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The Humble Gardener

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Gardening for the Taste of Italy


Papa, my Italian grandfather, lived in a Chicago tenement that afforded no room to nurture a garden. He rented a vacant property that he accessed by taking two different streetcars, a lengthy trip, where he happily grew vegetables for his family. I like to visualize him getting on the streetcar for his return journey with the fruits of his harvest, produce that my grandmother would make into meals that I continue to try to replicate. I think of him often as I step out of my house, grab a convenient basket, and wend my way through my own garden. I thought of him when we were making homemade pizza last night and Chip disappeared briefly, returning with crisp bell peppers, basil and oregano from the herb garden, and tomatoes and onions. I try to remember to cherish the garden space so readily accessible to us that we often take for granted.

The meals of late, as the garden yields its abundance, are based on what is available for harvest. Our eggplants, which we both love, end up in several dishes. One is eggplant lasagna: the eggplant is peeled, sliced, dipped in flour, beaten egg, and Italian bread crumbs. Fried until crisp, it is drained on paper towels, placed in a pan with a layer of tomato sauce in the bottom, and topped with a ricotta cheese, egg, mozzarella mixture, another layer of eggplant and a repeat of the cheese mixture. The final layer is tomato sauce and Romano/Parmesan cheese. With an utter disregard for carbs or calories, this is the dish that we make with the first eggplant of the year. It is better after a night in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld. There usually isn't much left though. (Even the dog wants his share, he of such discriminating taste.)

The other eggplant dish, which is way more heart healthy, is an eat now/freeze for later dish. My neighbor, a fast food aficionado, saw the finished dish and commented, "I hope that tastes better than it looks." It does. We brown ground meat-a combination of beef, pork, turkey-with onions, garlic, and chopped peppers in olive oil. Mushrooms sautéed in olive oil are added and browned. Eggplant, peeled and chopped into one inch cubes, is added about halfway through. Tomatoes and Italian herbs complete the dish, which is simmered until the eggplant can be pierced with a fork. We try not to snarf this in one sitting, as the plan is to freeze individual portions for future quick meals. It freezes well and is easily microwaved. Served over rice or pasta, it is a treat on a snowy winter's night. Fortunately, even if we eat the first batch, the plants continue to yield so we can make more for freezing.

The red and green cabbages are transformed into a pickled slaw that is beautiful to behold as well as a great way to use green peppers, onions, and the cabbage itself. I rationalize that eating the fried eggplant is offset by the healthy cabbage slaw. (I wonder if my nutritionist friend would agree. It's best not to consult her.) Green beans are transformed into dilly beans and fennel beans, a crisply pickled treat when we will be tired of plain old green beans next winter, and a good use for the herbs that are conveniently ready for picking at the same time as the beans.

Because of the absence of bees in our garden, Chip has hand pollinated the watermelons and cantaloupe, a step that has yielded more melons than we will be able to eat. Something crashed through the garden one night and managed to break the stem on the first watermelon that wasn't ready to harvest, but the rind is useable for watermelon pickles, one of Chip's favorites. A trip to the compost reveals a disconcerting monster vine, the result of someone's careless composting (yes, that would be me). I remember throwing a squash in the compost in early spring. Apparently the squash loved the growing medium and promptly produced the invasion of the squash vine. Hopefully it is acorn or butternut, keepers to be enjoyed all winter.

A neighbor presented us with a flat of celery plants earlier this spring. I did some quick research, tilled up a patch in the lower garden that collects rain from the terraces above it, and planted the celery in a square of four plants by four plants. I didn't expect much as we've never grown celery before so of course it is doing beautifully. The taste, as with all fresh vegetables, has ruined me for store bought celery. I'm not sure what we will do with sixteen celery plants, although I am considering midnight drop-offs to my neighbors of celery, melons, and the mysterious squash. Papa would be proud.

Sandra DePalma-Odell
Master Gardener

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