Garden Gorging: What to do when you bite off more than you can chew
Special to The Aspen Times
On a recent sunny summer afternoon, I was lucky enough to be invited to not one, but two friends’ gardens to pillage their vegetal bounty. As I mentioned in another recent Foodstuff column, this is my absolute favorite time of year for produce. I can’t get enough zucchini — breaded and pan-fried, zoodled, grilled, thrown on pizza, grated in cakelike breads or sauteed in risotto. Kale? Salads, chips — try and stop me. I also love thinly sliced cucumbers thrown in a pitcher of water and kept ice-cold in my refrigerator. What, you don’t like to lounge around in a robe and pretend your house is a high-end spa?
I headed out on my two-garden mission with the first stop at the beautiful Aspen Community Garden, located on the edge of the Marolt Open Space. Stuffing my bag full of three types of carrots, two types of kale (curly and purple varieties), lettuce, pickling cucumbers, yellow squash and zucchini, I had to stop and consider what a gift this was; I used to garden quite a bit before I moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, but the lack of space and time has shifted my priorities in the years since. Veggies in hand and recipes in head, I made my way to the second garden of the day a bit down the road.
Tucked on the flat section of a hillside on a spectacular property, this other friend has cultivated a garden unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a private home. It has mountain views and more edible options than you can dream of. She walked me through the log and wire gates and gave me a tour. She had all the kale, cucumbers, lettuces and squash of the previous friend’s garden, plus asparagus, onions (red and white), potatoes, fennel, sugar snap peas, raspberry bushes and squash blossoms bursting along dozens of vines. I crouched down and got to work, in awe of my good fortune. She told me she loves to let foodie friends hunt and peck, as they always make great use of their gorgeous garden finds.
As we chatted and harvested, the dogs began to bark furiously. I asked her what was up, and she mentioned that there’s a bear hanging out nearby on the property (not unusual, nor particularly alarming in broad daylight surrounded by a fence and three well-meaning, large canine friends).
“Oh, wait, that’s actually a person,” she said.
She mentioned her friend was probably stopping by to pick up some asparagus starters she had promised him. He sauntered down the hill, shirtless, in jeans and a leather cowboy-style hat. As my friend introduced us and we shook hands, I looked directly into his electric blue eyes and cheerfully said, “Hi, nice to meet you (redacted name of incredibly famous person).”
I panicked, and vaguely discussed the benefits of homegrown asparagus with this famous, shirtless man and pretended not to know who he was. We returned to gardening in tandem for about 40 minutes while shooing the dogs away from peeing on the produce.
My reusable shopping bag, well beyond the point of officially overflowing, was stacked with the most beautiful ingredients imaginable. Famous shirtless man bid us adieu, and I packed up my car to head for the kitchen. I got home, still riding high on my name-redacted celebrity sighting (only in Aspen!) and emptied my bag on to the counter.
In my excitement about gardening with a bona fide star, I was distracted, not realizing how much I actually snagged during my garden adventure day. As a single person, it’s hard to reconcile loving to cook and cooking for one, and I don’t have it in me to host every night. And this, this was going to be a challenge. I poured everything out into the sink and on to the countertops.
I had, in total: one giant mound of mixed greens, one bunch of radishes, one striped zucchini, a half pound of snap peas, two enormous bunches of kale, two yellow squashes, three cucumbers, four green zucchinis, five carrots, six squash blossoms, 12 potatoes, and one mystery French varietal of squash, a bonus gift from (famous man’s) and my friend.
It was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I plotted out the week’s menu, kicking things off with a squash blossom and burrata pizza. No one tells you the secret that when you get a bunch of free garden gifts, you end up buying obscene amounts of other ingredients at the grocery store in order to use said gifts. Example given: burrata. I first got hip to this pie back when I lived in Los Angeles, where it was served simply with sauce, flowers and cheese. I added grilled zucchini because, Jesus, what else was I going to do with FOUR green gourds?
The next day I banged out three mini loaves of chocolate chip zucchini bread, a co-worker and neighborhood favorite and a great gift to give back to my garden host friends. While the bread baked, I tackled the kale, remembering a recipe for a quick and simple Caesar-style salad I learned at my niece’s seventh birthday party, of all places (courtesy of Sticky Fingers Cooking). What, your family doesn’t coordinate “Iron Chef”-style competition cooking parties for small children?
Using kale instead of the suggested romaine lettuce leaves, this raw egg-free option could not be easier, and it feeds a crowd.
1 large bunch* kale, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
6 ounces parmesan cheese, grated and divided in half
8 tablespoons whole milk plain yogurt
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
½ tablespoon anchovy paste
Splash Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
For dressing: Put garlic, lemon juice, yogurt, anchovy paste, Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon of oil into a blender.*** Blend until smooth, then slowly add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until desired consistency (it will be thick). Stir in half of the cheese.
Toss dressing with torn kale, croutons and remaining cheese.
I make my own croutons by tossing bread cubes in olive oil, salt and pepper and baking at 375° for 12-17 minutes, but store-bought is fine.
For dressing: I don’t have a blender, but this will work if whisked vigorously in a bowl.
I also added shredded rotisserie chicken to this and put leftovers into spinach sandwich wraps the next day for an easy hiking lunch. The kale is hearty, so the salad is fine if left overnight, as it allows the acid from the lemon and yogurt to tenderize the leaves a bit.
Katherine Roberts is a mid-Valley based writer and marketing professional who will never tell you who she met in the garden that day, but she will share some of her produce if you’re lucky. She can be reached via her marketing and communications firm, Carington Creative, at email@example.com
Next up for Oyer is taking over the kitchen at the refreshed on mountain fine dining establishment Alpin Room on Snowmass, which is set to reopen on Tuesday, December 12.