Flash in the Pan 

World champion fruit leather

Some professions offer more opportunities for public glory than others. To even stand on a World Cup soccer field, for example, requires a physique that’s a cliché of fitness. And that physique can do glorious things, like kick a ball 80 yards, or smash a drilled ball with its head, or pull a spin move while dribbling at a sprint.

This is all wonderful to watch—no ifs, ands or…

But the other day as I was weeding the garden—really fast and dexterously, fistfuls of weeds with nary a good plant lost—I had a thought. As I weeded, images of France’s one and only goal against Brazil flashed through my mind. It was a perfect goal: beautiful plan, beautiful pass by Zidane, and a beautiful finish by Henry.

I realized then that the reason I was gardening like a rock star was because I too had set myself up for greatness. My plants were evenly spaced, so I knew where not to grab, and the weeds were few and far between thanks to all the mulch I’d spread. And because of that mulch, the weeds were pleasantly easy to pull.

What a shame, I thought, that there are so many unsung farmer heroes out there, quietly weeding one long row after another, not-so-quietly remarking in color as they fix this piece of equipment or that water line.

And what a shame, I thought, that we don’t have zoom-lens coverage of today’s farmers, changing tractor implements on a three-point hitch and plowing laser-straight rows, or raising a greenhouse into a jungle, or getting up early enough to make most of us nauseous, day after day.

Soccer and farming are both modern activities with deep roots in our primal past. Soccer is reminiscent of the old-school endeavors of hunting and war in the way it combines teamwork, exertion, leaps and dives, winners and losers.

As for farming, well, humans lived for centuries before they farmed, acquiring food via hunting, gathering, even stealing. These activities culminated in the annual World Series of food stockpiling, held in the dead of winter—the champion being whoever made it through ’til spring.

Today we have a slightly different set of activities with which we can tap into the stockpiling urge, including gardening, foraging, hunting, fishing and gleaning the unpicked fruit trees of the world.

And while another profession gets the nod as the world’s oldest—and surely it does scratch an ancient itch—gathering food has to be a notch more important, and a notch older. The mating urge, after all, is dependent on successful fulfillment of the eating urge.

So there I was, weeding my peas like Brazil’s Ronaldinho slicing, dicing and dishing his way through a pack of defenders. Noticing how many ripe snap peas there were, I popped some into my mouth. Yum. No finer garden treat exists, although many others tie for first, including strawberries, tomatoes and shelling peas if you’ve got the time. In fact my shell peas were ripe, too, and even more plentiful, so I picked them off and brought them to the kitchen to shell and freeze, munching all the way. It was a perfect play, combining the immediacy of a perfectly ripe pea eaten fresh with long-term sealed-in goodness to be enjoyed during the World Series of food.

To freeze peas, shell them and blanch in boiling water for a minute, then drain and freeze. For snap peas—another nice play—cut off the stem end and blanch for one and a half minutes, then drain and freeze.

The blanch and freeze technique works for much of today’s fresh produce, including beans (three minutes), broccoli (broken into florets, three minutes) and greens (two minutes). Consult a food-storage manual for more.

Another one for your playbook involves fresh fruit, either purchased, homegrown or picked off an abandoned tree. The cherry trees have fruit right now. Soon the apricots come on. Then peaches, followed by plums, apples and pears. If you’ve already stashed away some berries or rhubarb, all the better.

The play of the day is leather. You can make it out of almost any fruit, berry or combination thereof. Remove the pits and stems and place the fruit in a large, heavy pot with an inch of water in the bottom. Cook with the lid on until the fruit collapses. If you have a food mill or something like it you might consider letting the fruit cool and running it through. If you do this, the next step is to heat the filtered pulp again (otherwise, don’t cool the fruit and proceed to the next step) and stir in honey to taste. In addition to adding flavor, honey acts as a preservative—have you ever seen mold on honey? No, you haven’t. You can also add juice at this point, for flavor.

Pour your puree onto plastic wrap, steering clear of the edges, to about a quarter-inch thickness. Dry in the sun for a few days—with a tent of cheesecloth to keep out the flies—or in the dehydrator for a few hours.

The crowd will go wild.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Talking cover

Q: Dear CBA,

The corn has rebuffed my attempts to get it to germinate. What should I do with the largish patch of my garden that should have had corn in it by now? (I am more interested in plants that will make the dirt ready for tomatoes and peppers next year than more food at this point.)
—Cornfounded

A: Dear Cornfounded,

It sounds like you want to plant a cover crop. Cover crops are grown instead of edible crops with the intent of replenishing the organic material and nitrogen in the soil that gets removed by crops like your would-be corn. Cover crops are invariably legumes, a type of plant that converts nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. Legumes don’t need nitrogen in the soil because they supply their own, and when you till the cover crop into the soil, the nitrogen stays there.

This is what farmers and hardcore gardeners do, Cornfounded, and it sounds like you want to join their club. And when wannabe farmers like me receive tough questions like yours, I usually make a phone call to get the correct answer. This time I called Josh Slotnick of Clark Fork Organics.

“I’d go with Austrian Winter Peas,” he said. “It’s too hot right now to germinate clover. You could go with rye, but that’s so pedestrian—you can plant rye anytime. But now is the perfect time for a dense matt of Austrian Winter Peas. Sow it thick, keep it watered, and soon you’ll have a green carpet of nitrogen. Cut it down this fall with a weed-whacker and till it in.”

Cenex, on Reserve Street, can get the peas for you in a day. Or you can order it online at www.groworganic.com.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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