I consider getting the mail an exercise in futility and dread. Junk mail and bills are the primary inhabitants of this black box at the end of my driveway. I always open the little flip door slowly, peering in as if a rattlesnake is about ready to pounce.
But the other day I hit the jackpot. Seven seed catalogs! As I slowly pulled them out, I found myself smiling. This is the official start of the gardening season for me. In fact, if truth be told, my garden never looks better than it does this time of year. That’s because it’s all in my head. Everything is perfect; from big, red, juicy tomatoes to lettuce fit for a king; imaginary gardens in the dead of winter are studies in perfection.
As I scanned the covers of these periodicals, one vegetable stood out-a tomato with my name from the R.H. Shumway catalog. It’s called Marianna’s Peace Tomato and boy, does it look good. And I love the description of it which included the statement, “In taste trials, it was judged the best tasting tomato.” That variety for sure is going on the order form. These little seeds will get their start on my kitchen counter come April.
But each of these periodicals has its own masterpiece gracing the cover. Take, for instance, the Burpee catalog. The “Super Sauce” tomato is featured with the exclamation “Shown Actual Size!” I measured it and this vegetable stands at just about six inches high. Its deep red skin and firm-looking texture has my mouth watering.
Many times people have asked me what I find so fascinating about seed catalogs. I have to say that looking at perfect pictures of home-grown food is, in a sense, an aphrodisiac. This is the time of year when vegetables and fruits look especially appetizing, particularly after the holiday season of gluttonous over indulging. I’m ready to settle down to crisp salads dotted with cucumbers and radishes; to stir fry dinners with al dente broccoli, carrots and onions; to green beans that snap during preparation; and spinach drizzled with hot bacon dressing.
This is the time of year when the plotting begins. I will map out in minute detail where each vegetable type will be planted. This upcoming growing season I’m going to try some different strategies, though. Last year I planted many of my salad ingredients in window boxes I scrounged from the Second Story store at the Oneida County Landfill. Whenever I wanted some greens, I just went out on my deck and snipped them off. No problems with deer or other furry critters, either. This worked so well for me, I’m planning on doing that again this summer, filling my deck with boxes to bursting with delectable eats.
This week I’ve included a couple of recipes that are favorites when vegetables are ripe and are more than perfect pictures in mail order catalogs. I’m always on the lookout for these types of recipes because I use them so often, not only during the growing season, but this time of year as well, when I thankfully find produce in the local markets.
But I have to admit, I’m looking forward to starting my namesake tomato seeds in a few months. You can be sure Marianna’s Peace Tomato will have a special place in my garden, real and imaginary.
Hot Bacon Dressing
3/4 pound sliced bacon, diced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup cider vinegar
2 cups water
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
3 Tbs. cornstarch
2 Tbs. cold water
In a large skillet, cook bacon until crisp; remove bacon and set aside. Drain, reserving two tablespoons drippings in the skillet. Add onion and saute until tender; remove from the heat. Add the vinegar, water, sugar, mustard, salt, pepper and bacon; mix well. Combine cornstarch and cold water; stir into skillet. Cook and stir until mixture comes to a boil. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly. Serve warm over fresh spinach, endive or mixed greens.
Garden Breakfast Bagels
1 bagel, split and toasted
2 Tbs. cream cheese, softened
1 cucumber, sliced
Leaves of fresh basil
1 Roma tomato, thinly sliced (cherry tomatoes work too)
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread the cream cheese on the bagel. Place cucumbers on cream cheese and then the basil leaves. Place tomato slices on basil. Salt and pepper to taste. (This combination also works well with baguette bread that has been toasted.)
Orange Beef Stir Fry
1 1/2 lbs. beef top sirloin, thinly sliced
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbs. frozen orange juice concentrate
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. soy sauce
2 Tbs. oil for frying
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp. orange zest
3 Tbs. grated fresh ginger
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup thinly sliced carrots
2 cups of broccoli, cut into small pieces
4 green onions, diced
Lay beef strips on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet. Allow to dry in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. In a small bowl mix the sugar, vinegar, orange juice concentrate, salt and soy sauce and set aside. Heat oil in wok. Toss dried beef in cornstarch to coat. Fry in hot oil in small batches until crispy and golden brown. Remove from wok. Add orange zest, ginger and garlic to the remaining oil in wok and cook briefly. Add the thinly sliced carrots and cook about two minutes. Add the broccoli next and cook another two minutes. Add the onions and cook until all vegetables are al dente. Add the beef and orange juice mixture, and stir and heat through until sauce thickens. Serve over rice.