Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Harvest

My grocery list these days looks something like this:

red wine vinegar
olive oil
parmesan cheese
pine nuts
sour cream
white onions (alas, onions)
jug of vinegar

Of course, it also includes cases of PowerAid, chips, lunchmeat and bread for Steve's landscaping lunches, but mostly what I'm buying are things to dress and preserve vegetables. And what a lovely bunch of vegetables they are!

The big season has finally arrived, and I'm harvesting in a bucket instead of a little plastic ice cream pail. Today I went out for cherry tomatoes and came back with a bucket full of cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, 2 zucchini, a ripe, red pepper, and yes, even a handful of beans! And when I went back to get the ancho/poblano peppers for dinner, I found two more good-sized cukes that needed to be picked and could have filled the bucket again with tomatoes, yellow and red and cherry... Tomorrow at the Farmer's Market I'll be buying corn to freeze and hopefully tomatilloes so I can turn these yellow tomatoes into salsa.
Oh, I'm feeling like a gardener now! Tonight, I found two beautiful avocadoes at the market (on special for members, yea!) and was completely inspired. Last night I had made green rice and wanted to do something with shrimp and avocadoes. I searched for "poblanos and shrimp and avocado." I found some suggestions that I expanded on and laid out an amazing table. What you see is green rice (made with poblanos, garlic and garden onion); cherry tomato/chipotle salsa and chips; shrimp marinated in poblano chili sauce of my own adaptation/invention; grilled zucchini and tomatoes; avocado; yellow and red tomatoes dressed with lime juice, olive oil and oregano; sour cream and tortillas. It made very scrumptuous wraps.

Here are the recipes for the green rice and my poblano chili sauce:

Susan's Poblano Chili Sauce

3-4 medium poblano chilis, roasted on the grill until the skins blister, seeded and roughly chopped
1 tsp adobo sauce from a can of chipotle chilis (or more if you want it hot)
3 Tbs lime juice
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs oregano
1 t rosemary
1 Tbs cumin
2 Tbs olive oil
2 cloves of garlic

Put it all in a food process and puree. It probably made a little over a cup. I used half to marinate shrimp before putting it on the grill and served the other half with the food. It was delicious plain and I wish I had made more!

The green rice recipe made with poblano peppers by Rick Bayless can be found here:

It is delicious with anything, but I've eaten it a few times with grilled zucchini.

I will also be canning most of these suckers... We eat the round ones and save the long ones!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Polka

Stearns County is a German Catholic stronghold, and for at least 150 years, the polka has reigned. As I've written before, even those who grew up poor on farms grew up with an accordion in the house, and maybe also a concertina. Everyone knew a couple dozen polkas, and that's what they did at the barn dances and the school dances. My strongest exposure to these polka bands has been at the annual Polka Mass at local festivals. The polka Mass is an outdoor Mass conducted on two flatbed trucks pushed together (the local trucking company well advertised on the cabs). Onto this area is crowded a makeshift altar, a podium for an ambo, a small table with the necessities for Communion, some folding chairs for the officiants and servers, and about a dozen musicians.

Instead of the usual liturgical hymns and songs, we are treated to polkas with religious lyrics. It is a rolicking good time, and even a bit irreverent, but it feels good. I had a bit of a transformative experience at my first polka Mass, in Cold Spring, where more than 1,000 people generally attend. To see the large grounds filled with people, sitting silently on boards laid on concrete blocks, their own lawn chairs, or blankets on the ground, including many families filling a large hill at the very back, gave me the closest vision I've ever had to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The place was completely quiet and reverent, as we went through the Mass together. That day the priest wore aviator sunglasses (it was very hot and sunny) and the altar was covered with a bright, Guatemalan woven cloth.

Last night we went to the annual festival, but I already knew there wouldn't be a polka band. Last year the leader of the polka band, our Sister Margaret Maus's brother, died suddenly in June, and the polka band disbanded. Things around here are rather fragile that way. Instead there was a bluegrass band, with just as many singers but not nearly as many instruments, and no accordions. Every tune felt like "Do Lord Remember Me" with different words, although we also sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." Of course, most of those polkas sound remarkably alike.

