Garden Bathing As Balm To An Aching Heart
When dire daily news crushes my heart, the garden is the only place that truly refreshes my spirit. Yanking out weeds (with a muttered diatribe against people who can’t hear and would never listen) helps, but planting fall starts is even more soothing. Tucking in the hopeful young plants, renewing the compost blanket for summer weary soil, watering deeply, all feel like balm to my aching being. Though I doubt that I will ever understand what makes some people so staunchly contrarian, so consistently mean spirited, so endlessly angry and so delightedly evil, I don’t even try anymore. Instead, I pull weeds, amend soil, plant vegetables, and sow seeds for a better tomorrow. It’s not much, but it’s what I can do, here and now.
Though I all too often head to the garden in dismay or even rage, the work, vigorous or gentle, gradually absorbs my attention and helps me stop arguing in my head with people who aren’t here. Bird song replaces my own ranting. My hands unclench and begin to sense the life in the soil, the health in this young plant, the fatigue in that aging one as it edges toward slumber or slow decay. Here in the garden, all these states are equally valuable, the growth and the resting, the new life and the ending life.
When Zucchini Arrives In Force
Though September is here, with autumn two weeks away, the garden is still in its productive summer mode. The chilly days of August left tomatoes ripening so slowly that lots of people have given up and started roasting them green. My larger tomatoes aren’t doing much better but the cherry types are all ripening daily in such abundance that I’m carrying basketfuls to neighbors, along with the plums that are finally ripening as well. My beautiful basil is still growing strongly, especially the Everleaf Emerald Towers, which true to its name is rising in slim columns, providing a seemingly endless supply of fragrant, savory foliage, still tender months after planting and still not blooming and going to seed. Its cousin, Everleaf Thai Towers, is similarly tall, with large, piquantly flavorful foliage that’s perfect for wrapping around grilled shrimp or cherry tomatoes and goat cheese. And the zucchini which grew so slowly this summer is now stretching wide arms and popping out more plump produce each week than in all of August. For my family, that’s good news, because summer squash graces our table in so many ways.
Given the lateness of the season, the best news of all is that zucchini can be frozen and thawed for use in favorite recipes from muffins and sweet bread to casseroles and pancakes. Zucchini holds quality best if picked when moderately sized; about 2-3 inches around and 8-10 inches long. If seeds have formed, zucchini will freeze best if grated; just remove any large seeds, along with any inner pulp that seems soft and soggy rather than firm and crisp. Trim off both blossom and stem ends before slicing, cubing, or grating your zucchini. To avoid having prepared zucchini freeze in a giant blob, arrange it in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and freeze for at least 20 minutes, then wrap in freezer paper and pack in freezer containers with as little air as possible. It doesn’t matter as much if grated zucchini freezes in a lump so simply measure it into freezer containers that hold the amount your favorite recipes call for (usually 2-4 cups). When it thaws, add any liquid to baked goods batter but drain it off if you’re making an egg-based dish to keep it from getting too watery.
Addictive Yet Wholesome
When zucchini starts sizing up all at once, I make golden-crusted garden casseroles, which my family finds almost addictive despite the healthy ingredients. This fragrant, succulent dish started out as an adaptation of one of Julia Childs’ classics, Tian de Courgettes au Riz. Over time, I stopped draining the grated zucchini only to add liquid back in as a later step and just used it as is. I cut back the oil and dropped the butter, finding the slick of oil oozing from each serving to be unappetizing. I tried adding various vegetables, settling on freshly cut corn kernels, minced mushrooms and a chiffonade of fresh basil as the most harmonious. Brown rice replaces white for a richer, nuttier flavor and a more intriguing texture. As for the cheese, pretty much any hard cheese works deliciously, notably Asiago and Romano, though Julia’s choice of aged Parmesan is still excellent.
Zucchini Garden Casserole
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 large white or yellow onion, grated
1 teaspoon basil salt (or any salt)
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup raw long grain brown rice (or any)
About 2 pounds zucchini, grated (6-8 cups)
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
kernels cut from 2 ears of sweet corn
2 cups finely chopped brown mushrooms (about 4)
1 cup sliced basil leaves
1/2 cup milk or broth
3/4 cup grated Parmesan or any favorite hard cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Rub a 2-3 quart casserole with oil. Heat remaining oil in a wide, shallow pan over medium heat, adding the onion and 1/4 tsp salt and cook, stirring a bit, until soft and slightly golden (about 10 minutes). Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add rice and cook, stirring a bit, for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with flour, pepper, and remaining salt. Add corn, mushrooms, basil, the milk or broth, and half a cup of cheese, toss again, then combine with the rice mixture. Mix well, then spoon into the oiled casserole, cover tightly (use foil if you don’t have a covered casserole dish) and bake for 60 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees F, remove foil or cover, sprinkle on remaining cheese and bake for an additional 15 minutes until brown and crisp. Serves at least one, and reheats well. Bon appetite!