Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rhapsody with Tomatoes and Peppers

I have been too serious lately. I will be serious again; but not for the moment.

We are coming to my time in the garden. It is late summer. At night the cicadas seek an evening’s – a lifetime’s – courtship, calling with that scraping ratcheting that has been the stock sound effect in a hundred cheap science fiction movies. The exceptional heat of the summer has kept fisherman of the lakes, and has kept us out of our old Ford Escort, at least until we can get the air conditioner repaired. And we’re harvesting.

We have a garden. It is small but intensive – four kinds of tomatoes; two kinds of eggplants; two of sweet peppers and two of hot peppers; four kinds of bush beans and two of runner beans (one for snap beans and one largely ornamental); watermelon; and a new rhubarb. There are herbs: parsley and marjoram, two kinds of oregano, and two kinds of basil. And then there are the perennials: blueberries, blackberries (both thorny and thornless), raspberries, and the peach tree. We really don’t have that much yard. It’s simply packed tight. There’s not much to mow back there, but it’s complicated.

And that brings up my description of our work: my wife loves to garden; I love to harvest. She enjoys the dirt beneath her fingernails. She loves to watch the seeds sprout, to watch the sprouts grow. I love to harvest and eat. I participate in the garden not for its own sake, but because that is the price of harvesting.

Actually, we’ve been harvesting for a while. Peaches came in through the first two weeks of July, as did the blueberries. Beans have been coming in for several weeks, and we’ve been picking basil for a while now (it’s a great substitute for lettuce on a burger!). But we began to process our tomatoes last night. We have one variety specifically for sauces and another specifically for drying; and we began working with both last night. The house is rich with the smell of them

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of tomatoes fresh. The hankering I satisfied at lunch today with a BLT shocked her. Normally I don’t put them in salads except in compliance because “they’re good for me.” But give me some cooking to do, and I’m there. The roasting that was the first step in preparing tomato sauce produces odors and flavors to make you stomp your feet, speechless with any appreciation more articulate. Come winter, dried tomatoes, rehydrated with red wine, will bring an incredible brightness to those sautéed chicken thighs.

And my peppers are starting to come in. My wife has grown for me this year two rare hot peppers. One produces a fruit the size of a fingertip, that is first purple, then white, yellow, orange, and red. I dry and grind them, and use them literally flakes at a time because they are so hot. And new this year is a little Peruvian pepper, lemon yellow, and brightly hot without being injurious. Small amounts will last me through this winter’s cooking; but I so enjoy them as they come in.

We do cook. Indeed, it is perhaps my most dependable form of recreation. Sure, I watch TV, and I spend time blogging – but that’s sometimes recreation and sometimes work. The craft I pursue, what really seems like a hobby, is my cooking. Today I have sourdough bread in process – as I’ve baked almost every weekend for the past fifteen years or so. I’ll help my wife process the sauce tomatoes in the food mill. We’ll have for dinner left over pulled pork, smoked over a long night last month and stored in the freezer since. I’ll watch The Food Network, in part for ideas, but in part just to imagine how I would enjoy what someone else cooks. I was a real “Iron Chef” junkie for a while – that unique blend of cooking, sumo, and American sports color commentary.

We do cook. We wonder why more people don’t. We eat well and cheap, and we don’t find it arduous or complicated. We sit at dinner, enjoying what we’ve prepared, and guessing how much we’d pay for it if we’d eaten it out. We can do it for a fifth of the retail price, and usually in the same amount of time we would have waited for and at the table. It makes me sad to think of those folks who are afraid to cook. Sometimes I think of giving lessons – more like Rachel Ray or Alton Brown than Emeril, simple principles to produce easily quickly stuff that really tastes good.

Which reminds me: it’s almost time to take the next step with the bread; and then it will be time to mill the roasted tomatoes. Yeah, there’s some work in it. I suppose it’s like my friends that get into collecting or into woodworking. But this sauce bodes well to be excellent; and I haven’t chewed on furniture since I was a child.

I’ll get back to professional stuff next time. Right now, I’ve got stuff harvesting to attend to and cooking to do.

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