St. Joseph had a large folk band at their outdoor Mass this summer as well, though they haven't been regularly holding Polka Masses. I think it's a sign of the times, as old timey and bluegrass music is in with the younger musicians around town. A group of musicians at our church have a band called Random Road that plays at the local coffee shop and Fisher's Club, the local set-up club co-owned by Garrison Keillor.

The day before the St. Boniface Festival, however, was the monastery's annual Donor Appreciation Event. We had our usual band, who call themselves "The Central Minnesota Unorganized Musicians Organization." You're never sure what combination will show up, and this year they had a dulcimer player and a lap steel guitar player as well (in the photo he's the guy in the blue shirt). And not one but two accordions. One was Sister Ellen Cotone, who we know will not be able to do this much longer because of her failing memory. Each year she is able to come and play is a miraculous gift.

It was a gorgeous day, cool and sunny, and in fact it was a gorgeous evening at the bluegrass Mass as well. I enjoyed both and the privilege of so much good music in my town. Later they were going to set off fireworks, which reminded me of standing with Doug on my birthday on the bridge of the Guthrie drinking champagne. There were fireworks off in the distance, and he asked me if it was some kind of holiday. "That's probably some parish festival," I said. "All summer long these small towns have their festivals, with a Mass and food and games, a parade and fireworks." I hope it keeps up until I am old and gray, even if the music changes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Behold the Jimmy Nardello!

The Jimmy Nardello is a sweet pepper that is long and red. It is gorgeous, and I worked hard to grow these suckers-- starting with a heating pad under the little seed trays in the spring after the first set of seeds didn't germinate. Both these and the Ancho Giganticas are not failing me, as the plants are about five feet tall and the flowers are actually bearing fruit! There is really nothing like the shiny, plastic beauty of a pepper on a healthy green plant.

My plants are full, but until two days ago, the peppers just hung there greenly. Then they started to turn. These are the first two, and although they could have ripened further, I just couldn't wait!  My yellow tomatoes have been bearing a lot of fruit as well, and this weekend I'll be making yellow salsa with shallots, yellow tomatoes, tomatillos and these kings of the sweet pepper, the Jimmy Nardellos!!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sister Suzanne

Tonight I went to a Prayer Vigil at the monastery, which is what they do as a wake. It was the first time I've gone to a wake because I knew it would make me feel good. Everything about knowing Sister Suzanne and thinking about Sister Suzanne makes me feel good.

She turned 99 years old on April 1, and I think we must have known she wouldn't make it to 100 because we celebrated her birthday for weeks. Some friends gave her a Bose stereo, on which she listened to Chant and about which she giggled because she knew how nice it was. Her room was filled with flowers. She still lived upstairs at the monastery until June, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then she moved to Saint Scholastica Convent, the home for elderly and infirm Sisters, where she was very excited to meet all her new neighbors. She was curious about everyone and when we last visited, she told me all about the wonderful people there.

I met her when she was 96, and I never expected her to give me so much attention. I didn't see her often, but she knew exactly who I was and was happy to talk to me even for a few minutes. Running into her in the hallway always brightened my day. I did a videotape of her in January, and we talked for over an hour. She was warm, delightful, open and generous to me. And I truly felt I was seeing Christ in her.

Many people felt this way about Sister Suzanne, and many knew her better and longer than I did. One day at Saint Scholastica she had 65 visitors! And she didn't tire of them -- she loved them all. When I saw her at Saint Scholastica the first time, I said, "What did you do to your hair? Did you get a haircut?" She laughed and siad, "No, I'm not wearing my veil!" She pretended that it had been left behind in her room when she was taken to the hospital, but that wasn't true. She just wasn't wearing it anymore.

