The Milkweed Diaries

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gathering Around the Table

Heirloom winter squash stuffed with walnut-fig-goat cheese quinoa and served with fresh figs, elder- berries, and chevre.

To me, the kitchen table is the hearth, the center of the home, an altar, a canvass, and a hub of family and community.

This summer we've been hosting weekly "family dinners," gathering around a big, long table and sharing food, drink, and stories from the farm. I have loved these dinners--of course for the flavors of the foods coming out of the garden, but also for the sense of community that is created when friends and family come together over food. Sharing food seems to be one of the oldest, most universal ways that we connect with each other.

This time of year it is so easy to fill the table with beautiful and delicious foods from the farm and garden--it's the height of harvest season and we are eating well.

And many friends with gardens have reached that point that gardeners know so well when the volume of food coming out of the garden has become more than the gardener can handle and s/he has to issue a call for help in dealing with the onslaught of produce.

Sharon put out such a call because her fig tree was laden down with fruit, and Puma couldn't keep up with the elderberries in his front yard. So in between meetings and office time at work this week, I slipped over to my friends' yards in my and harvested the surplus fruit. Deep in the foliage of the fig tree in Sharon's back yard, reaching for the higher branches, wearing my professional attire, and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, I thought about how grateful I am for the gift economy in my community, and for the shared appreciation of good, fresh food.

Last week, we invited friends who have worked on the farm over the course of this growing season to come out for family dinner and celebrate the harvest--including figs and elderberries, along with the annual vegetables pouring out of our garden right now.

Trading with other vendors at the farmers markets has brought even more amazing food on to our table -- artisan cheeses and breads that are a perfect complement to the fruit and vegetables.

All-local bruschetta with homegrown tomatoes, beet green and basil pesto, local bread, and local goat cheese ... by Christopher

Friends bring their own delightful concoctions full of fresh local goodness to the table, too -- and the abundance almost seems too good to be true sometimes.

Blueberry cobbler by Michael ... with blueberries he picked that morning in Leicester

And as soon as the table is cleared, there is room for the next meal, and the next. Later in the week, we celebrated with our farm interns over breakfast with more incredible local food, and the abundance continued.

Butter homemade by Nicole from raw milk from Katie the cow next door.

Eggs from Gecko's chickens cooked to perfection by Dau

Butternut squash bread by Nicole

Homemade jams

I am deeply grateful not only for the abundance of nourishing, beautiful, and delicious food that we get to enjoy, but for the wealth of community that we create by connecting across kitchen tables and chopping blocks and farmers market stands.

Some of the people who helped grow food on the farm this year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Garden Microcosm: Bloodflower

Bloodflower, also known as Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in the garden this week.

Bloodflower is a beautiful plant that has traditional medicinal uses, but I just grow it for the butterflies, hummingbirds, and beneficial insects.

All of a sudden, the garden is all full of oranges, reds, and yellows. Golden Giant amaranth, Burgundy amaranth, sunflowers, red and yellow zinnias, Texas sage, and goldenrod. Fall colors.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Wild Harvests

With the avalanche of cultivated foods coming out of the garden right now, and gardening fatigue setting in, it's nice to pause and remember that there is food all around us, available for free, growing wild.

Our first human ancestors nourished themselves by foraging, and I believe that there is something deep in our collective memory that calls us back to wild foods. There's a childlike delight that I've witnessed when people encounter food, free for the taking, outside of a cultivated garden. It's a reminder that food is not a commodity, but a gift from the Earth and part of our connection to the Earth.

Last week my sister Mary and I took our farm interns blueberry picking on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the five of us picked about 11 pounds of wild blueberries in a couple of hours. It was a lovely excursion, complete with a dip in one of my favorite swimming holes (pictured below) and enough steep uphill hiking to leave my leg muscles sore for a couple of days.

Picking blueberries on the parkway is an annual tradition for me, infused with childhood memories, radical politics, and love of all things wild -- I wrote about all of these things last year here: "Wild Blueberries Fresh from the Commons."

We brought this year's blueberries home and made all manner of blueberry treats, including sourmilk blueberry pancakes, 5 gallons of blueberry mead, a blueberry crisp, and of course, a blueberry pie.

The mead is bubbling away, the pie and crisp and pancakes are long-since gone, and a meager quart of blueberries are preserved in a mason jar in my freezer for some winter day when we need a little burst of antioxidant-packed, wild summer goodness. Our interns are harvesting Autumn Olives and Sumac this week for more wild foods preservation projects on the farm this week. And I'm feeling gratitude for all of the nourishment, wild and tame, that's available to us if we pause and look around.

Pausing for Gratitude

This time of year, marked with harvest festivals in many earth-based cultures, is a time to pause from the garden frenzy, take stock, enjoy the fruits of our labor, and be grateful. In the ancient Celtic calendar, one of the four major festivals of the year was observed at the beginning of August, called Lá Lúnasa, Lughnasadh, or Lammas, which was in that part of the world at that time the beginning of the main harvest season.

In years past, we have celebrated this time of year with fanfare; this year Lúnasa came and went without any vegetables being launched down the Swannanoa river or harvest altars being constructed, but I have been taking time to pause and give thanks for the garden this week.

