Read an Excerpt
Just off a narrow, winding rural route in Pennsylvania in a small graveyard, a headstone, etched entirely in German, marks the plot of Johann Christopher Knauer, who died in 1769. He and his family came to their new land to start fresh and named the village Knauertown. I’ve spent most of my weekends at what is still called the Knauer farm: it has become the only place I really consider home.
The driveway snakes in from the road, past the pond with a rickety dock that wobbles and creaks under the slightest weight, and up the hill toward the house. Somewhere around the gate, I let the dog out of the car. He runs and rolls through the tall grass as I slowly navigate the sharp turns to make my way to the farmhouse. The driveway takes several minutes to travel and is completely transporting. It feels very distinctly like going back in time. The white stucco house, well over a century old, overlooks the pond. Behind the house, fields of green, waving grass stretch up the hill until they are met by the tree line. As I step out of the car, I notice how clean the air feels in my lungs. I breathe it in slowly, letting its freshness soak through me. When I am at the farm, I feel as if I am miles — and centuries — away from the rest of the world.
When I was in my teens, I hated coming here. Mowing the four-acre lawn was not how I wanted to spend my Saturdays. Neither was chopping cords upon cords of firewood, or helping my father repair the century-old slate barn roof, or whitewashing the old chicken coop, pigpen, or outhouse. Or helping my grandfather with his garden. Now those moments are all I need to be happy. I’ve come to realize that I am only a small link in the history of the farm that my family has considered home for many, many generations. It’s a rare opportunity, and I am lucky to have it. My grandfather felt the same way.
I can’t remember a moment when he wasn’t at the farm. He was stoic and gruff and, even as an old man, seemed larger than life. But he had a tender side, and more than anything else, he enjoyed spending his time at the farm with his family. I remember walking up the hill with him as a very young boy to his garden where we picked strawberries. His enormous hand seemed to swallow mine as he lifted me by one arm over the garden fence and landed me gently onto the dirt, my feet surrounded by the bright red berries of early summer. He was loving, gentle, and strong with all his grandchildren. I am the eldest of twenty-four cousins.
Every summer he would grow his strawberries along with corn, cantaloupe, and so much more. There were more vegetables than we could ever eat. There was more work to do than we could ever finish. And many days he would call me, or my sisters, in from a sun-scorched field for a break.
My sister Cecily remembers one afternoon in August when our father dropped her off to mow the lawn. Our grandfather told her it was too hot, and she’d have to spend the afternoon sitting on the porch swing instead, chatting with him. She sat next to him, her legs dangling in her cutoff jeans and T-shirt. He wore, as he always did, long khaki work pants and a tucked-in long-sleeved white shirt. They sat and swung, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence, for hours. Later that day, when my father asked Cecily in a scolding tone why the grass was still tall, our grandfather scolded him in turn. He said the work would always be there. What he meant was that he would not. He was right on both accounts.
A lot changed during my third decade with the farm. The fields stood unplowed and uncultivated. No one could figure out how to fill the emptiness. The house and the barn felt hollow. Cousins and siblings moved away for college or work, and the farm waited. But change that feels a long time coming can happen in an instant. I recall the instant it happened for me.
One spring, one of our aunts asked for my help planting a few fruit trees. I remember noticing a familiar warmth in the late April morning breeze as I dug holes in the field for those young trees. Near the ancient apple trees that have been growing there for well over a century, we planted a dwarf apple, an Asian pear, a Hosui pear, and even a fig tree. As we placed the fruit trees in the ground, I could feel a sudden change in the way I felt about the farm. It’s a reciprocal sort of place that gives back to me what I’ve given to it, and tamping cool earth around the trees’ roots seemed to usher in a brand-new era. It’s one in which I have grown closer to the family, the place, the garden, and the beautiful yet sometimes difficult lessons they have to teach me.
