Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Summer in the garden: sunflowers and tomatoes

Summer has finally come to our garden here at 7,000 feet above sea level in the south-central Rockies. By that I mean that the sunflowers in every possible permutation have opened their yellow and rust and brown faces, and the tomatoes are laden with fruit. I always plant a row of sunflowers somewhere in the garden, trying for as many varieties as possible (though I eschew those bred to lack pollen, because that cheats the bees and beetles, who depend on the pollen to feed their young).

Every year sunflowers pop up in different spots around the kitchen garden and yard on their own, and surprise us with their charming variety, their genes a mix of the wild Helianthus annus, the native annual sunflower, and whichever variety the bees crossed them with. Their heads grow heavy with seeds, much to the delight of the goldfinches, those warbling songsters of the yard, and the pine siskens and chickadees too. We even see yellow warblers and other insect-eaters gleaning their hairy stems and rich heads for tasty insects. The sunflowers make better habitat for the birds in our yard than feeders, because they're spread out and the spilled seed never rots or breeds disease organisms. (It's also not concentrated enough to attract the local squirrels, deer or black bears, all "pests" at seed feeders.)

And the tomatoes: all six varieties of tomatoes are finally ripe. The first ones to ripen are always 'Pompei,' a heritage Roma-type tomato, long and narrow and great for cooking because they have a rich flavor and not much juice. (That's them in the left-center of the bowl in the photo.) They're also delicious sliced in a salad of fresh garden greens, especially when they're just-picked and still warm from the sun. We savor the first Pompei in early July.

Next to ripen are the yellow pear tomatoes, thumb-size, pear-shaped as their name and sunny yellow (in the center below), perfect for eating fresh like the fruit that they are. Sometimes we find our friends in the garden, standing next to the raised bed with the tomatoes and eating the yellow pears right off the vines. They are great with crackers and cheese and a glass of wine, or halved on a fruit salad.

This year the chianti rose ripened next, their fat and round and juicy fruits a gorgeous shade of pinkish-red that really does look like wine. (The pink, round tomatoes on the right hand side of the bowl.) Another heritage variety, these may be my favorite for their sweetness and silky texture, and the fact that they seem to have no acid at all. They're not the prettiest tomatoes - their skin is so thin that they always split - but they take the size prize. I harvested one that weighed in at nearly two pounds this summer. Cut into wedges and served with fresh basil and mozzarella cheese drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they are heaven!

Next to ripen were the cost0luto, which win the prize for looks: these small, somewhat flattened tomatoes are scarlet and ribbed with smooth, slightly shiny skin, as if they've been waxed. (The costolutos are in the lower left quarter of the bowl.) They have the richest, most intensely tomato flavor of any variety we've ever grown. Then came the persimmon, small orange globes as bright as their name and bursting with bright flavor too: they are citrusy and perfect for eating fresh or cooking.

The last of our six heritage varieties of tomatoes to ripen are the perhaps the best: black Krim, a black-russian type tomato, named because their tops stay a dark green shade that looks black, while the lower half of these beefsteak tomatoes ripen to a dark ruby red color. (The two black Krims are in the upper left, the one on the right bottoms-up.) Their flesh is smooth and velvety, and their flavor instense and sweet. And they are huge, almost as big as the Chianti rose tomatoes.

We're only about a month from the first hard frosts, which usually comes in late September. But in that time, I plan to savor the summer tastes of tomatoes eaten fresh from the vine, and the sight of sunflowers in every shape and color pivoting their heads to follow the sun as it moves across the cloudless sky. Here in the mountains, we revel in summer, perhaps because it doesn't last long. Here's to tomatoes and sunflowers!

And thanks, as always, to seedswoman and cook Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds for the fabulous varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables that delight and sustain us from the kitchen garden.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Eight days and thirty-two hundred miles

Richard and I just returned from a thirty-two hundred mile drive across the inland West, that wide stretch of mostly-open, treeless country between the Rockies and the Cascades. Our excuse for the road trip was a family gathering at my brother's land high above the Klickitat River in southern Washington.