Sister Suzanne had great joy in life, and knowing that she would die soon, she said, "I'm so happy for me!" She looked forward to meeting her Savior and was at peace about dying. We were the ones who were sad, because we would miss her, but we were also happy for her.

After we talked the last time, I got big hugs and kisses from her. And when I left her room, she said, "You're in my prayers."

I have a complicated history with people praying for me. Most of the time, it seems, they are praying for something specific, and usually not what I want or need. With Sisters, it can sometimes feel cliche. They pray for "the world," for many, many people. I didn't have any requests or special needs at the time. And I know this is what Sister Suzanne says at the end of every visit. But when she said it, it brought tears to my eyes. I was glad, genuinely glad. Because she is close to God, closer than anyone I know. And my life and prayer are both more rich, the possibilities of what life with God means are more real to me, for having known Sister Suzanne. We share a name day, August 11, and I know I will think of her each year on that day. And I will hope to live with more joy and more love because of what she showed me about life.

Here below is the most precious clip from the video interview I did with Sister Suzanne in January.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Nice Nicoise

I've been whining so heartily about the garden recently that I'm embarrassed when we sit down to a lovely and delicious meal from its harvest each night. As a reality check, here is a photo of the Salade Nicoise we had on Thursday night.

According to, Nicoise refers to cooking "in the style of Nice," and includes as key ingredients olives, garlic, tomatoes and anchovies. A Salad Nicoise, they inform us, also includes hard-boiled eggs, tuna, green beans, onions and herbs. Patricia Wells, in her great cookbook Salad as a Meal, lists as her key ingredients: fresh tuna, green beans, steamed potatoes, tomatoes, greens and "a soft touch of anchovy." She also dresses it with a light dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and chives.

I had been looking for something to make with the can of smoked salmon I brought back from our vacation in Seattle. Also, I wanted a way to unveil the fingerling potatoes I just dug up. So I decided to put the salmon with the other fresh, farm veggies in a version of this salad. Above is a view of a perfect summer dinner: steamed potatoes, green beans from the Farmer's Market, cherry tomatoes, canned smoked salmon, a little steamed chard (no salad greens at this time of year), fresh eggs from our farm, dressed in lemon juice and olive oil with fresh thyme and chives.

The potatoes are one of the great triumphs of this summer, along with beets and radishes. While my traditional crops are refusing to yield, the first-time crops did great. I was a little chagrined about how much money I spent on the seed potatoes from Seed Savers for these fingerlings-- $14.00 plus s/h for potatoes?? But who could resist the description on the card for "La Ratte" potatoes. A beautiful, firm-fleshed fingerling sought after by chefs and prized for their flavor.  I planted two rows, one in the ground and one in a raised bed, and sprayed them only twice to get rid of the Colorado Potato Beetle. I've now dug up the first half of the crop, and they are as promised, delicious and beautiful. And Steve is happy you don't have to peel them!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Shared Misfortune

The movement toward eating local and growing food is never more apparant than in the amount of press coverage it gets around here. Although large vegetable gardens have always been the norm around here, I think the entrance into gardening by younger, college-educated folks and, basically, the people who write for the local papers, has given it a different profile. Thanks to books by Kingsolver and Pollan and the large number of documentaries available about the evils of our industrial food system, large numbers of people have discovered home growing. Michelle Obama's kitchen garden is just a sign of the movement, not necessarily a cause. This morning the headline in the St. Cloud Times was about struggling farmers waiting for produce. To read the article, click here.

I feel sorry for anyone who began their first year of vegetable gardening this summer in Minnesota. Although I don't need anything from the Farmer's Market this year, I've still been going most Fridays, picking up some extras or things I didn't grow and want to try. It is there that I also see that I am not alone in my small yields, late harvests and short seasons. According to the article in the St. Cloud Times, the strawberry season this year lasted a week and a half, instead of its usual three to five weeks. That is a real trial for the truck farmers who depend on a robust "you-pick" business. Only one vendor had raspberries last week.

