A Fall Harvest Without Much of a Garden

 

strawberries in compost

 

Over the past few weeks I’ve done a couple of things that I’ve been meaning to do since, oh, last year . . . one was to dig out the compost.  I mention this because for any of you who think you don’t know enough or have enough time to compost; I don’t either, and mine still works.  I practice a kind of benign compost neglect which goes like this: I dump all of our vegetable scraps into a big black plastic cone-shaped thing outside with a screw-on lid, which I got from the city of Flagstaff.  I continue to do this all winter, when everything is frozen.  I did some research when I first got the bin, and theoretically I know that I’m supposed to add stuff that contains lots of carbon, as well as the food scraps which are mostly nitrogen.  So, every three months or so (when It’s not too cold out and I’m feeling ambitious) I dump in a shovel of fireplace ashes which the previous owners of our house left in a large metal trash can outside.  Depending on the season, I scoop out the bottom of the little compost container from the house with either pine needles or snow, and that goes in the bin too.  The one thing I do actually add with some regularity is a bucket of water, since it’s so dry here.  If there is snow on top of the lid, I dump it inside the container too.  I turn my compost once every never.

Then I leave for the pretty much the whole summer and abandon the bin completely.  Only once have I coerced any friends and/or house-sitters to do anything to it while we’re gone.   And when we come back, a minor miracle has occurred.  The mound of frozen stuff that was nearing the top third of the container is now a much smaller, browner pile of—dirt!  Tada!

I asked my dad which of our motley collection of plants would most like some extra nutrients, and he suggested the strawberries growing out by the front fence, which he planted there . . . they are just like the strawberry plants we had at our house when I was little, producing a handful of the tiniest and most intensely flavored strawberries you’ve ever tasted every year.  Maybe a few more next year?

After digging it out this time, I have a few compost rules which I am trying to stick to: 1. All eggshells must be crushed (otherwise they take forever to break down).  2. No stacking/nesting of things like avocado skins (ditto.  Surface area is a good thing).  3. No stickers of any kind.  They do not break down (in my haphazard compost anyway) ever.

 

farmer roasting chile

 

The second thing I did was to freeze chiles for the winter.  And this year in a new twist, we asked Cory, the super nice farmer from Whipstone Farm, to roast us some sweet red bell peppers as well (on the spot at the farmers’ market) and he did!  I froze them using the exact same method I do for chiles.  I’m pretty excited about this development, which should mean a steady supply of relatively cheap, local, sustainably grown roasted red peppers all winter long—yes!  I mention this in case someone is growing peppers near you as well.  You could roast them at home if you don’t happen to know an accommodating farmer with a giant gas-powered chile roaster . . . I usually use the broiler in my oven.

Anyway, I’m pretty pleased with myself, especially for someone who doesn’t have anything approaching a real garden.  Any time I do manage to put a little bit of my work into my bit of soil, or into saving food for the winter, it feels pretty great.

 

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In the Desert, We Wait for Spring, and Eat Roasted Butternut Squash with Sweet Spices

 

grand falls 1

 

Bryan and I drove out to Grand Falls the other day, down a long dirt road, to see the spring runoff flooding down the Little Colorado river and over the cliffs (as high as Niagara, or so they say around here).  I kept thinking about how our Ponderosa pine forest seems so complete when I’m in it (which is most of the time), but really, just on the other side of town is a transition zone between our high-elevation forest and the lower-elevation piñon pine and juniper, and the scrub-covered desert.

It’s getting warmer all over our varied section of the landscape, including the valley further south where most our local produce comes from.  We are not, however, California, and we are still waiting for asparagus and strawberries.

 

grand falls 3

 

In fact, as we drove, it seemed like the desert was waiting too, the little bushes looking soft and sun-bleached, flocking the hills.  Maybe the roar of muddy water will bring some green, a few desert flowers . . . but not yet.

 

grand falls 4

 

Fortunately, in the meantime, we still have squash.  Butternut squash was the first winter vegetable I fell in love with, since what’s not to love; the round, slightly sweet flavors, the vibrant orange color, and in this case, brightened up further for the coming spring with some new and unexpected spices and a tangy sauce.

I mentioned that we’ve cooked a LOT of recipes from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi this winter, this is latest one; which I adapted to my tastes and what was in my pantry that day.  It was just perfect to make ahead and leave in a friend’s refrigerator while we gallivanted around the desert, ready and waiting for all of us to be hungry when we got back.

 

roasted butternut with sweet spices

 

Roasted Butternut Squash with Sweet Spices and Tangy Chile Sauce

Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Serves 5 as an appetizer

 

Preheat the oven to 400° F

Take two very small, or one medium-large butternut squash.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and set them aside for later.  Slice the squash 3/8 inch or 1 cm thick.  Lay out the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a non-stick mat.

Take 1 Tablespoon of dried cardamom pods; break the green pods open, either with your fingers or by crushing them a bit in a mortar and pestle.  Discard the pods but keep all the seeds which are inside.  Crush the seeds until they are roughly ground, either with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.

Add the ground cardamom to a small bowl with: 1 teaspoon ground allspice and 3 Tablespoons olive oil.  Stir this up and brush it all over the squash slices.

Sprinkle a little salt over the squash, and roast in the oven until the slices are tender but not mushy when stabbed with a fork, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, separate the squash seeds from the stringy stuff they grow in, and put the seeds into the bowl with the leftover oil and spices, mix them around to coat.

For the sauce: stir together the juice of 1/2 lime, several heaping Tablespoons of crème fraîche (once you have it, you put it on everything) and some chopped fresh chile  – I used 1/2 of one large defrosted frozen roasted one from last fall (you can put those on everything too).  If dairy is not your thing, these would also be great with just a little chile or hot sauce, or maybe even a sweet and hot sauce . . .

 

roasted butternut sauce and seeds

 

When the squash is done, transfer it to a cutting board, or platter or bowl to serve, and put the seeds on the same baking sheet and roast them for 10 – 15 minutes, until golden and crunchy.  You can serve them with the squash, or eat them as a road-trip snack.  The leftover spices are more subtle, but delicious with the toasted seed flavor.

To serve the squash, slide a small sharp knife around the outside of the slices, taking off just the peel.  If you run out of time, you can also serve them as they are and let the eaters peel their own.  This is good cold or room temp, with a little sauce drizzled over the top.

 

So, what are you eating?  Is it spring yet where you are?

 

grand falls 2