Monday, November 22, 2004

Anything grows 

One of the songs that my mother sang to me and Melanie when we were children began with these lines: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower/ Dandelion greens and escarole/ Fennel and grapes and honeydew melon/ And iceberg lettuce for the salad bowl. As you will have surmised, the song went on to name a vegetable, fruit or herb for each letter of the alphabet, with a few stretches, such as Un-ions, sweet like strawberries. I don't remember the crops for V and X, but I think they were similarly contrived. I haven't been able to find the lyrics for the song anywhere, and have no memory of hearing anyone other than my mother sing it. When I asked her about it, she said that she had learned the song for a high school production of Plain and Fancy, a musical set in a fictional Amish community in Pennysylvania. In fact, the last line of the song is In Pennsylvania, anything grows.

The Pacific Northwest has one of those climates - or more accurately, cluster of climates - in which it seems that almost anything grows. Fruits and berries that I used to think of as exotic delicacies grow in my neighbors' yards. For four years now, Paul and I have gotten most of our winter produce from Whistling Train Farm, a small family-owned farm in the Green River Valley southeast of Seattle. They have a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in which we buy a "share" for the season; each week November through January we get a box full of beautiful, seasonal, Certified Naturally Grown vegetables and herbs. Since we have been getting this produce, I have eaten vegetables that I had never seen before (such as kohlrabi and rutabaga), and learned that I now relish some vegetables that, as a child, I detested.

(The winter vegetable that has reached most-favored status in our house is brussels sprouts. Yes, brussels sprouts. The first cold snaps or light frosts make them, and all of the greens, much sweeter than they are in the summer. If boiled until limp, as I remember them from my childhood, they would still be rendered inedible. But there's another way. Take a bunch of frost-sweeted brussels sprouts, slice them lengthwise into 1/4" slices. Saute them gently in a mixture of butter and olive oil until slightly browned on the edges. Add enough chicken or vegetable broth to barely cover, a grind or two of pepper, and some thyme. Turn the heat up fairly high, and cook until the broth is reduced almost to the consistency of a glaze. Squeeze on lemon juice to taste, and cook for another minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Paul and I have been known to have a dinner of just these brussels sprouts over brown rice. If the last time you ate brussels sprouts was when your mother could still punish you for not doing so, consider giving them another chance.)

The weekend before Thanksgiving, we receive a "double" box, equal to two weeks' produce. This provides lots of food for holiday cooking and, more importantly, gives the farmers a vacation. On Sunday, we went to pick up our produce from the farm's stall at the Ballard Farmers' Market. When I saw the bounty for the week, I thought of the song my mother used to sing. While it doesn't fit neatly into an alphabet song, here's what we brought home: cabbage (Napa), carrots, celery, garlic, kale, onions (cipollini), parsley (Italian), potatoes, pumpkin, radicchio, sage, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips with greens, winter squash (festival, which is sweeter and smoother than acorn). Most of these vegetables have roles in a fairly traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I'll either make a place for the others, or save them for next week, when I won't want to see sweet potatoes or smell sage for a little while.