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In early May, Tim came home late one evening and upon questioning revealed that he and some friends had invested time, energy, and cash into a new project. The project would take time outside of work, time in the evenings, and time on the weekends. It required frequent attention and hard labor. But, Tim insisted, with diligence and lots of compost, the garden they had planted would abound with our favorite types of produce. We have a small yard and our dog likes to dig, so tomato plants in pots are as close to a garden as we could have at home. Our friend has a small farm, so she offered up a sunny spot in the yard. I was dubious at first Who’s going to take care of it? What about the trip we have planned for the middle of the summer? Tim has greener thumbs than me, and he assured me that he would toil in the dirt with his friends and that they would keep an eye on the vegetables while we were gone. Besides, the dirt was already tilled. The seeds were in the ground. The garden was alive.
Through May and early June, Tim and our friends visited the garden, lovingly watering and weeding. Somehow I never managed to visit the garden before departing to Latvia, where I had committed to teach and travel for five weeks. Of course, while there I indulged in many of my favorite Latvian fare, like saslik (like shish kebab), dark rye bread, and chocolate. Tim arrived in mid-July to travel to other corners of the Baltic country with me, and still we ate. We dined in restaurants and visited open-air markets. Possibly my favorite market delicacy is a simple one: the salted cucumber, or “pickle.” A far cry from the floppy yellowish discs we put on our burgers, the Latvians pack five-gallon buckets with quick “pickles”: salty, crunchy, garlicky, dilly delicious cucumbers that have brined for a few days and are traditionally served with saslik or on their own. They don’t go through the processing of true canning, so these bright green delights can’t sit in the basement for years, but they do last in the fridge for a few weeks. They are tangy and fresh, a perfect summer food.
Upon our return to Door County in late July, one of the first things we did was visit the garden. It was my first visit, and I was impressed at the neat rows of corn, okra, beets, and tomatoes. A little background: Tim grew up in the country helping his dad who’s now a Master Gardener, so he is no stranger to large-scale gardening. I grew up in the city with a mother who planted a few tomatoes and let the mint take over the Impatients. Initially, I was tickled to see the bean plants heavy with their yield. I enthusiastically hopped over the beets and started picking wax beans by the handful, then paused to seek a bag. Bent in half, I continued tossing beans by the tens into the bag. Each plant had at least a handful of healthy beans, so it took time to carefully harvest each one. Only about ten minutes passed before an unfamiliar tightness announced itself in my lower back. Confused, I put my hand on it and gingerly straightened up, scanning for the end of the row as I did so. The other end was a good fifteen feet off, and I realized with a sinking feeling that identical rows of purple and green beans lay parallel. The tightness eased, and I re-bent, trying to pick faster until Tim told me I wasn’t picking enough of the smaller beans. Meanwhile, he was singing praises of the southern peninsula soil, exclaiming that it held moisture without being soggy. Grudgingly, silently cursing the wonderful soil, I started over, making sure to get every last bean.
About an hour later I assessed my three bags of beans, enormous zucchini, forest of kale, bouquet of dill, and few early tomatoes. Tim and I were only entitled to a third of this gathering, but it was still overwhelming. We made kale chips and grilled zucchini. I was at a loss for what to do with the green beans. A lover of vegetables, green beans and their relatives aren’t on the top of my list. I stored them in the refrigerator and vowed to figure them out later.
Our second harvest yielded still more beans; thankfully the couple of yoga practices I had done seemed to help my back. The summer squash had popped up en masse, however, so I had a new vegetable to prepare. Loath to make (and eat) yet another casserole, I consulted Pinterest and found a recipe for zucchini pizza crust. Rather dubiously I set to work shredding the eight cups of zucchini the recipe called for, glad that at least that three of my larger zucchini were useful. Other ingredients like flour, egg, and cheese held the vegetable pulp together into a wet dough that did eventually brown into a delicious crust. The toppings were next. I just adore fresh basil on my pizza, and having none ready to harvest in my own garden, I set out to find the next best thing.
From June through September one can buy fresh local produce directly from a farmer at a farmer’s market. My pizza project happened on a Wednesday, so I headed over to the Settlement Shops farmer’s market in Fish Creek to find some fresh basil. There, clustered on the lawn under some tall trees were a few organic vegetable stands, a bakery booth, and an artist selling home decor. Several of the shops had booths as well. I bought a beautiful bunch of organic basil from a woman who displayed three different types of garlic and many varieties of microgreens. While she sells at several of the markets during the week, she told me this farmer’s market is her favorite because she gets to chat with the locals. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, a friend came up and greeted her. I went home to complete my pizza, which I topped with tomatoes, garlic, basil, and of course plenty of cheese.
A few days later Tim and I, while en route to Milwaukee for a family reunion, stopped at the Saturday farmer’s market in Sturgeon Bay. This time it was my mission to make a garden pico de gallo, and I had all of the ingredients except cilantro. The Saturday market at the corner of Michigan and 4th Avenues has many produce vendors, their tables piled high with purple onions, orange carrots, dark red beets, and the ubiquitous zucchini and summer squash. Though it had just stopped raining, the square was busy with couples, families, and their dogs. I really don’t think I’ve ever seen so many dogs outside the dog park. While they were well-behaved and obedient, my dog Riga was so overwhelmed with joy she couldn’t contain herself, tugging mightily on the least. I left her and Tim to navigate the crowd more easily on my own. Sadly, I found no cilantro; the woman who had sold me basil a few days prior greeted me and informed me she had already sold out. The pico de gallo turned out well, though I was disappointed to have to use store-bought cilantro.
As my refrigerator gradually began to look more like itself and less like the produce section of a grocery store, I discovered the neglected bag of beans. An idle Pinterest search for green bean recipes jogged my memory when an image of pickled green beans popped up. I was reminded of the fresh Latvian pickles and instantly curious. The recipe called for items I had in my kitchen, things like vinegar, dill, sugar, and this amazing garlic from my father-in-law, the Master Gardener. I ended up using a marthastewart.com recipe for overnight pickled spicy green beans and adding dill. While mine didn’t turn out spicy, they are crunchy and sour, and I will definitely make them again.
Our friends with whom we share the garden are also overwhelmed by its bounty, so if we continue this project next year, it will likely be on a smaller scale. For me, the garden experience has been a great one; over the past three weeks I have barely visited the grocery store. I have also had some interesting adventures in farmers markets as well as the kitchen. Now, when I visit a farmer’s market and see the incredible piles of clean, ready-to-eat vegetables, I am seriously impressed. My few hours of toiling for green beans and kale are nothing compared to the work these farmers do each day to maintain their crops. For Tim and me it was a choice to grow our own food, and I am happy in the knowledge that if we choose not to next year, there will be a local farmer ready to sell us some string beans.
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