Friday, February 17, 2012

Sink Wife

The only part of my house that is clean right now is the kitchen sink.  Hair-and-lint balls are piling up in the corners and behind doors, bike tire trails from the front door to the kitchen crisscross wet-leaf trails from the back door, and the microscopic life forms of the bathroom are reaching visible colony sizes.  But the stainless steel kitchen sink, the place where all the greens get double washed, is spotless, shiny even, the well-maintained hub of the household.

Which is no surprise given that, lately, I feel like I live at that sink, constantly standing over it as I cut and tear leaves from their stems, bathe greens in a sink full of water, and move greens from the water to the strainer then back to a fresh bath of water then finally to the spinner for drying.  Or I'm washing the bulky dishes, like salad-mixing bowls and food processor parts, that inevitably follow salad making or greens cooking.  Basically, in these cloudy days of early spring, I'm feeling like a sink wife, a woman whose sink-related chores are never-ending and largely unseen, without which the steady gallop of greens consumption, so necessary if we're going to make this leap from fall to spring garden in about a month, would come to a standstill.  Forward progress is at stake here.

It amazes me how tedious forward progress, lived at the daily level, really is.  For instance, I want to grow some of my own produce in my own yard.  Which is a lovely goal, and one that is very clear in its idea phase – I want to grow greens! – and at fruition – This spinach salad is so delicious!  Even most of the obvious in-between steps, like selecting the seeds, planting the seeds, thinning the seedlings, and weeding the garden, are things that I look forward to doing, side effects from the original produce-growing goal that really are part of the reason that I want to be growing greens in the first place, because I like spending time in the garden.  But then the repetitive tasks sneak in, like processing the greens.

Greens – lettuces, spinach, chard, beet greens, Asian greens, mustard, kale, etc – are dirty.  Not dirty in a gross or bad way, but literally dirty: coated in garden soil, which is splashed on their leaves every time it rains, carrying pieces of mulch, and host to caterpillars, beetles, and aphids.  And, while baby greens are edible as whole leaves, mature greens have large leaves that need to be torn or cut into smaller pieces and from which the woody, central veins need to be removed.  This is the work of the sink wife, taking a bucketful of muddy, nearing-shrub-size plants and transforming them into a bowlful of greens that are ready to be cooked or coated in salad dressing.  Cut, toss stem in compost, tear, toss greens in sink.  Repeat about 137 times.  Slosh greens in water to loosen dirt, transfer to strainer, drain and clean the sink, and repeat.  Repeat.  To repeat is the tedious part of the growing-produce goal, and it is in the midst of the repeat, as I stare out the kitchen window and shift my weight from one leg to the other, that the emotions of the sink wife arise.  The feelings of being trapped in a never-ending process, the sense of being unappreciated for all this effort, and the fear that the work that I am doing is not valuable.

Valuable to whom?  This is a problem that I have, a problem common to many women and a few caretaker men, having been raised by mothers who told us that we could do anything that we wanted while showing us how to silently anticipate the needs of everybody around us.  As their mothers did before them.  I want my work, my time, to be valuable to somebody else, and I have trouble spending my time in ways that are simply valuable to me.  Still, I don't think that the fears of the sink wife are just about value.  I think they run deeper.

To the issue that has been all consuming for me lately: time.  How I spend my time.  The sink wife is the part of me that fears that I am wasting my time standing over the sink, stripping cilantro leaves from their stems to make pesto, or tearing apart lettuce and spinach leaves to make a salad mix, or cutting thick veins from huge mustard leaves to cook into a curry.  The sink wife is the part of me that fears that the whole process, the whole growing-greens project that I have chosen to do, is a waste of time.  That I have made the wrong choice.  That I am doing the wrong thing.

The sink wife arises in the midst of the tedious, repetitive work because that is where I am least distracted by doing.  When I'm in the garden, I'm enjoying being outside too much to question it, and by the time that I am cooking, I'm either busy chopping onions or I'm close enough to the finish that I can see, or smell, the upcoming meal.  But in the midst of the slow, repetitive detail work, the fears beneath, that I am not doing it right, that I am making the wrong choices, they come bubbling up through the sink full of leaves to greet the silence.  I have time to think and wonder and question, so here come the questions:  Am I doing the right thing?  Am I doing it right, this life?

A better question to ask might be, How am I doing it?  Am I enjoying this quiet time in front of the sink, surrounded by the abundance of greens that I have grown, separating leaves from stems into a spotless sink while listening to ManĂ¡ and daydreaming, or am I worrying about whether I am doing the right thing?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ten Pound Cauliflower

It would seem to be in bad taste, as a gardener, to rank the relative preciousness of the vegetables in my fall garden, something like ranking the handsomeness of the half dozen or so cats that call our backyard their home away from home, when, really, each is perfect in its own way, and, seriously, the only one kitty who really matters (just ask her) is our Benji.  But then came the cauliflowers, each a one-time harvest, each in a bright, new-to-me color, and each with a lengthier ripening time than the last, and they just seemed to demand exactly that – a ranking.  So, with my apologies to the many wonderfully nutritious greens in the front yard that have been waiting patiently for their harvest days as the spoiled nursery transplants on the south side of the house get all the attention, I present, for cool season 2011-2012, the Top Ten Moments in Cruciferous Abundance.

