Saturday, May 24, 2014

Who Doesn't Like a Vegetable?

I harvested asparagus last week and noted the season for that crop is over at Heart & Sole Gardens.  A perennial plant, asparagus enjoys cool temperatures and its tender spears are spring harbingers.  Recent warm temperatures encouraged plants to either grow tiny spears or branches from the larger ones, signals that the plants need to reach maturity in order to produce next year.  During season, I cut asparagus every other day, so with the end of that job and not a lot of other productive crops in action, Richard and I took advantage of the break and escaped to North Carolina's Outer Banks for a bit of R&R.

We booked a home on the Pamlico Sound and stopped at our favorite market to purchase fresh local seafood.  With crisp lettuce, bok choy and other goodies we packed in our cooler, our evening meals were delicious.  We savored soft shelled crabs with a crisp green salad, seared tuna steaks with grilled bok choy, bacon-wrapped sea scallops with warm kale salad and lightly steamed clams with lemon-caper butter sauce.  For our last vacation evening, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a restaurant and made reservations for a table that boasted a spectacular sunset view.

The view from our restaurant table
With prime tourist season still a few days away, the restaurant was not busy and a hostess showed us to an intimate table in the dining room.  Our server, a fresh-faced young woman, greeted us warmly, gave us menus and left to fetch our drinks.  Although the menu was not extensive, we noted several options that intrigued us and when the server returned, I told her we had a few questions before ordering.  I noticed a frown line appear on her brow and when Richard asked her about the soup du jour, her lip curled a bit when she replied, "It's broccoli and bean."  Next, I asked what vegetables were included in a side dish and her disgust was thinly veiled.  "I am not sure.  I think it might be squash.  I can go ask, if you like."  I replied I would like to know and as she left the table, she looked back over her shoulder to say, "I don't like vegetables!"

Now, I will admit, since Richard and I grow many of our favorite foods, we can be a bit snobbish when it comes to restaurant food.  We know the hours of labor it takes to produce high-quality fruits and vegetables and what a taste difference it is to eat foods that are harvested at the peak of ripeness.  Often, we select restaurant entrees based upon the side dishes, rather than the protein, because we believe vegetables can be a real test of the kitchen.  When we heard the server's comment, we shared a smile.

"Who doesn't like vegetables?"  I wondered.  Somehow, that seems akin to not liking puppies.  In theory, one might hate the thought of shedding dog hair, housebreaking lessons or early morning walks in inclement weather, but then, a soulful eyed glance or wagging tail steals a place in the heart and confirmed dog-haters become proud owners.  Excuse me, parents.  As organic gardeners, we look at vegetables as beautiful, delicious and necessary.  Even those who claim to hate all vegetables probably munch on fries or tortilla chips and never realize those snacks are vegetable products.

Please do not think I feel superior to others when it comes to diet or food appreciation.  For about two years, our family included a child who only ate white foods.  Rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, bananas, grits, etc.  Concerned about her nutrition intake, I consulted the pediatrician, who assured me my daughter was healthy and would eventually expand her food choices to include those with color.  That prediction came to pass when we dined at a restaurant that served no white foods, but they did happen to have purple mashed potatoes.  At first, she was hesitant to try the dish, but because she was hungry, she took a tentative bite and then promptly cleaned her plate.  After that meal, my daughter became an adventurous eater, but she still draws the line at rabbit. . .

Our server returned and informed me that the grilled vegetables were zucchini and "some other kind of squash."  I ordered a salmon appetizer and a duck dish, served with grilled vegetables and goat cheese risotto.  When she asked how I would like the duck cooked and I replied "medium rare," the server could not hide her wince.  I suppose she was not a duck fan, either.  Richard ordered the soup as a first course and the server could not hide her shock.  Although she was competent and pleasant, she was clearly no actress.  While we waited for our food to be prepared, we watched a beautiful sunset and chatted about garden chores we would do when we returned home.

Richard's soup did consist of broccoli and beans, but it was watery thin and bland.  The salmon was farm raised and fatty, very different from the wild-caught fish I usually purchase.  Richard's steak and my duck were both cooked as we ordered and the sauce on my plate was excellent, rich and thick.  The vegetables, however, were our biggest disappointment of the meal.  We each had three slices of squash, one yellow and two zucchini, and there were marks to indicate that, at some point, these vegetables were probably grilled, but they were so mushy soft, it is likely another cooking technique was used after the grill.

Delicious duck, served with mushy vegetables

We mourned the poor vegetables that should boast texture and flavor and as we drove back to our cottage, we reflected upon the poor server's condemnation of vegetables.  We hoped that she would, someday, discover the rich flavor of a purple potato, perfectly roasted, or the sweet-nutty flavor of fresh asparagus, eaten raw in the garden.  Perhaps, she will become an adventurous eater, enjoying foods she formerly detested and lumped into the stereotypical vegetable category. 

Back at home, I harvested a beautiful basket of fresh lettuce and colorful radishes.  I chuckled as I recalled the restaurant server's theatrical reactions to our orders.  If only, I thought, she could taste this salad . . .
Fresh-from-the-farm lettuce is best

Mary's Salad

My friend, Mary Dobbin, is an accomplished artist and many people know her for her beautiful paintings, but in our group of close friends, Mary's talents as a salad maker are legendary.  Mary's salads begin with the best ingredients available and are simply and elegantly prepared, with delicious results.  Although she varies ingredients, Mary always uses a blend of crisp lettuces, fresh lemon juice, good quality olive oil and a good bit of dried oregano.  If you do not grow your own lettuce, purchase some at a local farmer's market.

In a large bowl, place one large handful of fresh salad greens per serving.  On a cutting board, slice cherry tomatoes in half and sprinkle halves with sea salt.  Add ripe olives, sliced cucumbers, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts or pecans, feta cheese and the cherry tomatoes to the lettuce.  (The amount of ingredients will depend upon servings, adjust the amounts for favorite ingredients or add any others you choose.)  Sprinkle the salad with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good bit of dried oregano.  Top with juice from a whole lemon.  Add olive oil, two or three times the amount of oil to juice, and toss all ingredients.  Immediately serve with crusty bread as a side dish or top with a protein for a main course.