Patchwork: The Foolish Gardener: Learning the hard way … again
I stopped growing corn a few years back … for good reason. It takes up precious garden real estate and inevitably gets snatched by some clever critter or other the night before I plan to pick it.
Just as people line up for local chicken-pie suppers around here, I swear that corn-lovers of the wildlife persuasion sit in the branches of the copse just beyond my orchard garden, patiently waiting for their tasty corn dinner. And if by some miracle they don’t get it, some much, much smaller pest of the wormy sort likely will. With so many competing for that corn, not all of us — i.e. me — will be smart enough to get any. It’s such a simple lesson. One I learned years ago as a young gardener.
Get Barbara’s tomato tart recipe and more
Read more Patchwork columns
And yet, this past winter, when I was ordering seeds, my memory must have dimmed, or my hankering after that elusive corn flavor of childhood dreams must have trumped my better sense, for out in the experimental section of the orchard garden, between the quinoa and the sunflowers, is a stand of corn. When my ever-sensible husband asked me if I had lost my mind, not about planting quinoa, which should rightfully grow at about 10,000 feet in the Andes, but about trying corn — again — I looked at him as though I had no idea what he was talking about.
And as the summer weeks rolled by, I was duped by the stalks growing tall and strong and tasseled in spite of a cold, wet spring. No problem, I assured myself. It’s a cinch. Bill has no sense of the possible. After all, he also thinks I should stop growing winter squash because it runs all over the paths he’s trying to mow and rarely produces more than a few fruits per mile-long vine. I don’t listen. I always grow squash. I like its wanderlust, its shapes and colors, the way its fruits store well deep into winter. So what if there’s only a dozen or so in the storage room. Paths are over-rated. I’m saving him from all that unnecessary mowing.
Anyway, the corn minds its own business, stays right where I plant it, safely within the orchard, and the orchard is fenced.
Well, sort of.
It’s fenced against deer and non-under-fence burrowers or over-fence flyers. In other words, deer. And then only if I remember to close the gate behind me.
Somehow in the wake of my excitement over the enormous bowl crowned by two-pound heirloom tomatoes I was carrying from the orchard beds, I left the gate open yesterday. Transfixed by the almost appalling size of the marvels I was lugging back to show and share, I made a dumb mistake. And that is the kind of mistake I really don’t like to make. That is the mistake that leads to nowhere but trouble.
And sure enough, on today’s morning walk about the place to see how the night treated the garden inhabitants, plant and animal alike, I saw the opening in the fence. And beyond the lavender, beyond the zinnias, just beyond the patch of miraculous quinoa maturing beautifully in spite of early-season struggles to germinate and to survive my weeding hand, I spied the telltale signs of impromptu dining here and there among the corn rows. Only the ripe ears had been singled out, their stalks pulled to the ground, shuck and silk parted, kernels stripped.
No corn for us. Again. Doh.
Bill looks at me with no sympathy. If I want to feed the wildlife, that’s my business, but don’t start complaining.
I wouldn’t mind so much if the visitor(s) hadn’t also broken a primary branch of a young peach tree nearby. That’s just plain old destructive. Instructive, too. If I should ever plant corn again, I will need to consider what else is around that might be placed in harm’s way when hungry midnight visitors arrive. And how stupid to plant it near so much natural cover. Good lessons no matter what I’m planting.
Mid-August is the time for taking stock of my gardening gaffs, my successes, my luck and my glorious failures. Which plants have grown well, which not at all, which should I try in a shadier or sunnier spot next year? I am an eager student of the relationships between these plants, these animals, this climate, this earth. And I tinker very little with any of it, using only good compost and a bit of liquid seaweed as fertilizer and never a spray of any sort. I’m interested in what can grow here, when and why, with minimal intervention — how can I add to the variety and health-benefits of our diet without leaving home, without spending a lot of money, without spending all day in the garden.
When I taught writing at Middlebury Union High School and then at the college, I would tell my students that if they didn’t make mistakes, if they didn’t reach for glorious failures, stretching to do more than they thought they could, they wouldn’t make much progress. But I also told them to learn about their own weaknesses, their own tendencies to make the same foolish mistakes over and over again. To evaluate their own work with a clear eye. We can all be a little slow to learn some of the most obvious lessons.