And now we're all fretting over our tomatoes. Some growers won't have them at all, and others say they'll have enough to eat but not enough for the market. My visions of large, heirloom plants loaded down with Purple Cherokees and ribbed red Rosso Sicilians, have completely evaporated. I have one small purple tomato on my counter now, and nothing that looks like the Sicilians on the vine...

Of course, it's watching the green tomatoes hanging on the brown, nearly leafless vines, that makes me fret most. What is taking so long? This is when I comfort myself at the farmer's market, where it's still "not yet" on tomatoes for the most part. The line in front of the one place that had tiny ears of sweet corn was as long as the line for the artisan baker last week, as we all wait anxiously for harvest.

And there's always the fact that we can turn our eyes to what lies ahead. The fingerling potatoes are almost ready, and a walk through the vine plants yesterday showed two bulging pumpkins and several gigantic spaghetti squash.

And I know in February the visions will return with the seed catalogues. Next year will be better!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Abundance and Scarcity

Last Sunday's Gospel reading was on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I attended the local Mass at Mary Magdalen the First Apostle, a congregation of women and men who meet once a month for Mass presided over by a Roman Catholic Woman Priest. We have our Eucharistic celebration at a local Episcopal church. The homily was given by two women who spoke about seeing things from the point of view of scarcity and abundance.

They used the miracle to demonstrate how acting from a mindset of scarcity, like the apostles in the story, leads one to be less generous, to send people away to find their own food, to hoard what we have. Jesus, however, acted from a perception of abundance, offered the food they had, five loaves and two fish, and with that 5,000 families were fed.

The modern interpretation of this miracle, which strips it of any miraculous qualities, is to say that when the baskets were passed, people in the crowd brought out their own stores of food and offered them to their neighbors. Thus, the food was all there from the beginning, but hidden and protected by people who feared there would not be enough. Although I miss the mirace sense of it, this interpretation is a helpful way to see the story.

This is always a good sermon for me to hear. Especially now, as I'm preparing to go from a full-time job to a part-time job and leave the security of benefits and a salary that is truly more than I need. I feel myself pulling in, even to the point of decreasing some of my charitable giving. You can hide behind the title "simple living," but I did buy more canning jars today (more than I need, in hopes of hoarding more tomatoes) and could certainly keep up my monthly gift to the food shelf.

I also find myself facing my garden this way. It is time to hoard, to put away food for winter, and it is clear that I don't have nearly enough. No green beans! Not enough raspberries for jam! Ruined onions (and by ruined, I just mean I have to actually eat them now). The stingiest zucchini vines on the planet! The drenched and blighted tomatoes are holding on, and I'm willing them to ripen despite two days of terrible storms.

And mostly, I have to tell myself to cut it out. Stop! Because this is actually the time of abundance. I have big bowls of sliced cucumber salad and potato salad in the fridge, a couple huge cabbages, and I've set up my little basket of extra beets,onions and carrots to go into my sister-in-law's cellar storage room. Every few days I go pick two cups of basil and make another small batch of pesto for the freezer-- I want more, am sure someone else nearby has a LOT more than I do and wonder how can I get my hands on some of it-- but really, I need to stop. We are eating glorious food every day, here in August.

The world around us is overgrown and lovely. The monarch butterflies are in constant ecstacy, hanging and dancing in fused pairs over the prairie. After the last storm, and with the arrival of August, the swimming pond is clearing up and soon we'll have the best swimming of summer. With dragonflies and swallows as companions.

It's a time of abundance. In fact, it is the extra, what we can't possible eat now and what can't be given away, that goes into storage for winter. And yes, the farmers are growing even more than me, will have even more extra, and I can buy it from them at the co-op or the winter market, when it will be so nice to see them. So I have to remind myself to see the abundance, to give instead of hoard, even though it should be the easiest and most obvious thing in the world.

You can bet this cateripiller on my volunteer dill plant knows it is the season of abundance!