Flash in the Pan 

Getting ahead on your garden

Gardening season starts when you open your first seed catalog in the dead of winter. It doesn’t end until you’ve dug your last carrot, plucked your final Brussels sprout or eaten your last pickled pepper.

Growing a garden is a fundamental act of living in a place. And setting down roots, even if you don’t think you’re going to be there forever, will enhance your quality of life, here and now, in many ways that extend beyond the garden. The difference in attitude between tourists and those in for the long haul is palpable. You treat people differently when you plan on sticking around, and, in turn, you get treated like a more significant person.

The same principle holds true when you invest in your relationship with your landscape, and gardening is a great way to do that. You’ll learn more about your soil, weather, neighbors, local farmers and many other features of your neighborhood once you dig in.

Of course, there’s also the food. Growing the right garden requires a firm understanding of your eating habits, and your garden should be tailored to fit into your overall culinary game plan, which revolves around basic questions: What do I want to eat fresh? And, what do I want to eat all year long?

The tomato, for example, falls into both categories. So I plant just a few tomato plants so I can run out to the garden on a whim and grab some whenever I want. But I also like to make gallons of salsa, tomato sauce and ratatouille for storage and year-round consumption. So while my little tomato patch gets me through the summer, I rely on bulk purchases at the farmers’ market to get me through the winter.

Other things I like to have fresh and close by are herbs, strawberries and melons, as well as peas, spinach and other greens. Again, I only grow these in micro-quantities for fresh-eating in the summer, but when they’re in season I also stock up in bulk, picking strawberries, for instance, at the Common Ground U-pick to freeze and make jam.

I also grow things that I can’t get elsewhere, specialty varieties like red streak fingerling potatoes, arledge chile peppers or moon and stars watermelon, to name a few.

Now is the time to start scheming and planning, and a good seed catalog is like a good magazine that you can curl up with while sipping a cup of tea.

As you flip through the pages you’ll be confronted with intriguing plants you’ve never heard of, but that may entice you to experiment. My Jung catalog, for example, from Randolph, Wis., contains an American heirloom called Mango Melon (also called Vine Peach), whose “vigorous, spreading, very productive vines” make “white-fleshed fruits with the flavor and texture of a mango.” Uh, yeah. I’ll try that. And while I’m at it I’ll order some chocolate cherry tomato seeds.

Beware the plants that must be started from seed in pots and then transplanted. These crops take an extra amount of skill and consistent attention, and undertaking them can often lead to failure. So I buy most of my plant starts from the experts at the farmers’ markets, and the only plants I start from seed are the experimentals, like my Mango Melon and chocolate cherry tomatoes, and shallots.

Shallots taste like onion but pack more pound for pound flavor. Since I must have them and they’re too expensive to buy in bulk, I grow shallots and buy onions. Most people grow shallots from “sets,” little mini-shallots that grow into bigger shallots, but you get a much better yield growing shallots from seed. But to do so is a commitment. Like onions, they should be started indoors by early March, which means they must be ordered in February.

There are many seed catalogs out there, each with its own personality, specialty, collected tidbits of information and wisdom, and selection of gear and supplies. Most seed companies have online catalogs posted, but I recommend you request a hard copy—the better to spill coffee and jot notes upon and leave around the house for when you have an idyll moment.

Some of my favorite seed catalogs include:

—Fedco, a cooperative seed and garden supply organization. The beautifully illustrated and whimsical catalog is slightly reminiscent of the Whole Earth Catalog, and offers, in addition to seeds, networking information, news, opinion and notable quotes. Check out www.fedcoseeds.com.

—Johnny’s Seeds. Perhaps the tightest ship in the seed business, Johnny’s is the go-to supplier for many commercial growers and gardeners alike. Their glossy catalog includes great photos, and the company provides speedy delivery. Find more at www.johnnyseeds.com.

—Jungs. This is a new discovery of mine with an interesting selection, including the aforementioned Mango Melon, as well as the intriguing “Biggie Chile.” Explore at www.jungseed.com.

—High Mowing. This up-and-coming Vermont-based company professes high ethical standards and great seeds. Like Fedco, High Mowing is overtly mission-driven as much as profit-driven. Visit www.highmowingseeds.com.

The list goes on: Territorial Seeds, Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley, Seed Savers Exchange, to name a few more.

Now is the time to dream and plan how you’ll take root in your home ground this summer.

Ask Ari: Better blending for baby

Q: Chef Ari,

I have an Oyster blender. I paid $29 for it at Wally and it seems that the blades have stopped blending due to things being too thick. What do I do? Add liquid first, then fruit? Or fruit then liquid? Anyways it doesn’t seem to be doing its job and that pisses me off.

—Pregnant and pissed

P.S.—Which is better to make baby food, a blender or a food processor? The blender is easier to clean.

A: It’s better to start with enough liquid in the blender to get a good vortex going, and then add your solids, like fruit, to the already whirling material. You can also chop the solids before adding them to the blender, and start the blender on low before increasing the speed.

A blender will work fine for baby food since the ingredients are generally cooked until they’re falling-apart soft. It’s better to steam your baby’s veggies in a little water, and then use that water in the blender to help liquefy the solids.

But before adding your baby food or steam water to the blender, let it cool first. Hot water can soften and loosen the rubber gasket at the base of the blender, allowing leakage. Of more concern is the possibility of putting too much hot material in the blender and turning it straight to high, causing the pressure in the blender to spike and blowing the lid off, splattering hot baby food onto your face and kitchen. I speak from experience here; the wounds are still raw. Last week I simmered some dried chiles in chicken stock and then put the whole business into the blender. After it exploded in my face I had both boiling water and chile heat to contend with, and was crying like a baby.

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