Dirt to be proud of

by Kristin on August 23, 2007

in Small town in the midwest

I feel like a true Midwesterner this month, which is unusual for me. I am happy to claim this part of the country as home, but it’s generally difficult for me to really connect with it. If I lived in Chicago, I would feel a connection to the Great Midwestern City. And if I was living on a farm, growing all of my own food and raising chickens, I would feel like I was carrying on the tradition of the Great Midwestern occupation. But instead I’m an urbanite with moderate gardening skills, living in a small town named Urbana. It can be difficult to connect.

But this month has felt different.

First of all, we got this idea that we wanted a patio by the side of our house, so we’ve been digging lots of dirt. About 100 cubic feet, which amounts to a good-sized hill when you pile it all up. The dirt is all humusy, dark and rich with organic matter. It’s the kind of soil that drew people here to farm in the early 1800s. It’s the kind of soil that makes my mom recall her childhood in Iowa, and how sweetcorn doesn’t taste as good grown in any soil other than the dark, Midwestern kind. When you start digging into it, all free of weeds and grass, it does make you kind of awed and proud. To make us feel even more connected to the soil, we have a line of shovels and other soil-related tools leaning up against the back of the house. Friends have come to help us dig, and help us eat donuts or drink beer, depending on whether it’s before or after noon. Of course, digging all of that soil then moving it from one corner of our yard to the other, in this extreme Midwestern heat, is less romantic than the line of tools and beer-drinking friends. But still. We’re feeling rather connected to the land.

Which naturally brings me to the fact that it’s bounty time in East Central Illinois. The farmers’ market is at its peak, with pickup trucks and farm trailers overflowing with sweet corn and watermelons and green beans. People with their own vegetable gardens are being all generous with their crops, too. In our own garden we have an impressive number of green beans from the couple of plants that came up (and we would be swimming in tomatoes if it weren’t for those blasted squirrels who apparently aren’t satisfied with the walnuts in our yard, so are supplementing their dining habits with our tomatoes—have I mentioned how much I despise the squirrels?).

The abundance of fresh produce is exciting, though. It stirs up a state of emergency, of sorts, among our foodie friends. If that seems like overstating it, the harvesting of so many crops at least sparks a new sense of challenge in the kitchen, lest we grow bored with our regular culinary tasks. Now the harvest is driving the menu with impressive force. Everyone I know is digging up recipes that might help them go through a lot of corn or watermelon or zucchini. We happen to have a refrigerator full of corn and a table full of tomatoes (some given to us, some purchased at the farmer’s market). We feel compelled to binge on all of the things that we know we won’t taste in quite the same way for many months. It’s a tangible symbol of our grasping at the final weeks of summer. We know it will eventually pass, and in some ways we’ll be very glad to see it go (along with everything sticky and sweet and fruit-fly’d and humid). We just want to fully honor it, so we can properly put it to rest.

In light of that symbolic celebrating and letting go of summer, here are some of my favorite ways to go through a lot of a few Midwestern fresh crops:

Watermelons, anyone?
Ellen was given many watermelons by her pregnant Amish patients (is there a visual metaphor going on, or just coincidence?). With so many watermelons, you might just feel like you have to go to a lot of picnics, but not if you’re married to Gabriel. Oh no. Gabriel turned several melons into a huge tub of watermelon granita, which he then scooped into glasses and poured rum over. Yum. These are the kind of watermelon-laden friends to have.

Zucchini galore.
I love zucchini simply sliced lengthwise and grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper. But one of my all-time favorite pasta recipes involves lots of zucchini (four cups, halved and sliced), so it’s best to make hay while the sun shines (as they say), and there’s zucchini a-plenty. To make the pasta, you basically chop a lot of onion and saute it in olive oil, then you add the zucchini and some garlic. Meanwhile, make farfalle pasta (whole wheat is good). At the last moment, put a cup of mascarpone cheese in with the zucchini and onions, and stir it all with the pasta, salting an peppering it, then squeezing in a little fresh lemon juice. Top with parmesan. It’s more exquisite than you might imagine.

Can’t see the table for the tomatoes.
The girls pop the red and yellow cherry tomatoes in their mouths like candy. We layer tomato slices with fresh mozzarella and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topping with basil, salt, and pepper. Tonight Jason is making two tomato tarts for dinner. Perhaps our favorite tomato treat, though, is something we picked up in Greece. Put some foil on a cookie sheet, folding up the edges a bit to keep the juices from running off. Slice tomatoes and place on the foil, then top with slices of good-quality feta cheese. Drizzle some olive oil and top with fresh oregano and black pepper. Broil until the cheese gets brown, then pull it out of the oven and squeeze some lemon juice on top. Eat with bread.

Corn coming out of our ears.
Yes, that’s a bad pun, straight from the heartland. We mostly just eat the corn straight from the cob, which the kids love. If there’s anything left that’s already been cooked, we cut it off the cob and put it in cornbread and quesadillas and anything else we can think of. I also have a recipe for a yummy sweet corn-orzo salad, that is packed with fresh corn (four ears) that you cook with the orzo its last couple of minutes on the stove. It has red peppers and loads of fresh basil, too, which is good for us because our basil plant is reaching bush proportions in this jungle-like heat and humidity. Finally, when I’ve done everything else I can think of and I’m frankly getting sick of corn, I buy several last ears, cook them, slice off the kernels and freeze it. Then I start dreaming about fall and cool days, and how delicious that corn will taste in a black bean soup a couple of months from now.

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