This is the day I've been waiting for all year. It's July, and tonight we will eat a meal picked fresh from our garden.
The salad bowl will be filled with several types of lettuce, baby spinach, arugula, a handful of chopped herbs, and baby scallions weeded out from the onion patch. The larger spinach leaves will be saut`ed with garlic scapes (the part of spring garlic that crowns the top of the plant with exaggerated comma-like curls and bursts with a scalliony-garlic essence). The peas and onions will be whirled into a soup with a color so green and bright that it's a wonder there's not a crayon color named after it. And the strawberry tart, with berries from a farm down the street and rhubarb from a patch that hides deep within our raspberry bushes, will burst with flavor as sweet as summer itself.
Other than Thanksgiving, this may be the most satisfying meal of the year. During the year, we eat more sophisticated meals and cook dishes that are filled with nuance and complexity, but none will provide the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from these first few meals from the garden. Everything tastes the way I imagined it would when I ordered the seeds on that miserably cold gray day in February, when I dreamed of harvesting these plants, bringing them into my kitchen, and transforming them into a great meal. It tastes as bright and fresh and full of crunch as I hoped it would when I planted the seeds in early April willing the sun to shine with more force, and the spring rains to subside just long enough to let the little seedlings take root.
Eating local is just about the trendiest thing a cook can do these days. Organics are good, but eating local is the new way to go. "Localvore" is the new term for those who grow their own food and try to consume only foods that are grown within a close distance from their home.
I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's new book on the subject, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -A Year of Food Life
about her experience moving her family from Tucson, Arizona, to her husband's family farm in southern Appalachia and eating only those food they raised themselves or were grown within a short drive from the farm. I am a huge fan of Kingsolver's early novels (The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible
) and was impressed with her dedication to going local. But this non-fiction account of her family's transformation from supermarket-shoppers to we-grow-it-all-ourselves-or-we-don't-eat-it struck a sour chord in me.
Although I strongly believe in her message (eat local, eat with your family, stay away from pesticides, stay away from food that traveled around the world to get to you), I found the book pedantic. When people go on a crusade and start proselytizing I turn off. Eating well and finding the time to cook good, healthy meals is challenge enough for most working people these days. We all don't have the luxury of moving to the family farm to devote a full year to raising food. I admire Kingsolver's tenacity and almost religious determination to spread the gospel of eating local, but I couldn't help feeling I was stuck in a classroom during summer vacation. Too much finger wagging for me.
Even so, eating locally is an idea I embrace on many levels. There's no denying it's healthier for you, it helps keep the local economy alive, it supports small farmers, not big box stores, and reduces your carbon footprint. Bottom line: foods that are grown near your kitchen are fresher and taste better. But do we need to live in a world without olive oil from Spain? Or pasta from Italy? Why can't I enjoy a squirt of Florida lemon juice on my Maine lobster? Does a grinding of fresh black peppercorns from Indonesia make my homegrown food impure? I think not. I believe in flavor where flavor can be found.
Here in Maine the growing season is short. Eating fruits and vegetables from the garden makes sense. During the growing season, why buy salad greens packed in plastic and shipped from across the country when gorgeous greens are growing in your garden or at your local farmer's market.
I am not a localvore in the strict sense of the word, just a champion of local foods. Embrace local foods during these next few months when finding fresh food, picked within hours, is so easy and rewarding. Support local farmers who work so tirelessly to keep the land alive with vegetables and herbs and fruit and flowers and not condos. Go local whenever you can.
The pea soup tastes like freshly picked peas, only intensified. The salad is so crunchy and vibrant it's a wonder we don't eat them for breakfast. Our meal, the first we've picked and not driven to a grocery store for, turns out to be better than I expected. It's the meal when flavors jump from the earth to the skillet to our plates in one deeply appreciated leap.
For more on local foods, check out the radio piece I did for NPR's environmental show Living on Earth (http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=07-P13-00025#feature9
<http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=07-P13-00025#feature9> ) and check their web page for recipes using local foods. First of Summer Pea Soup
We usually grow two types of peas-snow peas and English shelling peas-but for this soup you want the English shelling variety. It takes some time to shell 1 ½ cups of peas, but if you sit outside on a warm summer evening, listen to the frogs and crickets and the sounds of the season, the time will pass pleasantly enough. You can make the soup a day ahead of time and chill it to serve cold or reheat it just before serving. If you have a good pea harvest this is an ideal soup to make and freeze for a winter's night when the taste of fresh summer peas is a real treat.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 sweet Vidalia onion, peeled and chopped
3 thin leeks, cleaned and cut into thin slices (tough top green pieces discarded)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ pounds English shelling peas, about 1 ½ (one and a half) cups shelled peas
2 garlic scapes, chopped, or 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
5 cups vegetable or chicken broth, or 4 cups broth and 1 cup water
Garnishes:1/3 (one third) cup heavy cream, optional
Chopped fresh chives, chive flowers
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onions and leeks and saut` slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown and tender. Add the peas and chopped garlic stirring cook about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Raise the heat to high and add the stock; bring to a boil. When the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and let cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust the soup as needed. You can add the cream to a batch of the soup as you are pureeing it, omit it, or simply drizzle it into each bowl as you serve the soup. Chill for at least 2 hours and serve cold or reheat until simmering just before serving. Sprinkle with chives and chive flowers just before serving. Serves 6.