The whole gung-ho gardening thing? Kind of took a nose dive. Hard to say when.
It's been weeks. A month. More? Somewhere in August, for sure, I went wastral.
But before! July! I hung in there! There was Maine, and after, I distinctly remember an urgent afternoon of weeding. It caught me seriously by surprise, as I usually hide from the jungle that greets us after summer time away. But this summer, for the first time, I couldn't rest until I got out, got down, and got my nails irredeemably dirty, pulling ne'er-do-wells from around the base of the basil and toms. It felt good, this getting back to those suddenly sprung-up plants that we'd just dug in as starts, moments earlier. Like a reunion. Like a long hello. Like maybe here was a valid excuse for avoiding the wreck that was the inside of my automobile after 2,500 miles on the road.
Anyway, I was still in it. And then there was Mamo, and I know I donned hat and gloves at least twice during her stay, to stake rogue self-seeded tomatoes, and pull the ever-present aster, and unearth the doomed eggplant. May to July. Not a bad run. But then, geez. It's just hard to say. Between school schedule pick-up and daily swim lessons and that urgent sense that AAAAHHHHH!!!, summer'sendingSOON!!!, well. The weeding, it took a back seat.
It came on later than usual, more like mid-month, through mid-September. But still, it came. Hades-hot. Mosquito-thick. I saw the weeds through the window, I did. They beckoned. I demurred. Repeatedly.
And then summer did end, and I thought surely now! Because I'm ambitious, and foolish, that way. Meetings. Deadlines. Classroom commitments. Photos and closets and other sinkholes. One child home one week with respiratory ick, another home this week with nose and throat blahs. Which isn't all bad, because it's meant we could blaze through chapters and chapters of Wildwood. Though this has left me more than a little worried about the ivy. Because, fact is, the garden is anarchy.
I know this because I forced myself out for a full hour, late last week. I weeded haphazardly, randomly, equally confused and inefficient. It wasn't that there weren't weeds to be found; I barely moved, the whole hour, for the abundance. Rather, I finally realized, I was facing a full-on (if miniscule) existential crisis: what, exactly, does one weed, and what's let to die a natural death, come summer's wild and overgrown end? The tomatoes are the very definition of decrepit, brown, wizened, bent mostly double. But, they're still putting out. The bean teepee is listing severely; the beans' leaves are constellations of holes, more gone than there, thanks to the bugs. But the beans, themselves? They're still coming on. The brick path is mortared with weeds. Lush, like a ca. 1967 shag carpet. But surely, first frost is just around the corner? How far does one go to beautify a garden that will be stylish white, in no time?
It left me rather flummoxed, in the moment. Maybe a little despairing, even. Over all there was to do, yet. Over all I didn't know, still.
But now, I realize just how obliquely good the whole predicament was. Is. (It's so not over.) How much, a measure of how far I've come. After all, this is our sixth summer, here. And the first time these question's have ever come up. I prefer my progress to look less like a problem and more, you know, pretty. But progress is progress. I'll take it.
Lest you think, based on the above and below, that I'm all false modesty and disingenuous garden ace, due disclosure: these blooming lovelies are not in my backyard. What you see here is no trick of framing, no selective focus of my yard's thriving bright spots. Nope, just a stunning public garden, which I just this summer realized I can bike to. It's always weed-free. Always dashing. Always a faaaaar cry from my own.
Except that fistful of carrots, down there! Those are ours! Also, that threadbare, caterpillar-eaten kale! I take credit! *Ahem*. Just to set the record straight.
For obvious reasons, the kale that follows was not, this year, homegrown. Not that this stopped me, or even slowed me down. Because, for the first time ever, I can't quit eating kale salad. Which even I find odd.
It wasn't for lack of trying, this antipathy. I can't even count the attempts. Kale ceasar. Kale slaw. Kale with blue cheese, nuts and dried cherries. Kale salads are legion, and I kept at it, kept thinking, "This time, this time, I will see the kale salad light!". I did fall hard for flash-cooked kale salad. But raw? The dark didn't budge. I just couldn't see the love.
Because by and large, most raw kale salads struck me as fervently earnest-eager-healthy. Kale and salad fiend that I am, I do not understand earnest-eager-healthy. It's just such a waste of me and my kale.
And then, several months ago, a friend had the brilliant idea to throw herself a birthday party at a little sliver of a local restaurant. The main affair was fried chicken and waffles (like I said: brilliant). But it was the starter, the kale salad, that gave me fits, and left me machinating for more. Naturally, I reverse-engineered it, ASAP.
