Wine connoisseurs love to talk about the “terroir” of a wine. What they mean, is that the unique mineral profile of the soil where grapes are grown imparts a unique flavor to the wine that a taster can identify, and that distinguishes it from other wines of the exact same variety grown in a different location. Admittedly, this skill requires a good bit of practice!
I’m not an expert wine taster, though, as it happens, I spent large segments of my youth in the wine country of northern California. A number of years ago, I was gifted a bottle from La Estancia winery, some of whose vineyards surround my old home in the foothills of Mt. St. Helena, north of the Napa Valley. I was excited to taste something from a place I remembered fondly, but I was unexpectedly surprised to find that the taste of it brought a profound recollection of emotions from my childhood. I believed I could actually taste the dusty fragrances of long summer bike rides through the beautiful Alexander valley, memories of which must live deep in my psyche.
Well, perhaps that claim is a little over the top for some folks. Nevertheless, many people, myself included, believe that vegetables, too, exhibit flavors that are enhanced by their terroir. The mineral makeup of the red, volcanic soils of northern California is very different from that of our relatively young, mineral rich glacial soils of the northeastern United States. It stands to reason that these soil differences could be carried through as flavor components, especially in the vegetable varieties that concentrate minerals and pack a correspondingly strong nutritional punch.
I love to cook, and enjoy making complex dishes with exotic flavor profiles as much as anyone, but when the produce begins to roll in from the garden I crave the pure, elemental, flavors of my vegetables—not blandly prepared, but delicately seasoned with a thought to bringing out each variety’s very essence. This is how I get to know the “terroir” of my land, as well as learning the flavors and textures of the vegetable varieties that I spent so much time researching and selecting last winter. Through this process, my garden is gradually becoming a carefully curated collection of flavor profiles.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the other obvious benefit of this discipline. Once I’ve prepared my garden produce this way, I have a store of ready made building blocks for more complex dishes to be made throughout the week.
As much as possible, I try to do my harvest and vegetable preparation in one seamless process. I harvest, clean, and look to see which items can be preserved right away, or pre-cooked for the week, right on the day of harvest. I taste test the produce in both raw, and cooked and seasoned, states. I begin to think about which taste elements need to be toned down or emphasized, and begin to imagine simple menus for the coming week.
This week’s harvest is a case in point, so I thought I’d share what I did with each item on the plate to both preserve and enhance its natural flavors so it would be ready to cook with during the week. In one case, the quantity was large enough to merit packing some of the crop for the freezer, ready for next winter.
1. Simple Roasted Beets
The beets were the first thing I prepared. In fact, they went into the roasting pan within five minutes of reaching the kitchen with the harvest basket the other night. Even though I was tired after a long day of work, prepping the beets was actually easier than putting them in the refrigerator produce bin, where, undoubtedly, I would have been pawing through them for weeks on end.
Instead, I washed the dirt off, laid them, dry, in a covered roasting dish (in this case my beloved Le Creuset braising pan, but any covered baking casserole or Pyrex dish will do), and slipped them into a 350* F. oven. These beets were pretty big, so I set the timer and roasted them for 90 minutes. Before I went to bed, I took them out and left them to cool on the stove top overnight.
The next morning, it took less than five minutes to slip the skins off, slice them into wedges, and drizzle them with a tiny bit of olive oil and a dash of Citrus Champagne Vinegar. (Often, I use lemon juice here instead of the vinegar.) Into the fridge, they went, to be served later as a cold side dish or sweet salad addition.
This method is not only the easiest, ever, but the roasting pan always rinses clean with no scrubbing or baked on bits, and there is no spattering or loss of juices to the cooking water as is the case with stove top cooking. Consequently, this is the only prep technique I’ve used for beets for many years.
2. Perpetual Spinach
We had the first harvest of Perpetual Spinach (which is really a type of chard that looks and tastes like spinach, but is heat tolerant) from a 15″ x 30″ planting that we put in just a few weeks ago. The yield was just under four pounds! I also prepped this harvest immediately by washing it in a sink full of cold water and roughly chopping into large pieces. As I took each handful out of the wash water, I gave it a quick shake, leaving the leaves plenty wet with clinging drops of water. This small amount of water was enough to start the pot steaming without adding any additional water. I kept a good eye on it to make sure it didn’t start to burn at the beginning.
I also made sure not to cook it more than just the couple of minutes required to wilt it. The quick steaming is necessary to destroy the enzymes that would otherwise cause the greens to deteriorate in storage. Most of this batch went into the freezer for winter meals, but the excess, after weighing out five half-pound bags went into the fridge and became the mess of greens for today’s lunch.
To prepare the leftover greens for lunch, I warmed them in a small dish in the toaster oven for 10 minutes with a small pat of butter on top. Once warm, they went onto the plate with a quick squeeze of lemon to balance their earthy flavor.
3. Roasted New Potatoes
New potatoes are another harvest that usually calls for the braising pan, or you can use a baking sheet covered tightly with foil. About an hour before lunch or dinner:
- Wash the potatoes with a vegetable brush and pat dry with a dish towel
- Cut each potato in half and place cut side up in the roasting pan
- Drizzle with a couple teaspoons of olive oil and rub with your hands to distribute a thin layer of oil all over the potatoes
- Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbs of choice (I had freshly dried French Tarragon from the garden, so I used that)
- Cover, and bake at 350* F. for 50 minutes
- Remove the cover when potatoes can be pierced with a fork; turn oven to broil, and finish toasting the tops of the potatoes until they get crisp and begin to brown
- Take the potatoes out of the baking dish immediately, and while it is still piping hot, add a half cup (or so) of very hot water to the pan. Stir for a moment with a spatula until the roasting residue dissolves. You won’t have to scrub this pan, either! (Another way to avoid scrubbing the roasting pan is to make gravy in it while it is still hot. The acidic gravy will dissolve the residue and capture its delicious flavor for the meal, too.)
4. Sliced Cucumbers with Salt
I do cucumbers in a number of different ways, but one of the simplest, and most delicious, I think, is to simply slice them, and sprinkle a tiny bit of salt over them. You can add a bit of lemon juice or dill weed, but don’t miss out on tasting them in their purest form at least once during the summer!
5. Carrot Sticks
I’ve been growing the sweet, fast maturing little YaYa carrots for my summer eating crop for the past several years. They have excellent flavor, and need no dressing (or talking) up! I often eat them straight out of the ground at the garden! The taste of terroir was abundant in this harvest. It was sweet, earthy, and pungent, but without bitterness.
If you are used to eating vegetables simply, like this, you are probably salivating already, but if you haven’t thought about exploring your garden flavors in a minimally enhanced form, I hope you’ll be inspired to try it. Learning how to prep garden produce efficiently means there will be less waste, too, and you’ll be less likely to allow good crops to go to waste in the field. Bon Appétit!