The garden did a lot of growing up in my absence. The beans shot five feet high, well beyond their bamboo supports. The tomatoes nearly doubled in size, and began to bear fruit. We have one tiny watermelon, hidden beneath the vines. And although I can't see them, I know the carrots are busy digging their way down down , clad in crimson red, golden yellow and even the standard orange.
The kale has done well, and managed to grow despite persistent holes. The worst of the caterpillars was over before we shipped out a month ago. With this heat, I imagine they've all gone to bed for a while, before transforming into beautiful flying creatures.
My neighbors' plots are similarly bountiful. Since everyone chose different varietals, the garden is a study in diversity. There are tomatoes that grow like a bush, down near the ground, and produce dozens upon dozens of orange and red fruit. Others have shot up four feet high, reaching for the sunlight in a shadier spot. Since we mostly planted heirloom varietals, and started many from seed, our tomatoes are less productive than our neighbors' crops. Still, the early ones are "sweet like sugar" to borrow a phrase from Michael Pollan's grandfather. I'll trade quantity for quality this time.
A few months ago, when everyone got going, one of my neighbors with two small kids planted clear, straight rows of two greens: kale and beets. She just took a whole packet of seed and laid it out like a farmer would. Only later did she study the package and discover it was made to plant a row 100 feet long. Her row stretched a full four feet.
Given the compost she wisely mixed into the soil, it wasn't long before the seeds were spouting and competing with one another for space, nutrients and light. Something had to be done about these cramped quarters.
Her first line of attack was to eat the greens. She harvested as much young kale as she could and made salads. Before long her kids were loving raw kale. This tactic thinned the plants somewhat. And, overall, her plants were doing fine under the conditions. Still, nosy neighbor that I am, I couldn't help giving advice. I mentioned she might want to thin the seedlings out a bit, and maybe try transplanting a few.
We have one spot in the garden set aside as a communal plot. The idea was to plant herbs that people could share, and to create a space that anyone could enjoy. In practice, it's a bit overrun. There is a borage plant larger than any borage plant ought to be. The basil is shaded and the tarragon looks sad. But still, it's what my friend would deem "bricolage" -- a small work of clumsy, communal art, made by a motley crew of garden painters with only the best of intentions. In its own way, it's beautiful.
After my neighbor had eaten as much kale as she could manage, and after I'd weighed in, she transplanted a row of kale from her plot to the communal plot. This pleased me immensely, as I can eat through kale in no time flat, simply making it into delicious chips.
"I moved some radishes over," she announced to me. "They're in the shared plot." I looked at her confused, then went to investigate the plants one more time. Those were not radishes. They were kale.
I summoned up the courage to once again poke my nose in it, and told her she might be mistaken. It turns out she'd been feeding her kids radish greens for months, not kale. Her husband thought this was hilarious. Well, radish tops are still edible!
Today, her two kids were running around the garden, staring into their now thinned out plot. The three year old girl who rarely talks pointed to each plant in turn, announcing its name to no one. "Tomato." "Cucumbers." "Kale." She must have practiced with her mother. At that age, she already knew more about what plants looked like than her mom did as an adult.
Meanwhile, her five year old brother was standing over the plot, picking raw kale, and happily eating it. All those months trained on radish leaves must have made kale seem like a cake walk. Raw kale. Bitter greens. I wouldn't eat it straight out of the garden!
"You know, it tastes better cooked," I told him, again refusing to mind my own business. "Has your mom ever made you kale chips before?" He stared back at me. "No. I like it this way. It taste good raw!" I was dumbstruck.
I harvested some small curly kale from the communal plot, and added some tuscan kale of my own. I ran upstairs and mixed the few ingredients together: olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce. Into the toaster oven they went at 325 degrees. It was a short wait before they were crisp. Then, back down the stairs I bounded, with my bounty in tow to share.
I tried to entice the kids into trying one. They were chips, after all. Who wouldn't get excited? But no, they insisted. They were happy just eating it raw out of the garden, thank you very much. Well, more for me. On my way back upstairs the boy went running past me, yelling, "I just need to go eat some more raw kale from the garden!"
Kale Chips with Sesame Oil
I prefer these chips to the standard olive oil + salt fare. I also turn up the oven a bit hotter, which gets them done faster. This is key in hot weather. If you have one, use your toaster oven. You can even stack two trays, like I do, which cuts down on the heat and energy necessary. If you do take this toaster-oven-stacking-route, add an extra minute or two.
Preheat (toaster) oven to 325F.
Wash and dry full pieces of kale (half a bunch or so). A salad spinner is useful, as is a cloth. Lay out the kale on a baking sheet or two.
Mix: 1 tablespoon olive oil; 1 teaspoon (toasted) sesame oil; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of soy sauce (or nama shoyu, if you're fancy like that). The more soy, the more salt. I prefer not to add any salt or it gets a bit out of hand.
Dip a piece of kale into the oil and drizzle onto its compatriots. I like to distribute the oil this way, and then massage it into the leaves. It's fun to watch the leaves darken, the texture is lovely and this overwrought approach distributes the oil more evenly. You can also pour the oil onto the leaves delicately, or just mix it all in a bowl.
Lay the kale out relatively flat on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes, until dry and crisp.
They last approximately 5 minutes -- the time it takes to eat them. You will always wish you made a double or triple batch. Trust me.