The history of the farm can be felt at every turn and every corner. Function and purpose have been the forces behind over a century of landscape decisions, and each generation has added their thumbprint to the face of the property. My father and his siblings have worked hard to preserve the outer edge of the woods, negotiating with preservation groups to enable the natural forest to live on. Our grandfather planted rows of yews, 300 yards long and 20 feet wide, that provide shelter and a haven for deer. He repaved the driveway to avoid the natural streams and dug out the low wetlands to create a spring-fed pond. He planted many trees. He poured himself into improving this place without encroaching on its history.
Thousands of rocks piled on top of thousands more line the fields of the farm. They work to keep the trees in the woods. They’ve been working at it for well over a hundred years, since they were piled there, by hand, the backbreaking labor of our ancestors who cleared these fields. They built the barn with rocks from the field, and the farmhouse. And the foundations of the old chicken coop, the pigpen, and the wagon shed. Then with the thousands and thousands of rocks still left, they built the wall. Now, in the fields, there are no rocks to be found. Rockless fields are perfect for gardens, like the one my sisters and I decided to plant this spring.
Since our grandfather grew too old to garden, the fields had not been used to farm anything except the hay that we give to a local farmer in exchange for his cutting it. Our grandfather favored beets, wheat, and potatoes. I remember watching him tow a small plow through the potato plants when I was still too young to help, the creamy-white spuds spilling out of the ground, tumbling into the sunlight. My first potato crop was his last. I called Cecily on the phone early one January to propose planting a garden together. Before I could complete the thought, she started to tell me her memories of our grandfather’s garden. She told me she’s been searching, in vain, for cherry tomatoes that could live up to her memory of her childhood, when she would stand next to the plants for hours and strip them of their fruits, popping each little tomato in her mouth, one at a time. We decided to give it a try.
The prospect of a summer brimming with fresh vegetables of every variety may have gotten us a little too excited. Instead of starting with a reasonable number of tomato plants for three small families, my sisters and I grew sixty, of which fifty-six made it through the season. We had so many tomatoes that we couldn’t give them away. After eating them raw off the plants, in every meal for a month, canning, freezing, and dehydrating them, we still could have built a wall of tomatoes comparable, it seemed, to the wall of rocks that lined the fields.
We planted too much zucchini, too. And too much fennel, hot chile peppers (Scotch Bonnet, fatali, malagueta, chocolate habanero, peach habanero, and poblano), okra, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsley (flat-leaf and root), corn (sweet and hominy), beans (French and green), radishes, arugula, lettuce, beets (pronto and salad leaf), chard (red and orange), scallions, onions, garlic, cucumbers (burpless and Kirby), butternut squash, and potatoes (red bliss and purple).
Oh, and then there were the herbs. By sometime in mid-July we were swimming in oceans of dill, cilantro (slow-bolt, regular, and Vietnamese), basil (lime, regular, and purple), thyme, oregano, mint, rosemary, and lavender.
We wondered what to do with it all: our eyes were bigger than our refrigerators. But when life hands you fifty-six tomato plants, there’s only one thing to do: make lots and lots of sauce.
This book is a journal of abundance and the beginning of a new generation’s thumbprint on what has become an ancient family tradition. Chapters follow the seasons of the garden, beginning in the early spring and ending well into the winter.
Most of these recipes are quick and easy to prepare, making them especially attractive to those of us who need to balance dinnertime with work. They get the best food to the table in the least amount of time. They are geared toward the American palate, which has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, incorporating flavors from Italy and France alongside those from Mexico and Asia. In the end, this book offers recipes for every kind of cook, from the most basic to the most experienced.
The recipes highlight vegetables at their peak, following the subtle changes in the garden. They are flavorful, modern takes on American classics, with accessible ingredients that anyone can procure, such as bacon, olive oil, and garlic.
One chapter is devoted to larger projects for kitchen gardeners and more ambitious cooks. Basic preservation methods, such as making chile-infused vinegar and quick radish pickles in the spring, lead to canning tomatoes and pickling cucumbers in the summer, then to making pumpkin puree and fermenting cider in the fall. Many of these methods have been passed down to me from my grandparents.