10.  The third broccoli plant of the season to reach harvest size was the Premium Crop.  The Premium Crop produced a medium-sized head that I harvested on December 13, which was 63 days after transplanting.  The Premium Crop, like the two earlier broccoli plants before it, had the good fortune of producing its broccoli head in what turned out to be (at least so far, knock on wood) the coolest part of this mild winter.  Because of which, the Premium Crop reached harvest size slowly, and I managed to harvest it before it showed any signs of being past its prime.  I cooked the Premium Crop into a broccoli-cheddar soup.

Premium Crop Broccoli

9.  By the time the fourth broccoli plant of the season, the Marathon Broccoli, was ready to harvest, we were enjoying an unseasonably (even for Austin) warm January, which meant that I found myself in a sudden state of broccoli abundance, with main heads of the later plants and side heads of the earlier plants all reaching harvest size at once.  I harvested the Marathon Broccoli on January 6, 87 days after transplanting.  I made the Marathon Broccoli into a salad that wasn't very successful because I blanched the broccoli to make the salad, and it just didn't hold up to even a couple of minutes of cooking the way that cauliflower does.  The salad tasted good but the texture was not great, so I'll be sticking to cauliflower salads for the time being.

Marathon Broccoli

8.  This was the first year that I was able to grow broccoli and cauliflower in a full-sun location.  Last year I grew them in the shady backyard and, years before that, my community garden plot was partially shaded.  As a result of the sunny location, almost all of the main broccoli heads were larger than any I had grown before.  But it was the broccoli side shoot production that really amazed me this year, turning what I thought was a single-harvest event into a two-month-long broccoli season.  The Packman Broccoli started the broccoli season with the first main head on November 28, then followed with several ready-to-harvest side shoots by the first week in January.  The combined size of the "side" shoots far exceeded the size of the original main head, explaining why some gardeners advise harvesting the central stalk early to encourage side shoot growth.  Given the lack of side shoots in my broccoli-grown-in-the-shade history, I thought those people were crazy, but the Packman showed me how huge a second harvest can be.  Side shoot harvest continued until January 26, when I harvested the side shoots of the Premium Crop and Marathon broccoli plants, officially closing out the broccoli season.

Packman Broccoli Side Shoots

Premium Crop and Marathon Side Shoots

7.  The last broccoli plant to produce its central head was the Arcadia Broccoli, which I harvested on January 13, a full 94 days after transplanting.  It was a large, dense broccoli head but I'm not sure about its flavor because I gave it to some friends.  The exceptional quality of the Arcadia Broccoli was its long time to harvest, given that so many times I pick out variety of broccoli transplants, only to have them all reach harvest size in the same week.  So, in the land of warm winters and fast broccoli growth, it is nice to know of Arcadia and its slower-growing ways.

Arcadia Broccoli

6.  The first cauliflower of the season to emerge from within its leaves and, once visible, quickly grow to harvest size, was the white Snow Crown cauliflower.  I cooked the white cauliflower into a cauliflower curry.

5.  I planted three heads of cabbage this year but lost one to an omnivorous neighborhood mammal on a health kick.  I harvested the Fast Vantage Cabbage on January 20, or 97 days after transplanting into the front yard garden.  Sliced and cooked into a stir fry with tempeh and black bean sauce, the Fast Vantage was sweet and tender, making me wonder why cabbage has such a bland reputation.  Fresh cabbage is wonderful and takes a long, cool season to grow, making it something of a delicacy here in Texas where the hot season is reliably long and the cool season is anything but reliable.  And, as any gardener knows, the omnivorous neighborhood mammals only eat the best, and the rarest, that a garden has to offer.

Fast Vantage Cabbage

4.  The biggest broccoli head of the season was produced by the Blue Wind Broccoli, which I harvested on December 6 and baked into a Broccoli Cheese Pie.  The Blue Wind Broccoli also went on to grow large side shoots that made their way into another large batch of broccoli cheddar soup on January 11, making the Blue Wind the most productive of the broccoli plants this season.

