Patchwork: Irish roots here, but no cabbage

Editor’s note: Now that the sap is running, thoughts turn to the upcoming planting season. And so it’s time for PatchWork: Two Gardens, Many Kitchens, to return for another nine months of gardening and cooking stories. Kate Gridley and Barbara Ganley will continue to be our featured writers; Judy Stevens has returned to her farm and will cheer from there. Guest writers will join Kate and Barbara from time to time to add their garden and kitchen tales, tips and recipes. Welcome back!
If I stayed true to my roots, today I’d be in the basement planting cabbage seeds under the grow lights, then shoveling snow off a raised bed to prepare for an early sowing of potatoes before heading down the road to the Duclos Farm to see what kind of bacon-y meat occupies their cooler. The Irish trinity: cabbage, potatoes and bacon — it’s enough to make an Irish-American swoon.
Swoon is right.
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Perhaps too many generations have passed since my ancestors left the Emerald Isle. Perhaps my father’s Irish got too mixed up with my mother’s Swedish-English-German and my childhood’s New England for me to defer to my gardening and culinary heritage. I’ve decided, you see, not to plant cabbage this spring (I am also just saying no to my mother’s Swedish pickled herring). Sacrilege!
Yes, cabbage is packed with vitamins and immune system-boosting properties. Yes, you can throw it raw into salads or into the slow cooker or the pickle pot. Yes, it’s as well-suited to the cool spring temperatures and clay soils of Addison County as to those of the Old Country. And even better, it’s just plain fun to see how big a head you can grow — perhaps enormous enough to enter into this year’s Addy Indy contest.
But I’m not growing it.
I’ve got my reasons for defying age-old tradition, for resisting the call of home. For one thing, old-fashioned Irish-type cabbage craves elbow room as it grows, even in a garden as big as mine. Because I practice rotational planting, it’s challenging to find a spot for a dozen or so green orbs the size of bowling balls nestled inside giant leaf collars. I’ve got my eye on this season’s cabbage space for a Mediterranean bed: tomatoes, eggplant, basil and zucchini — I can grow one plant of each and throw in an artichoke and a bell pepper for good measure in the same space as a dozen cabbages.
Blame it on my father’s Black Irishness for sending my taste buds to the Mediterranean — his black hair, blue eyes, pale skin, some say, were inherited from Spaniards who survived the sinking of the Spanish Armada off Ireland’s west coast more than 400 years ago. Cabbage doesn’t have that kind of romantic storyline. Cabbage just is.
And furthermore it attracts all manner of leaf-eating, hole-making insects to my garden, pests I can do without. There’s no mistaking how the small cabbage white butterfly and cabbage moth got their names. I’m surprised slugs aren’t called slimy cabbage creatures.
Truth be told, the real reason I’m banishing cabbage and risking being branded a traitor to my heritage is that I don’t like the taste of it unless it’s fermented as spicy kimchi, the way Koreans have the good sense to eat it. Not very Irish of me, I know.
Palate trumps tradition.
My unkind response to this sturdy, hardy, healthful vegetable probably has something to do with the year we lived in Ireland. Although the local farmers’ market in our seaside village specialized in basketball-sized cabbage, clods of dirt still clinging to the leaves, even then I veered past them. I figured I had that right since we had to eat the stuff, boiled beyond belief, every time we went to a restaurant, and since our neighbors’ houses reeked of it so intensely that I could have sworn they sprayed boiled-cabbage perfume into the air. I’m sorry, Ireland, but really, this obsession with boiled cabbage is not your finest trait, and I’m parting ways with you on this one.
I am hardly, however, ditching the entire triumvirate. Bacon has a special place in my kitchen — fragrant applewood-smoked, and Italian pancetta, cured but not smoked. And the potato? Well, this humble nightshade is both workhorse and delight.
OK, so the potato never even made it from the New World to the Old until the 16th century. But the highly nutritious, easy-to-grow tuber played a crucial role in the doubling of Ireland’s population between 1780 and 1840 and then in the famine. That makes it deeply, indelibly Irish. Two years ago when my potatoes were pounced upon by Late Blight, I felt a glimmer, just a glimmer of what it must be like to suffer an entire crop’s devastation in a single day.