Whether you are an overachieving amateur farmer like me, or an over-excited produce patron, these simple recipes will, I hope, become standards at your dinner table, as they have at mine.
A few recipes from the book:
Cheese Grits Nuggets
serves 4 to 6
If I walked into a bar that served these little nuggets as snacks, I might never leave. Luckily for my wallet, these little puppies (they’re similar to hush puppies but creamier and more intense)
are easy and cheap to make at home. The idea for this appetizer/side dish/snack came from a
Brooklyn restaurant called Peaches HotHouse, which specializes in Southern food. There the
“grits fries” are served alongside fried chicken. I’ve added a lot of cheese to make them into a decadent yet homey finger food. Serve them for breakfast or dinner, with cocktails, or when you’re watching the game. These nuggets are great on their own but are even better when dipped in Souped-Up Mayo.
3 cups water
3/4 cup grits
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 ounces cheddar cheese,
cut into .-inch pieces
3 cups vegetable oil for frying
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
1 tablespoon chili powder
Lightly oil an 8-inch square baking dish. Bring the water to a boil in a medium heavy saucepan.
Whisk in the grits, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. Simmer the grits, whisking frequently, until they are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the cheese and pour into the baking dish. Cover the surface with a layer of lightly oiled waxed paper, then cool completely in the refrigerator, at least 4 hours. Heat the oil in a medium heavy saucepan to 425°F. Cut the grits into 32 rectangles (about 1 by 2 inches). Stir together the cornmeal, chili powder, the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper. Roll the nuggets in the cornmeal mixture, then fry them in batches, reheating the oil to 425°F before frying the next batch, until golden, about 4 minutes per batch. Transfer the nuggets to paper towels to cool slightly, and serve.
Twice-Baked Chipotle Potatoes
Let’s face it, early spring in the Northeast still feels a whole lot like winter. One thing that can help with making it through the cold is a creamy, smoky twice-baked potato. This one incorporates a newish pantry staple borrowed from Mexican cuisine, chipotles in adobo. Cans of these smoky, smoldering chiles are available at almost every grocery store, and once they’re opened, they keep in the fridge for months.
4 (8-ounce) russet potatoes
1/2 cup sour cream
4 ounces grated cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon finely chopped chipotle with some adobo
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°F, with a rack in the upper third. Prick the potatoes a few times with a fork and place on a baking sheet. Bake the potatoes until they are tender, about 1 hour. Let the potatoes cool for about 20 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 425°F. Cut off the tops of the potatoes, then scoop the flesh from the tops into a bowl. Scoop out the flesh from the bottoms of the potatoes, leaving about a ¼-inch shell. Mash the potato flesh with the sour cream, cheese, chipotle, scallions, oregano, salt, and pepper. Fill the potato shells with the filling, mounding the filling on top of the potatoes. Bake the potatoes until the stuffing is hot and browned in places, about 20 minutes. Serve.
Corn and Parmesan Pesto
with Tagliatelle serves 4 to 6
This recipe takes a summer staple, corn, and blends it to make a terrific and unexpected base for this sweet and nutty pesto. Instead of blending those gorgeous basil leaves into oblivion,
use them for garnish.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from about 6 large ears)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-
Reggiano, plus more for serving
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces tagliatelle or fettuccine
3/4 cup coarsely torn fresh basil
Heat the oil in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the corn, onion, garlic, 1¼ teaspoons salt, and ¾ teaspoon pepper and sauté until the corn is just tender but not brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer 1½ cups of the corn kernels to a small bowl. Scrape the remaining corn mixture into a food processor. Add the Parmesan and pine nuts. With the machine running, add the olive oil and blend until the pesto is almost smooth. Cook the pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1½ cups of the pasta-cooking liquid, then drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the pot. Add the corn pesto, the reserved corn kernels, and ½ cup of the basil leaves. Toss the pasta over medium heat until warmed through, adding the reserved pasta-cooking liquid to thin to the desired consistency, 2 to 3 minutes. Season the pasta to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the pasta to a large shallow bowl. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup basil leaves. Serve the pasta with additional Parmesan.