by Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko
Garlic planters have thrived thanks to the largest Ponzi scheme ever conceived – more than Bernie Madoff’s billions and perhaps more than the US Federal government’s escapades with Social Security, issuing IOUs to Paul (into the future) to pay Peter now.
That’s what happens when you plant a head of garlic, which usually consists of about 6 cloves. We harvest our garlic in June, curing them in our straw bale greenhouse. When it comes time to plant garlic late in the fall, we break apart the bulb and separate out each of the cloves: our seeds. By the second season, that head of garlic has produced six heads. By year three, as many as 36 bulbs (6 heads multiplied by 6 cloves each). In year four, there are 214. You see where this is going. By year ten, more than 10,000 garlic bulbs. We’ve just created a vampire-free zone, without a doubt.
Unless we suffer a catastrophic crop failure, pretty uncommon for garlic crops, it’s practically impossible to go bust -- nature is hardwired to cover itself, reproductively speaking. For proof, try counting the blossoms on an apple or cherry tree in the spring. Some blossoms become apples or cherries, others don’t (blame it on the bees, a late frost or some other weather calamity). The point here is that nature, more often than not, goes overboard on abundance. And if you tend your own orchard or garden, it doesn’t take long to realize that the bushels of apples don’t cost a penny. Just your time and some labor.
It’s this fresh abundance that allows us to gorge on or process (for later use) the produce grown on our small farm from late May through early November in our northern climate in southwestern Wisconsin. Fresh means selecting the freshest ingredients, fruits, vegetables or herbs found a hundred feet from our back door and not ones that have traveled for thousands of miles. In general, the more an ingredient arrives on your table resembling what it was in the field, the better its nutrient value and fiber content. The harder part is figuring out what is both fresh and ripe -- there’s nothing more disappointing than biting into an unripe apple or watermelon!
Some things are always tasty, regardless of size, like carrots. Baby carrots often featured at high-end restaurants are selected because they’re more tender and flavorful. And the corollary, bigger is not always better for vegetables like zucchini (you can’t enjoy the skin since it’s too hard), cucumbers (they can get bitter or seedy) or beets (they get tough and woody).
For the rest of our fresh produce, however, we consult neighbors, books, the Internet and seed catalogs to determine, for example, when the abundant muskmelons we grow are ready to eat. Is it color, smell or the magic touch or tap? We looked like ostriches, butts in the air and heads bobbing up and down, bending close to the ground in our attempts to catch a whiff of the sweet smell of sunshine from a ripe melon. We learned that our cultivar of melons, when ripe, should “slip” off the spot that they’re connected to the vine with a gentle tug -- a more reliable method. So for each of our fruits, vegetables and herbs, we learned the telltale signs of ripeness. For those who shop the farmers’ markets, receive a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce box or ply the fresh produce aisles, this quest for fresh and ripe has been largely done for you — often masterfully.
So savor the best flavors and realize that the most nutritious foods you can eat are also the freshest, assuming you don’t boil, steam or sauté them into mush. Depending on the vegetable or fruit, the minute they’re harvested their enzymes that help in their ripening also make them rot. When eating fresh, you’re on the clock, even with the benefit of a refrigerator. Some foods, however, like garlic or potatoes, can be stored for months.
Since summer is best for savoring everything fresh, we share a colorful salad recipe below, paired with a delicious balsamic honey dressing. Like with many of our salad recipes in our cookbook, you’ll notice the ingredient lists and recipes sometimes appear short. Nothing skipped, just quality ingredients added. We’d be ruining your meal if we’d suggest otherwise. Also worth noting, there’s no iceberg lettuce, since there are far more nutritious and flavorful greens from which to choose. It’s ironic that the crunchy iceberg is among the top three vegetables consumed by Americans. (The other two being but a variation on one, potatoes, in the form of either French fries or potato chips).
For anyone who snips some lettuce, pulls a radish or two, and plucks a vine ripened tomato in order to toss up a salad, the fresh ingredients steal the show and demand simple recipes to spotlight and highlight what’s already the rock star. When the garden and fresh flavors peak in abundance during the growing season — when salad greens jump 100 feet in five minutes from the garden to our plate — just a sprinkle of homemade salad dressing brings out their subtle flavors.
