This week’s share: Basil, Escarole, Eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Walla Walla onions, Norland potatoes, Tomatillos, Tomatoes, Zucchini
My father has had to learn to cook. As he likes to say, for almost 60 years he was in assisted living (one of a number of his jokes that did not play so well the one time he attended a bereavement group; it’s a tough room). He claimed to have mastered three dishes—cracked egg salad, burnt grilled cheese, tuna fish and blood—and I never even saw him make those. But he has adapted. It was that or starve. Well, starve or buy prepared food, and it turns out it is easier to learn to cook than to learn to pay other people to cook.
He could have settled for easy dishes. He could have boiled some noodles and opened a jar of sauce, or heated a frozen entree. But apparently he was paying a little attention all those years. If he is going to make food, he is going to do it properly. So he cooks eggplant parmesan from scratch and marinated shrimp and meatloaf. He called me up a while ago to discuss the finer points of no knead bread. Cooking, he has discovered, isn’t that difficult. Get the ingredients; follow the steps in the recipe; you will end up with something edible.
At what time you end up with something edible is another matter. My father often does not eat dinner until 10:00. That has something to do with his semi-nocturnal habits, which he is now free to indulge. But it’s also because, as he admits, he is not efficient in the kitchen. He can only do one thing at a time.
To cook efficiently, you have to be able to run multiple timers in your head concurrently, all of them set to end at the same moment. You aim to have a meal ready to serve at one reasonable time before people have despaired and filled up on snacks. So you calculate back from that time based on how long each task takes and in what order they can be done and how many of them can overlap. And then you start cooking. You have dough rising, meat marinating, water coming to a boil on one burner, onions cooking down on another, the oven heating, the soup chilling, the salad greens to wash before you chop the herbs.
Farming works that way too. We don’t do anything complicated. By which I mean no one thing we do is complicated. I could give you a simple recipe for how to seed lettuce, and after a few trays you would probably do it well enough. Not quickly, but well enough. You would figure out the proper soil moisture, how to fill the trays evenly, how deep to sow the seeds, how to cover them, how to tag the trays and mark them in the seeding log, where to put them in the seedling house and how to water them. But to farm you would also have to know when to start seeding lettuce to have it ready at the beginning of the season, when to stop seeding it because it will run out of time to grow, remember to keep seeding every week from the start date to the stop date, and know which varieties to plant at different times in the season. And do that while making the same calculations and going through more or less the same steps for 50 other crops. All of which gets you a lot of seedlings you still have to transplant and tend and pick in order to turn out boxes for deliver every week.
We picked crops for this week’s box at the same time we were working on crops we will hand out in a week or a month or the end of October. We were cutting lettuce and weeding carrots and transplanting kohlrabi and doing the last seeding of zucchini and bringing in onions. I spend as much time thinking about the first frost and the last delivery date as I do about what will be in next week’s box. I am looking to see if the shell beans have come up and checking on the winter squash patch and leafing through previous years’ logs to see if we can nail the date for fall broccoli and trying to figure out when the flea beetle population will subside so that arugula and turnips have a shot at surviving.
My head is full of interdependent and overlapping timers counting down to deadlines set by us and by the climate. If I have learned much of anything in my years of farming, it is how to set and manage all these timers so that we have a reasonable array of decent produce right through the season. Not that getting the timing right guarantees success. We still have to contend with the weather and human frailty and the appetites of deer. And increasingly, I have to deal with how it feels to always be counting down, measuring out the remaining time, watching the days scroll past. I may be better at it, but it does feel different as I get older.
Vegetable notes: The good news, if you are unsure how to prepare tomatillos (bag of green fruits in husks), is that they will last for a long time in the refrigerator. You have several weeks to figure out what to do with them.
The even better news is that they are fairly simple to prepare and delicious. Husk them and put them in a cast iron pan along with some unpeeled garlic cloves and slices of onion and maybe a hot pepper or two, turn the heat on high, and cook the vegetables, turning occasionally, until the onions and peppers are charred, and the garlic and tomatilloes are soft (and charred). Peel the garlic, peel the peppers and remove the seeds, and put the vegetables in a blender with lemon or lime juice, salt, olive oil, fresh herbs, and blend until smooth. You can use that as salsa or stir it into stock to make soup or use it as a marinade. Or put it in the refrigerator for a while until you figure out what to do with it.