I’ll Make My Garden Grow

So there I am, three pairs of gardening gloves already too muddy to use, surrounded by flats of tomato, lettuce, eggplant, cabbage and leek “starts,” a paper bag full of seed packets and my gardening bag, and I think, “this may be the last year I can do this.”

Gardening is hard, and at some point I’ll have to stop. At some point bending over will make my back ache too much, or my knees won’t be able to take it. Over twenty years ago, when we rented a rototiller for our first vegetable garden, it never occurred to me that my body would ever feel “old.” And, really, mine doesn’t feel so old. But I turned 60 this summer, and that how-can-I-do-this-again feeling really hit hard.

Then there’s the emotional turmoil that goes along with gardening. You put in all that work, and then it rains too much, or too little, or a blight wipes out your tomatoes, or the rabbits manage to get through your garden fence. I do not find little bunnies cute. I look on them as destroyers of produce.

So let’s see. This year, first there was a lot of rain, and the garden was infested with slugs. We killed hundreds during May and June. Then in July it stopped raining. I do have a sprinkler system for the vegetable garden, but it was broken, and the guy who was supposed to fix it – well he just got around to putting in the new heads week. (My garden has evolved and grown over the years, and we now have raised beds surrounded by a beautiful fence to keep out those obnoxious deer.) By the second week of July, the leaves of several of my tomato plants started turning yellow and brown. I’d be gone all week and the temperature was in the 80s and 90s. Then something started nibbling at my eggplants and strawberries. The first several ripening tomatoes were savaged during the night by something that was able to get through the chicken wire that double guards on the bottom of the fence. I thought I’d have maybe 15 tomatoes. My brussel sprouts didn’t sprout.

Then, oh then, suddenly there was produce — more than I can possibly use. We had peas, string beans, carrots, onions, cabbage, and kirbys. There will be lots of peppers. I will string and dry the cayenne! So far I’ve made six jars of brine pickles (using some equipment my wonderful kids gave me for my birthday). This morning, before the deluge, I picked a colander full of cherry tomatoes and made a sauce with fresh peppers, onion, parsley, garlic and basil from the garden. I’ll use it later this week. For dinner I made stuffed cabbage, kapushnik as my grandmother said in Yiddish, with cabbage I had just picked.

So if you ask me right now if I’m planning on a vegetable garden next year, the answer is yes. Right now I am basking in the glow of a blue plastic gardening basket filled to the brim with tomatoes ready to be canned. I wish I had the optimism of Barbara Grufferman, the author of The Best of Everything After Fifty. She’s about five years younger than I am, but she looks at the birthday numbers creeping up and truly has the reaction, “You can’t bring me down. Now, Yay!” In fact, take a look at her inaugural post for the AARP. She’s irrepressible and has a much better attitude than I do. It’s not that I obsess about age or feel depressed about getting older. The other day someone pointed out that on my FB profile I have the year I graduated from high school, so it only takes a bit of math to deduce that I’m 60. There, I said it again. I have no problem being sixty. I’m not about to doctor my LinkedIn and not list jobs and positions so someone might think I’m 50 or 45. I just that I fear that one day I’ll wake up and I’ll feel old, too old to manage a vegetable garden.

So here’s a few questions to consider. Let me know how you feel in your comments — and notice that I’m using a new commenting system that doesn’t make me “moderate” them. You’ll have to sign in if you’ve never used Livefyre, but many bloggers use this commenting system. Let me know what you think about this comment tool. Then I’m going to give a few recipes, so stick around.

1. Do you “feel” old? If so, what makes you feel old?

2. Do you “feel” the same way you always did, and get surprised when you see yourself in the mirror or a photo? (That’s what happens to me.)

3. Any suggestions for aging with grace?

OK. So now for the recipes:

Tomato Sauce from Cherry Tomatoes

4 quarts cherry tomatoes (red and yellow)

2 sweet banana peppers

1 green bell pepper

1 orange bell pepper

1 cayenne pepper

1 small red onion

1 small white onion

1 small yellow onion

handful of parsley (about ½ cup chopped)

handful of basil (about ½ cup chopped)

three cloves garlic

Wash and de-stem the tomatoes. Put them in an uncovered pot with about 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, chop up everything else. When the tomatoes are soft, add everything else. If you add salt to things, add salt. Keep on a low flame until the sauce has boiled down and is thick. This might take an hour.

Yield: about a quart of sauce, maybe a bit more. Right now mine is in a container in the refrigerator. I might do a hot-bath canning and can it, but most likely I’ll serve it over spinach pasta in a day or two. The yellow tomatoes make the sauce low acid. The cayenne gives it a bit of a bight.


