by Robin Devereaux-Nelson
Fair warning: I am probably going to gross you out. You know lots of folks have this cheery, sunny idea of organic farming. You know, the TV version: lots of rosy cheeks and sunshine and squeaky-clean garden tools and equipment, sparkling water. I need to tell you straight away that organic gardening gets kind of “ooky” sometimes. It involves poop and stuff. Just so you know.
I grew up greenish on our farm in Linwood. I say "greenish" because we were mostly organic, meaning we did not use pesticides and throw chemicals on our plants. There was the occasional use of 12-12-12 fertilizer mix later on, but that came after we stopped keeping animals. When we raised cattle, pigs, rabbits, chickens and ducks, there were plenty of types of fertilizer to shovel out of the pens. Yep, that’s right, poop. Nature’s fertilizer. When we fished, all the fish cleaning scraps were also thrown around the plants in the garden, just like our Native American ancestors did. I know, it sounds kind of yucky, and it does smell to high Heaven, but it works great.
When I was growing up on the farm, I thought I had it bad. We lived way out in the middle of nowhere. Summer vacation meant hoeing, picking, canning and freezing vegetables and fruits. During the school year, the animals had to be fed before catching the bus. That meant checking the bottoms of our shoes for—you guessed it—before boarding the bus. It meant there was work to do before and after homework. My sister and I didn't get to do the cool stuff the "town kids" did—stuff like hanging out in the McDonald's parking lot or the mall, roller skating, and generally fun stuff like disturbing the peace. Man, I hated the town kids—they got to do everything.
We had to muck out animal pens and load the waste into the small trailer attached to the garden tractor and redistribute the mess on the crops. After which my sister usually ran the rototiller to work it all into the soil.
Canning season seemed relentless, with its endless picking, washing, sorting, peeling and chopping of vegetables and fruits. Not to mention washing and sterilizing hundreds of Kerr and Mason jars.
We had to gather eggs from cantankerous hens that pecked our hands and flew at us with beating wings to chase us out of the chicken coop.
Spring meant planting seeds, plants and onion sets—by hand—which I remember I particularly hated.
I had to learn that some of the animals were food, not my pets, and that was a tough lesson...
On the farm, there was always work to do, and my sister and I slogged through, grumbling like a pair of Eeyores.
When I think about it now, I realize growing up on the farm also meant listening to the water of the Kawkawlin River rushing over the rocks, deer in our apple orchard at sunrise, blossoming fruit trees, and the musky smell of sun-warmed tomatoes fresh off the vine.
It meant having my dad wake us late at night and take us out to the brooder house to see the new baby chicks and ducks still wet from hatching, drying them off and holding the new, fuzzy beings in the palms of our hands. And it meant hoeing, picking, canning and freezing vegetables and fruits in the summer.
It meant taking beautiful, colorful, fragrant produce and turning it into food that sustained us, and our friends and family, throughout the year. How amazing is that?
I also learned a work ethic, how to care for the Earth and for my community. I learned how to be self-sufficient, how to share the bounty and how to respect Nature. I don't know how many times in my adult life I've given jars of jam, jelly and other preserves to friends and heard, "You know how to can? I’ve always wanted to know how to do that!" They say it with a kind of reverence. It’s pretty cool.
All in all, for my grumbling, complaining and town-kid jealousy, growing up greenish was a blessing.
While we no longer farm the acreage, the property still has plum, pear and apple trees, grape vines, and a mess of wild black raspberry bushes, and my father still plants a large vegetable garden each year. Last week he blessed me with an armload of produce: eggplants, zucchini, yellow summer squash, and tomatoes.
With a few additions from Jack’s Fruit Market and my own herb garden, I created a wonderful roasted vegetable dish. It is one of my hubby's favorites, and he doesn't even like vegetables.
This roasted vegetable dish mimics the taste of lasagna without the fat and starch. It's a great dish to serve for vegan guests, a way to get kids to eat vegetables, and is fabulous for a party when served with bruchetta.
Your ingredients are:
Any combination of:
Yellow summer squash
Roma, Cherry or other tomatoes
Green, red and/or yellow sweet peppers
3 to 6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jar prepared or homemade spaghetti sauce
2 tablespoons honey
Fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano
Optional: Mozzarella and/or Parmesan cheese
Cooking spray, such as Pam
Spray a 9x12” cake pan with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the eggplant, and onion, and cut all the vegetables into one inch cubes, with the exception of the tomatoes. If you are using spinach, coarsely chop it.
Mix all the vegetables and chopped garlic together in a large bowl.
Open the spaghetti sauce and measure the honey into the jar. Replace the lid and shake vigorously—the honey takes away any acidity from the tomato sauce. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and mix thoroughly to coat the vegetable cubes with sauce. Transfer the vegetables to the cake pan and press down evenly using the back of a spoon.
Cut the Roma or Cherry tomatoes in half, or if using large tomatoes, such as Beefsteaks, slice them into thick slices. Lay the tomatoes evenly over the top, and sprinkle with fresh chopped herbs.
You can substitute dry herbs or dry Italian herb mix for the fresh herbs. Drizzle the top lightly with olive oil. Bake for one hour. Turn off the oven and let the vegetables sit undisturbed for 15 to 30 minutes.
Serve with hot bread or bruchetta. You may sprinkle the top with grated cheeses if desired.
You’'e invited into Dev's Kitchen next Thursday—rumor has it peaches are the menu.
© Robin Devereaux-Nelson, 2010