When the peas come rolling in

I suffer from a lifelong aversion to vegetables that I blame on my parents. My father was a very picky eater, and my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, cook much beyond black beans and rice, staples of the Cuban diet, to accompany a pork dish of some sort. 

Ever since setting up shop at this ranch, about 11 years ago, that aversion, almost close to a phobia, has started to abate, thanks in large part to the cultivation of good part of our own produce.

On Monday, Félix brought in a handful of sweet peas that Stew used on Tuesday in an omelette that had the usual eggs, plus shallots, cheddar cheese, asparagus, canned red peppers—and the fresh peas, whose flavor popped above the other ingredients. Forget canned, frozen or any other manifestation of peas you may have tasted: They can’t compete with these fresh peas.

The stars of Stew’s impromptu omelette.

To be fair, in San Miguel we have the advantage of being surrounded by farms that provide us with broccoli, cauliflower, and other vegetables that, if we were living in Chicago, would have to travel for days or weeks before reaching the table.

We often share the highway with trucks of Mr. Lucky-brand produce headed to our hapless northern cousins buried in snow. Two years ago, a semi-trailer of garlic overturned in one of the glorietas and spilled a mountain of garlic on the pavement. Locals helped themselves.

Our gardening efforts are a yearly trial-and-error jamboree. Errors, insects and other snafus—from rabbits and snails to grasshoppers—typically outnumber the trials two-to-one. 

We have three raised beds, each approximately four by ten feet. One is a small greenhouse devoted for growing seedlings, including succulents. The other two are where we grow most of the vegetables.

Toward the back of the ranch, we also have a fenced-in, 20-foot-square plot, that Félix calls the milpa,  where we grow fruits and vegetables that require more room, like squash and cantaloupes.

Milpas are small family plots where local Mexicans usually plant corn, beans and squash, the same symbiotic combination of plants Native Americans used to call “The Three Sisters.” God willing and the rains come, the corn grows up, the beans climb up the corn stalks, and the squash plants with their large leaves cover the ground and help keep the ground cool and moist.

We tried, for two years running, to grow sweet corn with DeKalb seeds from the U.S., and both times we failed, or got so few ears it was hardly worth the effort.

So now we rely on Don Vicente, the rancher downhill from us, to get us a grocery bag full of corn and a couple of kilos of black beans. Vicente’s corn is white and not particularly sweet, but dowse it with enough mayonnaise and chili powder—Mexican style—and it’s quite tasty.

Even for all the problems we’ve had, most recently an infestation of grasshoppers, our efforts have yielded quite a variety of produce and induced me become more of vegetable eater, though nowhere near a vegetarian or a vegan.

Swiss chard, which Stew sautées with onions and garlic and a bit of olive oil, is terrific. He also cooks kale and spinach in various ways, with similar delicious results. Who knew?

Fresh in. 

This year we’ve planted about twenty garlic bulbs, among the lettuce, carrot, radishes, beets, sweet peas and other seedlings, to keep some bugs away, according to an organic gardening tip I read somewhere.

About six types of tomatoes are beginning to come up in the greenhouse and should be ready to plant out in a month or so.

Freshness, of course, is the secret to our vegetables: The raised beds, and even the milpa, are but five minutes away from the kitchen.

Stew’s go-to guide to vegetable cooking is his dog-eared “The Victory Garden Cookbook,”  by Marian Morash, published in 1982. Morash became a celebrity of sorts on the popular PBS show by the same name, by cooking just about anything that popped out of the ground. New hardback copies of the book, long out of print, go for as much as $60 on Amazon.

Morash even has a recipe for Radish Tops Soup that sounds a little weird, but require more radish greens than we have. The bunch of radishes that arrived yesterday, I’m sure, is but a prelude to a upcoming avalanche of radishes, tomatoes and everything else.

Succession planting—based on how much we and his family can eat—is a detail Félix still has to master, so we regularly end up with a surplus of greens that we take to church. 

But there are limits to my newly acquired taste for vegetables. I still find okra (slimy), beets (weird taste) and Brussels sprouts (awful smell) quite a challenge. Brussels sprouts, in my opinion, should be declared a banned substance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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