Blue Wind Broccoli Side Shoots

3.  The purple Graffiti Cauliflower reached harvest size at the same time as the yellow cauliflower, in the middle week of January, which, for this season, was the absolute peak of cruciferous abundance.  Between January 11 and 20, I harvested the several broccoli side shoots (filling the bowl in the photo above), the Arcadia broccoli, two cauliflower, and a cabbage.  And that's not counting all the cruciferous greens, like mustard and kale and Asian greens, reaching maturity in the front yard garden at the same time.  Needless to say, if there were an LD50 for cruciferous vegetables, I would now be able to report on it.  Between the yellow and the purple cauliflower, I thought that the yellow one was going to reach its harvest day a bit sooner, but one day I walked around the house to find that the entire purple cauliflower plant had wilted.  So I harvested the Graffiti Cauliflower on January 15, which was 96 days after transplanting, and revived it by placing its stem into water.

Graffiti Cauliflower

I used the purple cauliflower to make a magenta-colored cauliflower salad.  I know, cauliflower salad sounds about as appetizing as dormitory food.  But last winter I discovered a recipe for Italian-Style Cauliflower Salad in the The Victory Garden Cookbook, an old-school gardener's guide to what to do with all of those vegetables, and since then cauliflower salad has been one of my take-to-work-for-lunch staples.  The salad combines cauliflower, blanched for three minutes to mellow the raw cauliflower edge, with olives, capers, and a lemon-garlic-olive oil dressing.  I usually add a can of garbanzo beans and a chopped hunk of feta cheese to make the salad more substantial.  Before cooking the purple cauliflower, I read that adding vinegar to the water helps the cauliflower to retain its color (and the anthocyanin nutrition associated with it) during cooking.  Given that Austin water is fairly basic, I added a generous half cup of vinegar to the boiling water that I used to blanch the cauliflower, which remained purple but took on a bit more of a pink-purple, or magenta, shade in the water.

2.  The Cheddar Cauliflower was ready to harvest on January 17, or 98 days after transplanting, but I didn't harvest it until January 20, and it used those few extra sunny days on the plant to grow into the Ten Pound Cauliflower.  Now, to be honest, we don't have a scale, so I don't know for sure what the Cheddar Cauliflower weighed at harvest time.  I just know that it was ginormous and far heavier than our eight-pound cat.  Seriously.  I decided to bake it, in the style of macaroni-and-cheese, simply substituting the cauliflower for pasta.  But all that cauliflower didn't fit in the three-quart baking dish, so that day I also had an improvised cauliflower-mayo-and-whatever's-in-the-fridge salad for lunch, before the baked cauliflower for dinner.  Like I said, it was a week of cruciferous abundance.  About that baked cauliflower... it tasted awfully good but that much cauliflower, even though I blanched it before baking, released a whole lot of water during cooking, so the dish didn't look appetizing, more like a not-yet-pureed soup than a baked dish.  I'll have to work on that.

Cheddar Cauliflower

At harvest time, with kitty and cabbage for scale

1.  The Veronica Romanesco Cauliflower, being both the last of the cauliflowers to reach harvest size – on January 29, a full 110 days after transplanting – and the coolest-looking vegetable that I have ever grown, inspired this whole list.  It was the Romanesco that put the whole season into a line, leading from the earliest broccoli, to all those unexpected broccoli side shoots, to the cauliflowers in bright colors, and finally to the apex of the season, the bright yellow-green Romanesco cauliflower with its whorled florets.  The Romanesco was so crazy, built looking that I didn't want to cut it into pieces because it felt too much like I was ruining mother nature's personal art project.  But as Lee said, You might as well cut it up now that you've cut it off the plant.  So I carefully disassembled the Romanesco cauliflower, leaving as many florets as I could intact and marveling over how each floret really was a miniature version of the whole head.  In fact, considered individually, each floret looked like a miniature, yet to-scale, version of a magical mountain where gnomes, the type that might nurse a wandering Snow White back to health, might live.  And, in case of doubts, I was quite sober as I was thinking all of this, drinking my morning chai as I made the final Italian-Style Cauliflower Salad of the season, this time adding pasta and Parmesan cheese (instead of garbanzo beans and feta) to create a couple of satisfying meals.  With the crunch of cauliflower, a taste in between broccoli and cauliflower, and its fractal good looks, Romanesco cauliflower is now on my list of favorite vegetables.

Veronica Romanesco Cauliflower

Italian-Style Cauliflower Salad
Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook

1 large head of cauliflower
1 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced (or black olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (15 ounce) can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

[OR, instead of the garbanzo beans and feta cheese, substitute:
1/2 pound pasta, cooked according to package, rinsed, and cooled
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese]

Disassemble the cauliflower and chop into bite-size pieces.  Soak the cauliflower pieces in water to remove dirt or bugs, then rinse.  Blanch the cauliflower pieces in boiling, salted water for three minutes, then remove immediately, drain, and shock in ice water to cool.  Drain the cauliflower pieces.

In a large bowl, combine the olives, capers, garbanzo beans and feta cheese (or pasta and Parmesan cheese), and cauliflower pieces.  In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, and pepper.  Pour the dressing over the cauliflower mixture and stir well to combine.  Refrigerate and serve cold or room temperature.