Kapushnik (Stuffed Cabbage)

How my grandmother made it, or, at least, how my mother made it.

1 lb chopped meat

¼ cup breadcrumbs

1 egg

1 tsp nutmeg

1 small green cabbage

1 cup ketchup

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup raisins

½ cup lemon juice

Mix the chopped meat with the egg, breadcrumbs and nutmeg. Divide into eight portions. Steam enough cabbage leaves so that you can wrap each portion of meat. Put into a covered casserole. Put ½ cup of liquid from steamed cabbage at the bottom. Add lemon juice. Cover with ketchup. Sprinkle brown sugar on the top. Sprinkle raisins. Bake at 350° for 50 minutes. Serve on top of rice or pasta.





Pumpkin Cake

I would like to call this recipe my “no-fail pumpkin cake” recipe. However, yesterday, Thanksgiving, I had a minor disaster. At about 11 a.m. when I poured the mixture into the fancy bundt pan from Williams Sonoma, the batter didn’t look right. An hour later when I pulled it from the oven, it still looked wrong. I’ve been making this cake for over 35 years; I should know. I let it cool, turned it over, and, boy, did it look strange. So I called the taste-tester, um, Howard, and asked him to cut into it. I mean, I was desperate. This cake was going with us to our friends’ Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t want to show up with a cake with a slice cut out; but neither did I want to offer something awful. “I left out the sugar, right?” I asked. Howard said, “yeah, probably, but it tastes OK.” So I took a bite. It was kind of like biting into canned pumpkin with flour mixed in. Luckily, I had the ingredients on hand for another try–and enough time. Second go-round, I got it right. Anyway, here’s the recipe. This must be one of the easiest cakes in the world to make. You only need one bowl and a measuring cup. The fancy bundt pan makes it look prettier on the table. I got the recipe from my college and graduate-school roommate Karen Altman, who got it from her mom. I remember Karen’s recipe card said, “Mim’s Pumpkin Cake.” I have the feeling, though, that Mrs. Altman got it off a can of Comstock pumpkin.

Mix together in a bowl:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 15 oz can of pumpkin (Comstock if you can find it; I can’t anymore)
  • 1 cup oil
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 8 0z bag of chocolate chips, or more if you’d like
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts, if you’re into that, but I never add nuts

The batter will be a nice orange color. Make sure the sugar and flour are both mixed in well. Pour into a well-greased bundt pan. (I use spray stuff.) Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean, unless you stick it into the chocolate. Let it cool for a 1/2 hour or so; turn over onto a cake plate.

Food Our Mothers Cooked

Somewhere around the beginning of last week, my friends–in person, by email, on Facebook, on Twitter–began talking about the upcoming High Holidays. Big Jewish holidays, we clean and we cook. (In fact, my house is never cleaner than the day before Rosh Hashanah and the day before Pesach.) In the earlier snippets I detected (and contributed to) an undercurrent of “overwhelmed-ness.” For my friends who are observant, this is the kind of year where Rosh Hashanah blends into Shabbat–which means lots and lots of food preparation, enough to last for three days. But even me, who considers herself an observant Jew, although an Orthodox Jew would argue that point, I was worrying about how I was going to manage to cook the brisket and make the matzoh balls, about whether I should just buy chicken stock and rugelach and not try to fit those items into my cooking schedule. Then there’s the added problem of the tricky food allergies and fussy palates running rampant in my family. (I mean, I have NEVER liked meat, though I am not a vegetarian; my husband is a carnivore; my son and his girlfriend are vegetarians and will eat only sustainably raised fish.)

So there I was pulling recipes out of my recipe box, though I don’t really need written instructions for any of this stuff. Some of them are in my mother’s beautiful script; others are on stained 3×5 cards or scraps of paper. I line them up on the counter, arrange them, rearrange them. Doesn’t matter. I know what I’m going to cook. It’s basically the same every year, basically what my mother or grandmother served on holidays. (And come to think of it, my grandmother’s Thanksgiving spread was about the same, substitute turkey for chicken.)

Then Ellen, a college roommate, who now lives in Jersusalem, and who has two older sisters, posted this on Facebook:Sweet memories, she said, familiar scents. But also, my friends around my age, those of us in the bulls eye of the Baby Boomer generation–most of us, our moms are dead. As are our dads, aunts, and uncles. We are the repository of all the Jewish recipes. And that’s an awesome responsibility (awesome here meaning “daunting,” not “totally cool”). Of course there are some fantastic Jewish cookbooks out there, like Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan. But, still, they’re not my mother’s recipes. When I’m cooking something, and I have a question, I can’t ask my mother. I have asked my 92-year-old Uncle Max about some of his mother’s recipes–and I do get answers. In fact, he even gives me measurements. However, when I try, they don’t work. I’m now on year three of attempting half-sour pickles in a crock; this year they grew mold in three days.

