beneath the canopy

It’s not always pretty in the kitchen garden.  I feel like I don’t show enough of the ugly and imperfect details in my photo journal.  Like almost every human being, I’m easily hypnotized by Beauty.  But in this post I’ll give you a glimpse of the nitty-gritty underbelly of the garden.

This shot was taken just after the deluge.  (Remember the deluge, that gave my poor squashes mildew?)  Almost as soon as it stopped raining, I ran outside with the camera.  The mud was slippery even on the paths, and I nearly slipped at one point.  The soil of the kitchen garden beds was this deep, rich red, nearly burgundy in places.

It became immediately apparent that a lot of growth had been going on while the deluge was underway for almost five days.  The plants were crying out for harvest and attention.  One of the tomato plants had gone overboard, taking its cage with it.  Several tomato and eggplant vines had bent down to the ground and begun to snake amongst their fellows, sometimes taking off in charming and unexpected directions.  Some things were spoiled from sitting there soaking wet, some from mildew or mold, some from new slug neighbors’ visits.

F. was dismayed to see we’d lost a whole branch of grape tomatoes that the birds considered fair game once it touched the earth.  As I pointed out to him, though, there was far too much in the garden for us to eat anyway.  It was like an explosion of fertility out there.  Bedraggled, mud-spattered, and unconfined fertility.  My favorite kind, really.

I bent down as low as I could without touching the soggy ground and then thrust my camera up under the edge of the half runner bean support.  I was quite curious to see what was going on under there.  It had been ages since I’d gotten more than a glimpse at the underworld beneath the canopy.  The vines had grown so luxuriant that even the weeds were unable to keep up, beaten in the race to feel the sun.

Keep in mind my family heirloom beans had almost quit producing enough for us to eat by this time, since I was, in an abundance of caution, allowing them to set seed.  (I planted the last 25 known to exist on this planet this spring.  A crop failure would have meant extinction.)  Many of those seeds, unfortunately, had been fooled by the rain into believing it was time to sprout.  Quite a few seed pods were shattered open by a little bean shoot trying valiantly to plant its roots in the air.  Several of them had rotted on the vine.

But as you can see from this picture, suddenly we had green bean bounty again — and purple beans and a final crop of wax beans, too, off camera.  I made one of Florin’s favorite summer recipes with the plentiful harvest.  I’ll share it here.  I apologize in advance for being vague with the quantities.  This is the way I like to cook, and honestly, soups are very forgiving.  Just relax and try it yourself, I’m sure it will turn out delicious.

Romanian Green Bean Soup

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the bottom of a soup pot.  Add a yellow onion, a carrot, and a stick of celery, all finely chopped, and sauté until nice and fragrant.  I often add in a garlic clove or a small shallot to this mixture, and in summer, since we are trying to eat locally, we never had celery.  (I dare you to try growing celery in this climate in high summer.)  I’d replace it with a fat pinch of celery seed once the broth got going.

Speaking of broth, next you pour in the water and/or stock.  I’m guessing between six and eight cups total.  I preferred the taste when I used half chicken stock, half water.  F. swears it tastes more authentic when I just use plain water and let it simmer a long time.  It’s a very clear broth that way.  Very light and summery.

If you are in a hurry and not worried about the authenticity of your Eastern European cuisine, I say use half homemade chicken stock.  If you are in a serious time bind, I think you could even use powdered bouillion.  (Right now all the foodies are screaming Blasphemy! I can hear y’all from way back over here behind the keyboard.*)  Bring whatever combination of liquids you’ve got to the boil.

Peel a potato, cut it in chunks, and add it to the boiling broth.  While that cooks, string and snap your beans.  I try to make sure none of the pieces end up longer than will fit on a spoon, but otherwise I’m pretty haphazard.  Snapping beans is an artist-brain activity, by the way, so if you can relax and let yourself enjoy it, you might hear some lovely insights bubbling up from your subconscious.

Add the beans to the soup, and by all means add as many as you’ve got.  I think F.’s favorite version of this soup may have held over 2 pounds of green beans.  Keep boiling for about two minutes.  If you’re using purple-podded beans, their natural blanch indicator should tell you when the time is up.  That is, they will turn green, usually between the two- and three-minute mark.  Then turn the heat down to medium low and let it simmer, stirring occasionally and adding a selection of the following spices:  lovage, parsley (this soup can handle lots of parsley), celery seed, basil, thyme, and dill.  The traditional ethnic trio is lovage, parsley and dill.

Let it go as long as you like, tasting periodically, and at the last five minutes snip in some fresh parsley, fresh dill, and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve in individual bowls topped with a dollop of sour cream and freshly chopped lovage, if you’ve got it.  If your lovage is underperforming, as mine is, garnish with fresh dill or fresh parsley.

When you taste it, don’t be surprised if you feel the urge to say, “foarte gustos.”  (That’s “yum!” in Romanian.)

*Seriously, I do think it’s important we learn to cook from scratch again, just as it’s important that we learn to grow some of our own food.  To get reconnected with these two quintessentially human tasks seems to me one of the challenges of my generation.  Also, we need to pull large portions of our lives and livelihoods out of the formal economy that is swallowing up the very Earth and can focus on nothing else but growth at all costs, like a cancer cell.  And make no mistake, cooking and growing things go hand in hand.  Nonetheless, society is not going to change overnight, and a lot of us just don’t have the time to make a pot of soup after we’ve picked up the kids from daycare and made our long, weary commute home.  In that case, smile and get present enough to hear your own breathing, add some extra spices to the mix, and plunk in a bouillion cube.  There are worse sins.

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