Because I live in a cool climate with distinct seasons, the most exciting time of year for me is the spring when I can finally get out and work the soil and plant the vegetables and flowers I have been dreaming about all winter. This is a creative time when plans are set into motion and choices made about what varieties of vegetables to try any given year. I love going to good plant stores to see what heirloom tomatoes are available and what the plant hybridizers have been up to. Even the actual hard work of planting can be exhilarating because it is fun to be outdoors doing something worthwhile.
As a child I kept a little garden and remember being called in for meals by my fastidious mother who met me at the door with a hot, rough and soapy wash cloth and scrubbed away all traces of the outdoors from my face and hands. I found her working me over highly irritating and have come to suspect that my current satisfaction with getting myself covered with garden dirt is a response to that early experience.
Keeping it interesting
Then comes summer when the creative part of gardening is diminished and tasks are all about maintenance: staking, weeding, mulching, deadheading, and, for me, preventing squirrels from picking off all of the green tomatoes on my vines. If the animals so offend, I reluctantly switch from being a gardener to a hunter and set my Havahart traps with the hope that even the sight of them will scare away culprits. Alas, every year I come to realize how naive I am to underestimate the determination of squirrels and resign myself to catching the invaders and taking them for a long ride before letting them go. Although “taking them for a ride” has sinister implications to those of us who remember “The Godfather,” my squirrels meet a better fate than Don Corleone’s enemies.
To perk up the monotony of everyday maintenance and the distasteful enterprise of trapping animals, I look for ways to keep midsummer gardening interesting. I scour shops and catalogs for ornaments that have some appeal, and every now and then find one that resonates. Just last month, for instance, I bought a garden gnome that bears a striking resemblance to one of my father’s sisters so I brought her home and tucked her in front of some dahlias.
Since most garden gnomes are bearded males that resemble Disney’s seven dwarfs, finding a female would have been exciting even if she hadn’t looked like my Aunt Molly. I also get interested in container gardening and pot up brightly-colored annuals and cherry tomatoes in hanging pots to bring some flair to the garden until the dahlias start flowering and steal the show.
Garden vegetable recipes that start with the plants
But the best way for me to sustain interest in the midsummer garden is to think about recipes for vegetable dishes that may be old favorites or new to me. So, for instance, when I gaze upon plants loaded with cherry tomatoes I think about how good they will be when cut in half, mixed with vinaigrette, and tossed into a bowl of hot pasta along with cubes of fontina cheese.
I move on to my favorite salad tomato, the sweet and lovely Juliet, larger than the cherry tomatoes and perfect when sliced and mixed with diced cucumbers, bell peppers and scallions. I like to keep a bowl of Juliets on hand during the summer and dress what I will use just before serving.
The Italian tomatoes, those oblong and meaty fruits, are another favorite. I cut them in half, squeeze out the seeds, then place them cut side up on a baking sheet where I sprinkle them with bits of garlic, balsamic vinegar and olive oil and roast them in a low oven for about an hour. Not particularly tasty when raw, they are transformed into something sweet and delicious when roasted this way and served either alone as a side dish or in sandwiches along with almost anything else.
When I check out my eggplants and peppers, I get into a Mediterranean frame of mind and reach for Joyce Goldstein’s “Mediterranean Fresh” for such salads as her roasted peppers and onions with anchovy garlic vinaigrette and Catalan salt cod and pepper salad. Then I inevitably turn to Paula Wolfert, who can be counted on for delicious recipes that will use many of the vegetables and herbs in my garden. A case in point is her Mallorquin casserole of eggplant, peppers, sardines, and potatoes with caramelized tomatoes which, except for the sardines, is a symphony of my garden’s bounty. And because I have an abundant crop of eggplants this year, I am going to try some of her recipes that use them in dips and stews.
Inevitably, I am drawn to Nigel Slater’s “Tender” because his perspective is that of a gardener who, like me, maintains a limited suburban garden plot, and his recipes are wonderfully simple but have flair. I am going to try his salad of bread and tomatoes that uses every size and shape of tomato in the garden. These are tossed with slices of garlic and basil, oil and vinegar, and at the last minute mixed with toasted pieces of sourdough bread. Slater’s intention is to keep the salad crisp instead of slimy, a problem he finds with similar salads using bread. By the end of my gardening year, I will have expanded my repertoire with new dishes that will influence what I plant next year. So, with renewal, the gardening cycle begins again.
Joyce Goldstein’s Salad of Roasted Peppers and Onions With Anchovy Garlic Vinaigrette
2 medium red onions
2 large red bell peppers
4 large handfuls of arugula (about ⅓ pound)
about ½ cup anchovy garlic vinaigrette
1. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. Rub onions with a little olive oil and place them in a baking pan. Roast until they are tender but not mushy, about one hour. Cool and then slice ½ inch thick.
3. Broil peppers in the oven until they are charred on all sides. Place them in a paper bag and allow them to steam for about 10 minutes. When cool, peel and cut into strips, discarding seeds and ribs.
4. Toss the arugula with half the vinaigrette and place it on a platter. Toss the peppers and onions with some of the remaining vinaigrette and place on top of the arugula. Drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette.
For the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons finely minced anchovies
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 cup olive oil
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the anchovies and garlic in a small saucepan with a bit of olive oil and warm slightly over low heat.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the rest of the olive oil and the vinegar.
3. Season to taste with black pepper.
Photo: Tomatoes and eggplants from the garden. Credit: Barbara Haber