Friday, August 28, 2009

Signs and Miracles

In the evening of my first day at Caretaker, a perfect rainbow spanned the valley as I stepped out of the house to walk down to my cabin. At the time, I took the Biblical interpretation, and inferred that it was a promise of a wonderful season, definitely one without too much precipitation. Well. I've seen about 10 perfect rainbows since, and I have now come to the conclusion that rainbows are actually a promise of lots and lots of rain. It's raining now, as I write this, as a matter of fact.

But we have a new sign on the farm, so I'm not worried. A few days ago Katie mentioned that she had seen a dove fluttering around the farm. As anyone who graduated from Sunday School can tell you, a dove brought back an olive branch to Noah, indicating that dry land was nigh. All week long, the sun has shone and the fields have flourished. My garden has been churning out eggplants; we're eating raspberries by the pint; Chloe isn't even kicking the bucket any more. Today brought the greatest miracle of all, however.

While pulling up black plastic yesterday afternoon, we noticed something red though the opaque plastic walls of the hoophouse. We closed the hoophouse 3 weeks ago in defeat, convinced that the blight had finally invaded even that safe haven. The plants were beginning to die back from disease, and the fruits lacked even the merest pink blush. In their prime, the hoophouse tomatoes had grown into a jungle, so we anticipated a huge hassle in removing the dying vines. To simplfy our task, we decided to hasten their death by roasting the tomato plants to death. We left the sidewalls down, the doors shut. We stopped running irrigation to the plants. We imagined their leaves shriveling from 145 degree heat, the blighted fruit withering even as it rotted.

Instead, we seem to have created juicy, sweet, California-style dry farmed tomatoes.

Late blight is a fungus like disease, technically classified as a "water mold." It spreads through the air, but can only really infect a plant when the leaves are wet and the temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees. Our benign neglect prevented the introduction of cool, humid air, and the brutal daytime temperatures within stopped the blight in its tracks. Even better, the sudden stress seems to have kicked the tomatoes into high gear. When we opened the door this morning, we found plants so heavy laden with fruit that they could barely support themselves on their trellising. Sure, there are some blighted fruits and dead leaves in the hoophouse. But to haul a cart full of ripe, red slicers up the hill felt like the greatest victory of the season.

Oh and that dove? It is actually a white pigeon with an affinity for compost piles. Better than a rainbow, I say!

Because these tomatoes are such precious commodities, I can't offer recipes that utilize the normal summer abundance of tomatoes. For us, raspberries are the wonder crop this year, which has inspired me to try an unusual take on chilled berry soup. While I'm sure it seems crazy to put jalapenos in a berry soup, the peppers actually add the perfect piquancy to turn a dessert soup into something a bit more substantial.

Chilled Garden Berry Soup with Lemon Verbena
Recipe courtesy of Homegrown Pure and Simple, by Michel Nischan
Note: Lemon verbena is an unusual herb with lanceolate leaves and a heavenly lemon aroma. It is a perennial, so if you can purchase a plant and find a spot for it in your garden, you will be richly rewarded.

1 cup honey (I imagine that you could reduce this a bit, depending on the tartness of the berries)
1 cup lemon juice
2 Tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
4-5 teaspoons seeded, finely minced jalapeno (the seeds are where the real heat of hot peppers is, so do NOT include them in this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 pints garden berries (I used raspberries, but the recipe assures me that any combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries would be delicious)
1/4 cup loosely packed lemon verbena leaves, sliced
whatever lemon verbena stems the leaves were on

In a small saucepan, combine the honey, lemon juice, lemon verbena stems, lemon zest, cinnamon, the chopped pepper, and the verbena stems. Simmer for about 5 minutes over low heat. Season with the salt, remove from the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes to cool.

Put the berries in a food processor or blender. Add the honey mixture, pouring through a fine sieve. Process until smooth.

You can sieve the soup again to remove some of the seeds, or simply stir in the sliced lemon verbena leaves and chill until serving.


Alexandra said...

So glad to hear about your tomatoes! And always glad to read your lyrical, vivid posts.

Jason said...

While researching for my own blog ( I just read a long piece by you (I think by you) on Civil Eats regarding the late blight. I tried to post the following comment, but comments were closed:

"A devastating story, but a commendable adherence to ideals. Too few people can watch such an effort wither into the ground without seeking chemical assistance — largely because there are so few role models for such a difficult decision."

Glad to hear your refusal to use chemicals was rewarded.