Truth be told, I’m actually a much better cook than my mom was. I’m sure I’m a better cook than my grandmother–my father’s mother who hosted most of the holidays. People talk about the smells we associate with our childhood. Her house smelled like roast chicken all year, every day. When I was really little, every Friday my Uncle Max would take my cousins and me and my sister to the shocket on Water Street, Worcester, MA’s Lower East Side, as it were. He’d pick out a chicken (my mother was modern: she ordered hers from the kosher butcher, who delivered everything wrapped in butcher paper, to the side door), and the ritual slaughterer took it into a booth. So we never saw the actual throat slitting. Nor am I sure at this point if the shocket plucked the chicken or if my grandmother did that. Uncle Max would also buy the red-veined “unborn” eggs, which I found kind of gross then and I believe they’re illegal to sell these days. My grandmother made lots of chicken soup. Lots.

Not being a lover of meat–in fact I did everything to avoid eating it–I can’t remember the taste of my grandmother’s brisket, or my mother’s. My husband says that mine was the best he ever ate, and I basically use my mom’s recipe, which involves covering a first-cut, fat side up, with lots of cut up veggies, thickened spiced-up canned tomatoes (or chili sauce), adding liquid for the last 2 hours (I now use micro-brewed beer; go figure), and just slow baking in a 325℉ oven for five or more hours total. The roasting pan I have is much more beautiful than anything my mom or grandmother used. (I bought it at Williams Sonoma.) I also use it to roast chicken, which can be a bit problematic when I’m serving both at the same dinner. I toss a coin. My husband said that today after a second brisket dinner that it was the best brisket he had ever had. Yay me!

One of my favorite things to make–because I know my aunt made it as well as my mother so the recipe had come down in my father’s family, or been picked up when they came to America (because I don’t think they had corn flakes in the shetl) is for noodle (luchen) kugle. Here goes:

1 lb of broad noodles       1/4 lb butter                  1 lb cottage cheese                                             4 eggs                                  1 cup sour cream          3/4 cup milk                                                  1/4 cup milk                       1/4 cup sugar                1/3 tsp cinnamon

topping: 1/3 cup crushed con flakes, 2 tbs sugar, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Cook noodles. Add butter and cottage cheese; slightly beat the eggs and add them; add remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture either into two 8×8 pans or into an 8×13. Sprinkle on the topping. Bake in the oven at 350℉ for 55 minutes. Hint: I always make about twice the amount of topping and add more sugar and cinnamon. Another hint: For all of us of Ashkenazai descent who are finding themselves lactose intolerant these days, I use Lactaid cottage cheese, sour cream and milk and switch out margarine for the butter, and it’s still delicious. And it looks great.

There’s actually a huge emotional significance to all this, to being the ones who make the holiday meals, almost all of us without our mothers at our sides. It means we’re old. Yup. I’m about the same age my grandmother was when I was little. Yes, in pictures she looks a lot older than I do now, but that’s because I have face creams, good makeup, and a great hair stylist. I know how to dress. I have great shoes. It also means that we’re the ones who are supposed to know stuff, and when we don’t, well, there’s Wikipedia, but that’s not much help when it comes to family memories. Some of us have daughters at our side helping out. Some of us sons. The kids, they come and eat. They love the food. But holiday traditions change, and so, I suppose, will the recipes.

Finally, these are the brass candlesticks that my mother’s grandmother brought with her from Shklov. They’re over 150 years old, I’m sure. One of the sticks also doesn’t fit so well into the bottom. The story is that all the girls in the family had a set, and every Friday before Shabbat they would take them apart to polish. On the Friday before they were to leave, they were in a hurry, and the pairs weren’t matched up correctly. So someplace I have a distant cousin with the lopsided mis-match to one of mine. Great story. I believe it’s true.

So, some things to think about. There’s the comment box below. Or Facebook. Or Twitter (@wordwhacker). Let me know what you’re thinking.

  • What are the smells you remember best? Are there certain odors or scents you associate with holiday food?
  • Do you have special recipes that have been handed down? If so, have you altered them at all?
  • And food. What other food did your mother cook?

By the way: I answer nearly every comment that is left on this blog.