Tuesday, July 16, 2013

First Tastes of Home

They just grow up so darn fast...

It's almost unbelievable how much change we've seen in the past month. Scroll down to the end of the previous post for a second and check out the last photo of the garden, then return to the above photo: the sunflowers and the tallest tomato plants are nearly six feet tall at this point, and the raised bed nearest to us has been jaw-droppingly dramatic in its growth, every last bit of negative space being covered in layer upon layer of green.

So much for arriving fashionably late...
It's pretty fantastic to see healthy plants doing their thing, thriving and exploding with growth and a will to expand, almost as if they had a brain and plan. The pumpkin plants (very prominent in the foreground above) are growing close to six inches a day, using their vines and reachers to cling and climb and claw their way to the top so they can hog every last drop of sunshine. It's to the point that I have to cut off a new leaf almost every day to keep them from completely taking over the watermelon, eggplant, and artichoke plants. The vines have a few tiny, baby pumpkins on them, even though we won't really see them begin to mature until the fall.

The same goes for most of what's planted: at this point things are growing like there's no tomorrow, but we're not expecting much ripe produce until the end of summer, especially since we planted at the end of Spring, which is later than ideal. That being said, we have gotten early bloomers here and there on the toybox squash and tomato plants (hey, they're called Early Girls for a reason). We've also been harvesting lettuces and herbs, since they readily grow back... faster than we can eat them, as a matter of fact. Currently alive and well in the herb department we have thyme, oregano, basil, chocolate mint, lavender, parsley, and cilantro.

Cilantro with a Peter Pan complex.
If you're a fan of cilantro (I know, you either love it or you hate it), I highly recommend planting some for yourself, in any small planter or pot where it can get plenty of sun. Besides the obvious benefit of not having to buy cilantro at the store, there's the bonus of being able to snip off the young cilantro leaves, which are, naturally, less common than the wider, fuller, mature leaves you typically see in bunches at the store. Young leaves are far more tender, and extremely delicate in texture (similar to dill or fennel fronds), with all the cilantro flavor. They are delicious and interesting and you aren't likely find them shopping, so it's pretty cool to be able to grow your own.

For the very first tomatoes, which we picked at the beginning of July, we naturally opted to complement them with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and some kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Aesthetically, we couldn't have been more pleased:

"The Girls of Summer"
(Don Henley's lost hit)

The first piece I picked up had reddish purple skin and flesh of pale green that faded to muddled red in splotches. I surmised that I may have been a little overzealous and picked an unripe tomato, and a taste more or less confirmed it: the flesh was a bit mealy and the flavor had an unbelievable bite of acidity, so much so that I actually asked Julia if she had squeezed lemon on them. All of our tomato plants are heirlooms, and I know that sometimes heirloom varietals can have unique or odd or unexpected flavors, but for now, I'm thinking I wait and try them again in August. The second wedge was bright red, and firm but juicy, pretty much everything you want in a tomato. It was sugary sweet with just a tiny touch of acidity, balanced and satisfying, and made you dream of swimming in the tastiest marinara ever. Regardless of Mr. Green's bitterness, we were happy with the first tasting's results and we toasted our success with hunky wedges of tomato, our hands dripping heavenly, flavorful juice and tomato seeds down to the wrist.

Encouraged by the tasty tomato experiment, we decided to harvest the few squash that had arrived before their brothers and sisters, and defrosted a turkey breast to give us a protein to work with. I used a green one for lunch on a day off, slicing it, along with some cucumber, thin on the mandolin and marinating it in spicy Sol Food vinegar and chili oil from Diavola for about ten minutes. I used to love when this technique was on a set at Waterbar, usually done with a lime vinaigrette; I would inevitably snack on the tart, fresh discs of summer all throughout service. Once the thin slices of squash 'cook' in the marinade, much like 'cooking' in ceviche (technically, it's called denaturing), they soften to perfect edibility and absorb tons of flavor. I made a bomb-ass turkey sando on thick slices of whole wheat levain with a black garlic mayonnaise and piled it high with the marinated squash and cucumber, along with some leaves of mesclun mix, also from the garden. The sweet, earthy mayo and the spicy, tangy squash wrapped their flavors around the delicious roast turkey and the levain wrapped its softness around all that and made it all just freaking delicious. Hooray squash!

Dressing to match dinner?
Julia, not one to be left out or outdone, took things to the next level for dinner a few days later. First she harvested some ripe tomatoes and another beautiful yellow squash; then she used the tomatoes and a red Mole paste I brought back from Mexico City to make a sauce, while she diced the squash, shredded the turkey, and grabbed some black beans to make enchiladas. Naturally, we finished it with essentially an entire block of cheddar cheese (not counting what we ate as we shredded), and into the oven it went, to get dreeeeeamy. The cheese was all stringy and you could fully taste the flavor of the squash along with the turkey and chipotle she had added. Better yet, the squash had steamed to perfection inside the torillas as the dish baked, and the filling was hearty and clean but filled with flavor.  I swear to god, it tasted like my mom's, which is a little strange, but extremely wonderful in its deliciousness. We housed all but a few bites of it, but only because we stopped ourselves so Julia would be left with enough to make a tasty scramble before work the following morning.

I want to live inside there...

Clearly the enchiladas were another success, so I'd say we are off to a pretty solid start to this whole growing and eating thing, and we haven't seen anything yet as far as fruiting! Come August and September (and hopefully October with the Indian Summers of Northern California), we are going to have pumpkins, watermelons, eggplants, green beans, wax beans, cucumbers, serranos, habaneros, radicchio, and a lot more of what we've seen already.

Homegrown dinners every night and a couple of chefs living together means we are in for some good eating...