The Working Waterfront

The kitchen in summer

Abundance of vegetables inspires creative cooking

Sandy Oliver
Posted 2017-07-18
Last Modified 2017-07-18

There is always some darn pile of vegetables or other in the kitchen in summer. Of course, that is the whole point of a garden, to grow vegetables for immediate and delayed consumption, either by the household or neighbors and friends. Wouldn’t it be handy if the piles accumulated after everything else was done in the garden? Of course, it doesn’t work that way.

For example, the current pile is garlic scapes—the curly, beaked flower that rises out of the center of fall-planted garlic. We are talking almost a hundred scapes. I don’t necessarily pick them all at once, but once picked they sit there waiting for me to think of some useful thing to do with them.

It is as redolent of garlic as the bulb that created it, and I have a few favorite things I make with it, including chopping it finely in a food processor and storing the results in the freezer in half-pint jars for when the stored bulb garlic begins to sprout and dry out late next spring. Scape jam is fun. Drop a blob on cream cheese as an hors d’oeuvre, for instance.

Meanwhile, out in the garden, the first planting of spinach is bolting, which means it, too, is about to become a pile on the table. Fortunately, spinach wilts into nothing over heat, so we can have Eggs Florentine (wilted spinach with a little chopped onion or shallots or garlic scapes on which eggs are broken, covered with a lid to steam until set.) Or Green Lasagna in which spinach (or almost any other green thing) can be wilted and chopped into ricotta to be spread over lasagna noodles. That is a favorite kitchen sink into which I can dump not just spinach but also chard, kale, elderly lettuce, and foraged greens like lambs quarters.

Not piles yet, but jolly well better be soon: rhubarb to freeze; oregano to dry before it blooms; cilantro before it bolts. (We’ve already dispatched the dill to jars.)

Visiting a farm market recently, I looked at the 8-quart tray of strawberries and thought long and hard about adding it to my to-do list. I grow some strawberries, usually enough for strawberry shortcake at least once, plus a little causal grazing, but if I hope for jam or frozen berries, I have to acquire them. I went for it, because I have a little kitchen help at present to hull and slice and shovel the results into freezer bags.

Meanwhile out in the garden, weeds are growing at an astonishing pace, rejoicing in the moisture and long days under a waxing moon. The cabbage moths have been laying eggs, and pale green worms hatch out, and the carrots and beets need thinning.

With some alarm and joy, I see pea pods fattening and anticipate hours of shelling. If I hope for some adventuresome cooking, like picking spruce tips for sorbet, it had better be now that I get to the job despite piles on the kitchen table. And I cannot neglect transplanting cabbage, and broccoli seedlings, or getting the third and fourth plantings of lettuce into the ground (followed by thinning) or storage carrots, squashes, etc. etc.

It is a scramble to get the garden on its way, then continue its care, and cope with the productivity.

Then there are nature’s curve balls. For some reason this year—probably chilly air and rain—the first planting of lettuce sulked along in its tiny state, then took off and caught up with the second planting of lettuce. So now there are too many ready lettuces and I am hunting around for ways to cook the pile. One option is to stir fry large chunks with sesame oil, tamari, rice wine vinegar, and garlic (scapes). In the 18th-century, cooks turned lettuce and green peas into soups made with veal or chicken stock. Not a bad idea. Cooking lettuce like spinach really cuts the pile down to size.

In mid-July, there will be ripe berries, soft and prone to mold; later heaps of green beans to eat, pickle and freeze; cucumbers for slicing, pickling, relish, and turning into white gazpacho. In later August, the biggest, scariest pile is peaches off two trees which leaves the kitchen a big, sticky mess with clouds of fruit flies hovering. But, oh, that shortcake, those gorgeous jars of canned peaches, peach chutney and jam. And peach ice cream.

It is a scramble, often a happy one, and as much as I love being outdoors and anticipated summer bounty back in mud season, there are days I long for frost and welcome the sight of stray red leaves on the maple by the end of the driveway.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks and writes on Islesboro.