I spent some time this week in the garden taking photos and feeling immense gratitude for all of the labor that created this bounty, and for the Earth's incredible abundance.

Here are a few shots from the past week in the garden and at market. Happy harvest!

Zinnias and Purslane



Bush beans, edamame, and lots and lots of pole beans

Depp's Pink Firefly tomato - a gorgeous and delicious Appalachian heirloom that has been a heavy producer for us this year.

Tomato jungle in the hoophouse...

Cucumbers and Globe Amaranth

Sweet potatoes, squash, and pole beans

Edamame surrounded by pole beans

Cardoon flowering

Magenta spreen lambsquarters

Love-Lies-Bleeding and Autumn Joy Sedum

Moonflower climbing

Our tomatoes for sale at the West Asheville Tailgate Market

Italian heirloom frying peppers at market

Cherry tomatoes at market. We are growing the varieties White Currant, Peacevine, Sungold, and Black Cherry.

More tomatoes! Two of my all-time favorite slicers. The green-ripening Emerald Evergreen and the beautiful Flame/ Hillbilly.

Orange Banana, Pearly Pink, and Cream Sausage tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, and zinnias in the some found- object garden art!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Book Review, Transatlantic Gift Economy, and Cherry Tomato Art Installation

One day sometime in the past year, I issued a plaintive call to friends across the intertubes for someone to lend me a book I had built up a powerful urge to peruse: Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante. My Internet Friend Annie Levy* (who is always referred to like so by her full title) promptly responded by GIVING me a copy! A woman who I have never met, who lives far across the ocean in Wales sent me a present in the mail! A really good present.

As soon as the book arrived I promptly read it from cover to cover and then commenced to re-reading, savoring, and luxuriating in each of its 197 pages. With prefaces by no less luminaries than Eliot Coleman and Deborah Madison, this dense little treasure of a book is a new favorite kitchen reference in our house.

The recipes and descriptions of techniques are simple, practical, and clearly held dear by the gardeners and farmers who offer them. Each entry includes the contributor's name and place of residence, and sometimes also information about growing, harvesting, or wildcrafting the ingredients and/or using the finished product. Over 100 people contributed to the book, and the brief personal notes that accompany their contributions make reading the book feel like sitting around a table sharing stories and techniques with other gardeners and cooks.

Some of my favorite entries are the simplest:

Plums, Variation 2.

Small crate
A pane of glass

Place whole plums in a small, well-ventilated crate, covered with a pane of glass. Keep the crate in the sun (ideally against a wall facing south).

~Annie Dijoud, St Joseph-de-Rivi


The book begins with a section on root cellaring and other methods of in-ground preservation, including pits, trenches, and packing apples in elderflowers to impart a pineapple flavor. That is the sort of tidbit that I love. It continues on with chapters on drying; lactic fermentation; and preserving in oil, vinegar, salt, sugar, and alcohol. All of these methods are ancient, pre-electric food traditions that retain flavor and nutrients far better than modern methods. The flavors, textures, and look of these preserved foods remind me of shopping in open air markets in little towns in the South of France: encountering simple, delicious, and beautiful foods handcrafted with old-world grace.

I pulled this lovely little book down today when I was considering the abundance of cherry tomatoes coming out of the garden, and envisioning how nice they would look packed in a jar. But how to preserve their beauty and sweetness without compromising their vitamin-packed nutritional punch?

I looked up "cherry tomatoes" in the index of PFWFC and discovered this recipe:

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes
Small onions or shallots
Cider vinegar or lemon juice ( 1-2 Tbs per 16-oz jar)
Fresh basil, tarragon, oregano, etc. (to taste)
Coarse salt
Olive oil
Canning jars and lids

"You must start with cherry tomatoes that are very firm and ripe. ...Wash and dry the tomatoes. Peel...the onions or shallots.

Prepare scalded or serilized 16-ounce jars. Fill them with tomatoes, alternating with a few onions and herbs. When the jars are filled to about one and half inches from the rim, sprinkel with a pinch of coarse salt. Add one or two tablespoons of cider vinegar or lemon juice, and cover with olive oil.

Close the jars with a very clean lid, and store them in a rather cool place (10 to 15 C/50-59 F). The tomatoes will be ready to eat in two to three months and will keep for up to a year."

~Anne Duran, St. Front

Jars ready for capping and storing: Pearly Pinks packed in oil with basil and mixed cherry tomatoes packed in oil with pearl onions and basil.

One of the great things about simple, heat-free preservation methods such as this one is that you can quickly process small batches without lots of effort -- I packed two 16 ounce jars and an 8 ounce jar this evening and I'll continue packing more as the tomato season continues.

The jars of little jewel-tone tomatoes are as lovely as I had hoped. They feel like a little art installation on the top shelf of my fridge.

Thank you, Annie Levy, for your generosity. And thank you to the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante.

*I met My Internet Friend Annie Levy via the Wild Fermentation facebook group. A wonderful resource for fermentation lovers, and it turns out, a place to encounter lovely, facinating, and generous people.