiple times a year, and then at some point stopped going at all. In the end, all we were left with was a slight nostalgia for the feeling of excitement about the Fair.
But I continued all summer to look forward to Fair week, because that’s when the hot weather finally breaks and you get the respite of cool nights. It’s the first hints of fall, the first hint that the workload will ease up and that every now and then you can just stand in a field and enjoy the scenery without a thousand pressing tasks nagging you to get moving.
At least, that’s what should happen. This year the hot weather decided to hang on a bit longer. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me. The first frost now comes about a week later than it used to. My observations are not precisely scientific, I know, but I get the sense that things are changing, that the reliable aspects of farming aren’t quite so reliable.
Not that there are so many reliable aspects to farming. We don’t work in laboratory conditions. Not those of who still farm outside, anyway. There’s a general pattern, of course. It gets colder in winter, warmer in summer. For the moment, anyway. But the details change from year to year, and the details matter. If I knew when it would rain, for instance, life would be easier. Just having a sense of whether the spring will be warm or cold, dry or wet would help. But none of that’s accurately predictable until it’s too late to matter much.
So we guess what to do based on any patterns we can discern. For instance, we set planting dates based on first and last frosts. Put the peppers out too early and you could lose them. Put the last zucchini out too late and you could lose them too. We also rely on that shift to cooler weather at Fair time. Many of our fall crops need those conditions. You might think holding off transplanting for a week wouldn’t make much of a difference. But seedlings don’t like waiting, and plants are keenly aware of how many minutes of daylight they get. Last year our penultimate planting of brassicas thrived, and the last, transplanted five days later, went out too late and was just winter feed for the deer.
Having the warm weather last through Fair week or the frost come later is not necessarily a bad thing. The peppers have been notably laggardly this year, and certainly benefitted from a little more tropical heat. An extra frost-free week extends the season for all the summer crops. But not knowing when to count on the shift to fall temperatures or that first frost increases uncertainty. While I have become somewhat accustomed to uncertainty, I have never in all my years of farming wished for more of it. It seems entirely possible, though, that Fair week will now just serve as a reminder of what was: of that newcomer excitement about immersing ourselves in the local culture and a time when we had a basic sense of what the weather had in store for us
Vegetable notes: the husk cherries (like tiny tomatillos) have little to do with cherries. They are not even the same size or color, let alone related botanically or by taste. Think of them, instead as small tropical tomatoes with enough modesty to cover themselves in public. Which suggests, I know, that they take off the husks in private. If so, I have never seen it. But then I suppose I wouldn’t. As for what to do with a husk cherry, other than denuding it, I would suggest you just eat it.
The hot peppers (The Newmex is long and light green; the poblano (a fresh Ancho), dark green) are not overwhelmingly hot. At least on average. Sometimes you get a hotter one, sometimes one that has barely any heat. They are excellent roasted and peeled. You could put them in a salsa or a taco or a potato salad or with grilled zucchini and onions. Or you could roast and peel the sweet peppers too, and toss them with grilled leeks, lemon basil, lemon juice and oil, and maybe a few capers.