It’s my last week of the summer here at the community garden, so naturally I’m feeling both reflective and generous.
As the garden takes its first steps towards the fall, a few things have made an impression on me.
First: Kale is immortal. If you manage it properly.
This stuff was planted before I even started this job, and it’s still producing, in addition to the collards. It’s not quite as tender as it was in May, sure, but it does just fine.
Second: You can definitely over plant cucumbers and other squash, but not tomatoes.
You may end up with more tomatoes than you wanted, but they can turn into way more things. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at another cucumber since we’ve been pulling in over 30 EVERY WORK DAY (that’s twice a week) for about a month and a half.
Third: Always plant sunflowers that grow to 8 feet tall. Inevitably they will create a secret wonderland between them.
Fourth: Organic farmers are the hardest working people alive.
When you don’t use industrial shortcuts like herbicide, pesticide, or fungicide, you end up doing a lot of things by hand, like pulling weeds and picking off cucumber beetles. There’s also no machine that can harvest 50 different kinds of vegetables, so you’re doing that by hand too, and then hauling giant, heavy tubs of those vegetable around. For 10 hours a day. In the blazing hot sun. 6 days a week. I could barely do it twice a week, so my hat’s off to them. You show me an organic farmer who isn’t a complete and total badass, and I’ll eat that hat.
Fifth: I’ve emerged on this side of August with a different attitude towards food. Now, I expected I’d say that, but honestly I didn’t really expect to mean it. I’ve known for years that American food culture is fraudulent; I’ve known what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be eating. But never has it been so easy for me to actually test good practices.
Let me tell you, I have eaten the best food OF MY LIFE this summer. Seriously. Wow. I know it sounds like some ploy to give up the convenience of your grocery store, but well grown, organic, wholesome food ACTUALLY tastes so much better. I’ve been eating orange cherry tomatoes off the vine like candy.
So in that spirit, I’m going to release some of the recipes I’ve learned over this summer (which is a big deal for a southern cook, believe me). Promise me you’ll make them with the best ingredients for best results!
DISCLAIMER: Being a southern cook, a lot of these measurements won’t be exact. If that bothers you, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, the longer you cook, the more comfortable you’ll be judging the size of things like “a heap” or “a smattering” or “enough.”
I made these with the figs that have recently come in at the garden to great success.
Start by peeling a halving a smattering of figs. Fig skin in kind of akin to a citrus rind, so you don’t want that.
You can make jam with as little as two cups of the halved fruit, but it doesn’t do well in large batches, so probably don’t do more than 6 or so cups at a time. For every two cups, you’ll get about 16 oz of preserves.
Throw the fruit into a pot along with half as much sugar as you’ve got figs (i.e. for two cups of figs, add one cup of sugar). Also throw in a dash of salt, and a few lemon slices and a bit of lemon juice to cut the sweetness. Adding more lemon juice will give the preserves a deeper flavor, but don’t over do it. The slices are just pretty. Then pour in about as much water as you’ve got sugar. It should look like this.
Let that simmer of low heat, just bubbling a little bit, for a while. Two cups for me took just under 2 hours on the heat. Basically, cook it until it starts to thicken up, but don’t leave unattended, because it will burn FAST. Make sure to stir every now and then. It should eventually look like this.
Once you’ve arrived here, ladle it into jars, making sure to leave a little head space (an inch or so) between the preserves and the lid. Now, that’ll keep in the fridge for about a month. If you want it to last longer, you’ll need to process the jars in a water bath for about 10 minutes. You can find those instructions online. Enjoy!
HOPPIN’ COLLARD GREENS
I made these all the time at the beginning of the summer with collards from the garden. Fun Fact: collards are my spirit vegetable.
First, go out and get yourself some quality bacon. Bacon quality is key here. Find a tiny local butcher, ask for their house bacon, thick cut. In Charlottesville, I recommend JM Stock.
Throw that bacon on a hot cast iron skillet (or whatever you’ve got, but cast iron always works better in my opinion) and cook it until it’s about half way done. While the bacon is cooking, take 5 or 6 big leaves of collards, lay them on top of each other like pancakes, and roll them up like a cigar, keeping the stems vertical. Or remove the stems ahead of time if you’re finicky, which I am. Rough cut down the cigar at about inch intervals so you end up with a heap of thick strips of collards.
Move the half-cooked bacon to the side of the pan, making sure all the grease is still covering the rest of the pan. Throw in your collard slices straight on the grease. BE CAREFUL. They’re called hoppin’ collard greens for a reason: they will attack you. Stir the greens around as much as you can without overtaking the bacon, but getting the grease on as much of the greens as you can. To the side, mince a clove or two of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic.
Once the bacon is finished cooking, take it out and spread the collards over the whole pan, constantly stirring it around. You don’t want the the greens to turn brown, but it’s okay if a couple do. Throw in your garlic. Garlic burns fast, so only keep cooking everything until the garlic starts to get a nice golden brown. Once it does, your finished, take the greens out.
What you should have is bacon/garlic flavored, slightly crispy collard greens to go with your breakfast of bacon and eggs.
DUTCH OVEN ROASTED CHICKEN WITH ROOT VEGGIES
One of my favorite things to come out of this summer. So. Good.
You will need a dutch oven. No exceptions.
Get yourself a whole chicken. That’s right, the whole thing, bones and all. Preferably about four pounds, give or take a little. Source it locally if you can. Make sure all the giblets are out of the body cavity, and rinse the thing out, pat dry.
INSIDE THE CHICKEN: stuff with as much as you can fit of the following: Rough chopped white or yellow onions (just big old honkin’ slices, but not so big they won’t fit well), lemon slices, pats of butter, springs of rosemary and thyme, and crushed garlic cloves (to release the flavor).
OUTSIDE THE CHICKEN: Rub down everywhere with olive oil, then salt and pepper.
VEGGIES: Chop enough of the following to cook with the chicken: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, or parsnips. Whatever you like. In volume, the veggies chunks should be a hair smaller than a golf ball. Size is important so they’ll cook correctly. Toss the veggies in more olive oil, salt, and pepper.
NOW, put your chicken breast side up in the middle of the dutch oven and put your veggies all around in, where ever you can fit them. Here’s what mine looked like:
Put the lid on your dutch oven and put the whole thing into an oven at 425 degrees F. After 20 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F, and cook for another 50 minutes. The 50 minutes is for a four pound bird, so if yours is larger or smaller, adjust the time accordingly. For example, a 3.5 pound bird might need only 40 minutes. After the main cooking time has elapsed, remove the dutch oven lid, and let cook for another 15 minutes or until the top browns. Don’t cook for more than 15 minutes this way, or the chicken will dry out.
Once your bird is a nice crispy brown, remove from the the oven and let sit for a moment. Then have fun trying to figure out how to deconstruct your chicken (HA!) and serve! The veggies will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, promise.
BONUS TIP: Any chicken you don’t eat right away makes great leftover chicken salad. Also, you can use the carcass with all the stuffing still inside to make great chicken stock for soups.
BY REQUEST: DUTCH OVEN BREAD
I’ve made this a few times, and have been asked for the recipe. I did not invent this recipe, I found it online. Even though it’s not made with garden ingredients, here’s the link. It takes about two days to make.
Happy fall semester and happy eating! Summer garden crew OUT.