I’ve once again shown myself to be master of the dumb gardening mistake. But I’m determined to learn. Hey, it’s not too late. Come Saturday, you’ll not find me trying to rig up ways to keep turkeys, possums, raccoons and company from the corn — they’ll get it no matter what I do — nope, you’ll find me at the Farmers’ Market, buying it from people better able than I to grow it. And I’ll enjoy every last kernel, knowing full well to what lengths those farmers have to go to keep corn lovers at bay.
Pasta with Basil, Pancetta & Corn
Serves 4-6 (double for 6-8)
This is a favorite in my house — especially when corn is at its best. It’s about as easy as it gets.
• 2 TB olive oil
• 1 small-medium red onion, sliced into thin quarter moons
• 2 TB fresh basil leaves, cut in thin ribbons just before you add them to the pasta
• 1-2 small hot dried peppers, crumbled
• 1–2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 TB sun-dried tomatoes, diced
• 1/4 cup pancetta, cut into inch-long thin matchsticks (I usually buy three 1/8-inch-thick slices)
• 1/3 cup fresh ricotta
• 1 cup freshly scraped corn kernels (two ears’ worth)
• 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmeggiano-Reggiano) cheese
• Zest of half a lemon, finely grated
• 1 lb linguine or spaghetti or any other long noodle you like
• Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
• Optional: A few drops of balsamic vinegar
1.Heat to boiling six quarts of water in a large pot. Add 1 tsp salt.
2.Heat a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-low heat, add 1 TB olive oil and then the pancetta and hot peppers. Cook slowly, patiently, stirring until the pancetta starts to crisp.
4.Add the onions, stir with the pancetta for another five minutes, until the onion is translucent and melding its flavors with the meat.
5.Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente.
6.When the onion is soft and translucent, add the garlic, corn, lemon zest and tomatoes to the pan and cook for another three minutes, careful not to burn the garlic.
7.Take the corn-pancetta mixture off the heat and mix in the basil.
8.Put the ricotta in a small bowl and add a couple of spoonfuls of pasta cooking water (when the pasta is almost ready) to the ricotta and whisk until creamy and smooth. Add to the corn-pancetta mixture and mix in thoroughly but gently. Add the grated cheese as well.
9.Lift the pasta when it is done, with tongs, and place it right in the pancetta pan. Place the pan on high heat for a minute and toss to mix. Add a few drops of balsamic vinegar to sharpen the flavors, if you like. Serve!
A delicious, easy way to use monster (or any other flavorful fresh) tomatoes!
• 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry (in the freezer section of the grocery store)
• 2 large heirloom tomatoes (red and yellow) or one monster tomato
• 4 small new potatoes
• 1 small white onion
• 1 small red onion
• 2 garlic cloves
• 2 slices of prosciutto
• 3/4 cup mix of Comté and Italian provolone cheeses, grated
• A handful of fresh thyme and basil
• 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
• 1 egg yolk
1.Defrost the puff pastry in the fridge for 2-3 hours.
2.Preheat the oven to 400°F. Boil the potatoes until just tender, then slice thinly.
3.Cut the tomatoes into thin slices (half or quarter moons depending on the size), sprinkle with salt and allow to drain. If very juicy, pat them dry with a paper towel.
4.Slice the onions into thin rounds and sauté in olive oil with a pinch of salt until soft and starting to brown.
5.Mince the garlic. Coarsely chop the herbs. Cut the prosciutto into small squares.
3.On a sheet of parchment paper, unfold the puff pastry. Score the edges shallowly with a knife and prick the inside but not the edges, so that they will puff up when cooked. Spread a very thin layer of mustard on the tart. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and then the onions. Arrange the tomatoes and potatoes in a decorative pattern and top with the garlic, prosciutto, and herbs.
4.Prepare an egg wash out of the egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Brush the edges with the egg wash. Cook on a baking sheet in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Serve immediately.