As times get tougher, and food gets more expensive, I've been predicting that more and more Americans will plant what used to be called a "victory garden" -- even in small city yards. On my Los Angeles corner lot, I don't have an unused area of dirt to plant anything in, so my "victory garden" grows in a motley collection of large pots and containers, that crams an otherwise unusable sunny brick patio right outside the kitchen. It gets hand-watered with a hose. With the balmy California climate, it feeds us 12 months a year, and we seldom have to buy vegetables.
So here's a midsummer update for Bilerico's growing group of readers and writers who are doing their own victory gardens, or getting interested in same.
The daylight hours are already getting shorter, but those summer veggies don't seem to know it -- they're so exploding with energy and bounty that I can hardly see the containers any more. Walking into the garden area is like wading into a green swimming pool -- some of the plants are head-high. You should see my tree chili. The Indian ancestors who named it weren't kidding.
Last week, I harvested 18 fat ears off my 12 container-grown corn plants. We had a home-cooked burger fest with fresh-picked organic corn on the side -- one of the great taste treats in the universe.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky pole beans are going wild, using the old corn-stalks to climb on, since I inter-planted them with the corn. Elsewhere, the cherry tomato plants are trying to smother a couple of my tubbed citrus trees, while lemon cucumbers, patty-pan squashes and miniature pumpkins cascade out of their containers to touch the bricks and ramble across the patio.
With so much abundance, I look around for recipes that can utilize what I harvest -- Google can be dredged for recipe help. Or I go hog-wild and create a recipe of my own. The other day, pondering what was ready in the garden and aching to do something "different" with hamburger, I invented a dish that I'll call:
MIDSUMMER MEATBALL STEW
For the meatballs:
3 pounds ground beef
3 cups dry bread crumbs or finely rolled saltine cracker crumbs
4 whole eggs
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 large white onion, finely chopped
your favorite seasoned salt
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. Italian seasoning
In a bowl, combine the ingredients and work them together well with your hands. Shape into large meatballs, 2 inches in diamater. The mixture should be firm, otherwise the meatballs won't hold their shape. It makes around two dozen meatballs. In a large skillet, heat a few tbsp. of your favorite vegetable oil or olive oil. Slowly brown the meatballs, turning them gently with a spatula so they keep their shape and get browned on all sides.
Meanwhile, clean and coarsely dice the following vegetables:
the other half of the white onion
4 medium-size carrots
3 stalks of celery, with leaves
1 Japanese eggplant
1 small pattypan squash
2 bell peppers
2 cloves garlic
When meatballs are browned, arrange them on the bottom of your soup kettle. Add the diced vegetables to the skillet, and sautee gently in the oil and pan drippings for a few minutes. Then remove them to the kettle, placing them on top of the meatballs. Meanwhile, in a blender, puree the following together:
3 cups water
3-4 cups cherry tomatoes or regular tomatoes cut in small pieces
1/4 cup flour
Add this pureed mixture into the skillet to boil up all the delicious drippings. Then pour skillet contents into the soup kettle. Add more water till kettle contents are barely covered. Bring to a simmer, and simmer for half an hour. Don't stir.
Lastly, prepare the final vegetables:
4 large potatoes, coarsely diced (I keep the skins on)
3 cups Kentucky pole beans, cut in pieces (or regular snap or fava beans, if that's what you have)
2 tbsp. each fresh chopped oregano and flat-leaf parsley
salt and black pepper to taste
Place them in the soup kettle as the top layer. The meatballs are now on the bottom. Don't stir, to make sure the meatballs keep their shape. If needed, add a little more water to barely cover. Continue to simmer maybe 15-20 minutes, till the potatoes and beans are just tender.
The result is actually on the cusp between stew and soup. So serve it in soup bowls, with French or Italian bread on the side, and eat with a spoon instead of a fork. A little grated parmesan cheese is a good garnish, or a dollop of sour cream and chopped chives. It feeds around 10 people very inexpensively.
The potatoes and carrots were boughten, but everything else came from my garden. You can't imagine how different home-grown celery tastes from the store variety! If I'd had some garden peas, they would have worked well too. So could fresh corn, sliced off the cob with a sharp knife. Zucchini or crookneck could substitute for the pattypan squash.
For those who prefer poultry to beef, ground turkey could probably be substituted in the meatballs -- though I haven't tried this myself. The point is, be adventurous with what you have a lot of, and what you like.
What is the "victory," today? It's more than just saving money. Growing all that stuff yourself...knowing what's in it, so you know it's healthy and non-chemical. Personally, I think one of the big problems with America's health is all the agribusiness food we eat, which is loaded with chemicals and who knows what else. I patronize the U.S. organic food market and local farmers as much as I can, including organic meat, wherever possible. I grew up eating grass-fed organic naturally-ranged beef, and can actually buy it today from websites like that of Alderspring Ranch.
The next wave of vegetable bounty looming here is peppers, both sweet and hot varieties. More about them in the next report.