Garden Fresh Salad
Kids know fresh when they see it – and taste it. As parents, we relish the fact that our son can plop himself in our strawberry patch for a snack every June, since nothing we grow is sprayed with poisons or doused in chemical fertilizers. Often, when we’re busy working away in the spring, Liam – unnoticed by us -- takes a break from climbing trees or hanging out on top of our chicken coop to prepare a fresh salad for us for dinner, enjoyed after we’re forced inside on account of darkness. It’s easy to lose track of time when there’s compost to be spread, rows to be tilled and weeding to be done (as if we’re ever done with the last one). When we arrive inside, perhaps after taking a quick solar shower outside by the greenhouse, we’re greeted by his smile and a proud nod toward the front porch where three perfect salads sit waiting for us, complemented by some fresh lemonade (another recipe in the Farmstead Chef cookbook); it’s made with real lemon juice. With a little Balsamic Honey Dressing, this salad is like eating sunshine. That it’s prepared by our son, all the better.
½ c. sweet pea tendrils (young, green tops of sugar snap sweet peas)
1 c. tender mesclun salad mix (small, young leafy lettuces, chervil, arugula, endive)
½ c. sugar snap sweet peas, strings removed
¼ c. young Swiss chard leaves
¼ c. young dandelion greens
¼ c. nasturtium flowers (edible)
¼ c. bee balm flowers (edible)
¼ c. homemade croutons (in the Farmstead Chef cookbook)
• Wash the delicate salad greens and give the edible flowers a quick shake, checking for insects that might be hanging on. Pat dry the mesclun greens.
• Arrange, with the creativity of a child, the delightful colors and textures of the ingredients on the plate, topping with a few croutons and a drizzle of salad dressing.
Yield: 4 servings.
Balsamic Honey Dressing
With just the right amount of kick, this dressing showcases summer salad greens. Store any leftover dressing in a glass canning jar in the refrigerator, but use it up within about a week or two. Give the jar a shake before serving to ensure the ingredients blend nicely.
½ c. balsamic vinegar
¼ c. onion, chopped (1 small onion)
1 T. soy sauce
3 T. honey
1 T. sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ t. crushed red pepper flakes
½ c. extra-virgin olive oil
• Purée the vinegar, onion, soy sauce, honey, sugar, garlic and red pepper flakes in a blender on high.
• Gradually add the olive oil. Continue puréeing until thick, about 2 minutes.
Yield: 1 cup salad dressing.
Lemonade, with real lemons (or juice from real lemons)
We blush with embarrassment every time someone asks for our “secret recipe” for lemonade. Um, lemons, sugar, water? Due to this high request demand, here are more specific proportions. You’ll never go back to the mix stuff again.
1 c. lemon juice (3 to 4 fresh lemons, juiced)
1 ½ c. sugar, or less to taste
8 c. water
• Combine lemon juice, sugar and water in a large pitcher. Mix thoroughly.
• Add more sugar or lemon juice to taste.
Yield: half gallon
This essay is adapted from Farmstead Chef, by Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko. Farmstead Chef is the first cookbook to capture the return to our nation’s farmstead roots of independence, self-sufficiency and frugality. Whether you’re a dedicated urbanite or live at the end of a country road, Farmstead Chef serves up homegrown and homemade cooking, sidebars on preserving the harvest and stocking the pantry, all while seeking to bring Americans back together again around the kitchen table.
Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko are national speakers and co-authors of Farmstead Chef (www.farmsteadchef.com), Rural Renaissance (www.ruralrenaissance.org) and the award-winning ECOpreneuring (www.ecopreneuring.biz). With their young son/junior chef Liam, they also operate the acclaimed Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast and Farm (www.innserendipity.com), completely powered by the wind and sun -- and serving vegetarian breakfasts prepared with organic ingredients harvested less than 100 feet from their back door. John Ivanko has co-authored six award-winning multicultural children’s books including To Be a Kid and Be My Neighbor. Lisa Kivirist also directs the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and is a Food & Community Fellow. They don’t watch TV.