We stopped in Portland first, and celebrated our anniversary with our daughter, Molly, and a dinner at Terroir, a wonderful restaurant in her Portland neighborhood that features local, fresh food served small plate style (like tapas). We shared a variety of dishes, beginning with a cold cucumber-yoghurt soup with hints of chile and cilantro and ending with a chocolate tart and a creamy slice of cheesecake topped with boysenberries. Yum! From there we braved the congested I-5 corridor in Washington to visit our nieces, Heather and Sienna, and their families, because they couldn't join us all at the land. (And yes, we spent half an hour one evening sitting in a traffic jam in between Olympia and Tacoma - I'm so glad I live in rural Colorado!)

Then we headed for the Columbia River Gorge and Bill and Lucy's land high above the gorge with a fabulous view of Mt Adams rising like the enormous dormant volcano it is on the northern horizon. We hung out, looked for birds and wildflowers - the yampah was blooming, its white Queen-Ann's-Lace-type flower a hint of the starchy bulb that for millennia nourished the people who loved on this land before us, ate salmon and fresh corn off the grill, and stayed up until what seemed way after dark to us old folks watching for the Perseid meteors.

We saw a few meteors, but mostly we just admired the myriad stars, sparkling in uncountable numbers in truly dark skies. Far from streetlights, yard lights, billboard lights, parking lot lights and stadium lights, the sky was the best show of all, black and infinite and positively littered with the twinkling dots of so many stars you can't begin to count them all. Looking at the heavens like that is a glimpse back in time to the universe where life began, a look at the wondrous fact that we exist at all, here on the only blue planet we know in all of space.

On the long drive home, we detoured to blue highways, the two-lane roads that take longer to get from point to point, but which gave us a more intimate experience of the landscapes. We saw stepped canyons cut in dark layers of basalt, sagebrush twice as tall as I am flourishing in the deep soil of stream bottoms, the searing scars of windblown range fires blackening miles of what had been green and sage-clothed landscape, pelicans riding the choppy waters of inland lakes, rivers sliding over worn cobbles, black-necked stilts teetering on impossibly long and skinny as they probed for food in muddy pond shores, the smoke of distant fires blurring blue horizons, mountains rising like waves from desert basins, red cliffs against blue sky, sagebrush coloring miles of high desert like gray-green and fragrant suede, bluebirds winging through Gambel oak.

We saw huge wind turbines with blades spinning in slow circles like one-legged dancers atop high ridges, pump jacks see-sawing up and down as they sucked ancient liquified carbon from the earth, the lighted derricks of drill rigs slowly piercing the skin of the earth, trucks racing their shadows down hills, trains winding up long grades.

We saw Wasco, Spray, John Day, Prairie City, and Unity, Oregon; Nampa (could that be a variant of yampah, the region's native "potato"?), Boise, Mountain Home, and Grassmere, Idaho; the Duck Valley Reservation, home to Shoshone and Paiute people; Owyhee, Mountain City, Elko, Deeth, and West Wendover, Nevada; Aragonite, Tooele, Salt Lake City, Spanish Fork, Helper, Price, and Green River, Utah; Fruita, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Sapinero Gunnison and Parlin, Colorado.

We crossed the miles-wide Columbia, the John Day (three times), Malhuer (twice in two different states), Snake, Boise, Owyhee, Humbolt (the river that runs 250 miles west across Nevada only to disappear into the desert), Green, Colorado, Uncompaghre, Cimarron, and Gunnison rivers. We crossed the Columbia plains, Blue Mountains, Snake River plains, Independence Mountains, Pequop and Goshute mountains, Great Salt Desert, Wasatch Front, San Rafael Desert, Grand Valley, Cimarron uplift, and the Sawatch Range.

We traversed a huge sweep of country, all of which gave me a glimmer of the book I'm hoping to start this fall. But best of all, we came home. This valley in between two major ranges of the Rockies, this town that sits on the Arkansas River, this house on a formerly junky industrial site now restored to a native wildflower and bunchgrass grassland where the hummingbirds trill among the Indian paintbrush flaming bright scarlet is truly where my heart is: home.