I plant potatoes because of this cultural bond and because they’re rewarding to grow and delicious and healthful. It’s a pretty plant with lovely flowers, and it hides its bounty until hand or hoe searches beneath the surface. Buried treasure. If you have no garden space, you can plant them in a trash can or an old sack that you keep filling with soil as the plants grow. You can even buy special potato bags for just this purpose.
I’ve marked out this year’s potato bed far from those of the last two years to make sure the soil is healthy. I’ve ordered four kinds of seed potatoes for an April planting or whenever the drape of snow melts and the soil dries out a bit. I grow them much as my ancestors did in their corduroy-textured lazy beds, setting the seed potatoes in 6-inch deep trenches, covering them with 3 inches of non-clay soil, hilling them up and mulching as the season progresses. Easy. The first flowers betray the new tubers hiding out of sight — they’ll be on the table that night. Last year I planted seed potatoes on April 24 and dug the first golf-ball sized spuds on June 12. I harvest as I need them, and if I have planned amounts well, some will rest in the ground until we expect a hard frost.
And so, yes, today I’ll shovel off a garden bed or two, and head to town for some good bacon, for tonight we’ll savor Irish flavors without guilt — and without cabbage — on a puff-pastry tart, celebrating our family history and staying true to our palate preferences.
Potato Tart with Applewood-Smoked Bacon and Italian Fontina
(Inspired by Suzanne Goin’s Tarts in Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (all-butter kind)
Parchment paper
1 egg yolk
one-third pound applewood-smoked bacon, preferably in a slab
2 TB extra-virgin olive oil
one-half cup sliced red onions
one-half cup sliced sweet yellow onions
1.5 TB fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
one-half tsp dried culinary lavender, finely chopped (optional but recommended — it brings out the rosemary flavor)
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, washed but left whole (organic, preferably)
one-half organic lemon, sliced into paper-thin half moons
one-half cup whole-milk ricotta
one-quarter cup crème fraîche
8 oz. Italian Fontina cheese (do NOT use the Danish variety), thinly sliced (substitute Gruyère or Comté if Fontina is unavailable)
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400º.
2. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and one-half teaspoon water together to make an egg wash. Set aside.
3. Defrost the puff pastry slightly. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and carefully unfold the pastry out on it. Don’t worry if the creases separate a bit, you can push the dough back together gently. With a small knife score a narrow border around the edge of the pastry, about a half-inch wide. Brush the scored edge with the egg wash. Reserve what’s left of the egg wash (you should still have most of it.) Place the pastry back in the freezer and continue with the next steps.
4. Heat a pot of water until boiling, and add the potatoes to it. Cook until just tender but not falling-apart soft, about 20 minutes. NOTE: this timing will depend on the age and size of the potatoes. Remove from the water and let the potatoes cool. Slice the potatoes as thinly as you can into half-moons.
5. Cut the bacon into one-inch by two-inch rectangles, a half-inch thick (if not slab bacon, use whatever thickness you have).
6. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Turn the heat down to medium-high, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and heat for a minute. Add the bacon and cook until slightly crisp, about 4-5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the onions, rosemary, lemon slices, and optional lavender. Sauté for five minutes, until the onions are wilting and just becoming translucent. Turn off the heat.
7. Whisk together the ricotta, reserved egg wash, and one tablespoon of olive oil until smooth. Fold in the crème fraîche, a pinch of sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
8. Take the pastry out of the freezer. Spread the ricotta mixture evenly over the top, within the egg-wash border. Lay the cheese slices over the ricotta — it’s fine to have spaces between the slices — and then the bacon mixture. Last, arrange the potato slices on top.
9. Bake the tart for 20 minutes on the center rack, rotating the baking sheet after 10 minutes to ensure even browning along the edges. Check after 15 minutes by sliding a metal spatula under the tart and lifting it to see if the bottom is crisping up. You do not want a soggy, under-baked tart! The cooking process might take as long as 25 minutes, depending on your oven. If the bottom cooks slowly, place it on a lower rack after the initial 20 minutes.
Serve right away — it is rich, so cut small slices!
Add a sprinkling of hot pepper flakes to the top
Replace the puff pastry with your favorite flatbread/pizza dough
Replace the bacon with pancetta
Substitute gorgonzola cheese for half of the fontina
Replace the lemon with paper-thin apple slices

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