There were grated carrots, lots, a humble, bang-up salad add. Their vivid crisp threaded throughout, and brought color and sweet, all bound up by crunch. Raw corn kernels upped all these antes, along with more toasted pecans than you'd think possible. Or prudent. Don't question. Don't skimp. Mission critical, those nuts. Set against all that crisp were small cubes of creamy avocado, which came across as ingenious, like swanky little gems, like little treasures, like hitting the chocolate chip in a cookie. The crumbled bacon didn't hurt. (You've probably deduced by now that there's no earnest or eager or healthy, here. Crucial, this.)
And through it all, those thin ribbons of lacinato, glossy and emerald and fantastically toothsome. The kale brought this low savory rumble, a welcome harmony to all that melody. And more, this texture, which I want to call chew, if chew didn't sound so wrong. Let's try this, equally true: kale, when slivered and splooshed with dressing, when paired with hale and luxe players, is a green of great standing and stately ambitions, all vigor and intrigue, deeply more-ish. Yes, it's subject to endless (earnest) abuse. And falls victim. Often. Don't blame the kale. Because when done right, done up with staunch peers and strong partners, it's not just okay, but wonderful, utterly.
(I realize I'm the last adult, ever, to get kale salad. Worse: I haven't seen Big Bang Theory. I am beyond behind the times. Tell me, please, what other 21st century essentials I've missed? Shall I ditch the horse and buggy?)
I've thought about why this works, a great deal (mostly while downing yet another bowl), and this, I think, is the because: kale offers this brand new salad canvas, a way for ingredients to gather and mingle, that fairweather greens just can't touch. Mesclun's much too weak-kneed. Ditto butter lettuce; no backbone to speak of. Romaine is too dull; iceberg, irrelevant; sturdy cabbage and endive, ill-suited. Even arugula, much as I love it, would flag and wilt, faced with all these meaty bits. Indeed, I only just now realized, again with the corn and pecans. (Mea culpa!) I've been making that fig salad and this kale one, over and over, for six weeks now. They never struck me as anything like similar. Their greens set entirely different tones.
I love that about greens, the way they each speak salad, in such distinct dialects. And I love that there's now this new (to me) language, which suggests all sorts of new possibilities. Maybe next year I'll plant the kale patch closer to the house, mind it more tenderly. Maybe I'll offer the kids a bug bounty. But whether the kale comes from under our apple tree or the under the chain grocer's flourescents, I've no doubt it will keep coming. After all, a girl must stay strong in order to tackle the backyard jungle...
Kale, Corn, Carrot, Pecan + Avocado Salad
inspired by South of Lane
yield: 2 main servings or 4 side salads
A confession: I like this better without the bacon. I cannot believe I just typed those words, but truth is truth. I adore bacon, and the first 12 or 15 times I made this salad, I religiously added it. But bacon's not such a staple in our house, at least not a 3 batches-per-week staple, which is the sort of supply line I needed in order to keep me in kale salad. So a few weeks ago, no bacon on hand, I sucked it up, and sadly made a batch without. And was stunned to learn it was even better. I've had to try it both ways, several times since, just to double-check my opinion. It's close. But for me, no contest. Hence, the optional bacon, below. Totally your call.
A tip: this salad holds beautifully, without the avocado. If I plan to serve it with dinner, I add everything, as below. But if I intend to dig in all week, I omit the avocado, store the whole batch, and add cubes, as needed. It holds well at least three days.
Also, my standing disclaimer: I prefer my salads on the tart side. Feel free to tweak the dressing to suit.
1 large bunch lacinato (Tuscan, dinosaur) kale
3 large carrots (or 1 1/2 cups, grated)
2 ears of corn
1 heaping cup pecans, toasted*
2-3 Tbs. mild vinegar or lemon juice (I use white wine or cider vinegar)
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
Strip kale leaves from tough central ribs (hold rib in one hand, pull down either side of leaf with the other; leaves will break away easily); discard ribs. Stack leaves, roll, and with a sharp chef's knife, slice into narrow ribbons. Pile in a large bowl, then drizzle with vinegar (or lemon juice) and oil, and sprinkle with salt. Scrunch and toss leaves with seasonings 20 times, or until leaves are nicely coated. Kale will almost immediately darken, and shrink to half its former volume.
Peel carrots, then grate, and add to kale. Shave raw corn kernels from cob with a sharp knife, then add to kale. Roughly chop pecans, and add to bowl. Give this whole mess a good toss with clean hands. Finally, cube the avocado into 1/2" dice, and add. Give one final, gentle toss, and dig in.
*Toast pecans in a preheated 350° oven for 12 minutes, or until the the kitchen smells of maple and the nuts are a twitch darker. Set a timer and stay close. Five extra minutes, and incredible becomes inedible. Allow to cool before adding to salad.