Monday, October 22, 2007

Newspaper column - NICE SALAD

Publsihed in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Oct. 22, 2007.

Occasionally, there is a fine line between tenacity and hard-headedness. I admire tenacity in garden vegetables, like the rhubarb that refuses to be cut back and the squash that grows out of the compost.This past spring, my garden was full of renegade spinach in places that had never been planted to spinach. I admired that spunk so much I carefully transplanted it into a proper row.

But when a full-grown tomato plant is still in the garden in mid-October, with its yellowing leaves and spindly stem, and pinkish tomatoes struggling to soak up enough sun to turn red – well, that is sheer hard-headedness. And the hard head is all mine. Perhaps a psychiatrist would diagnose me as suffering from winter denial syndrome, but I can think of no better way to stave off the commencement of winter than to prolong the advancement of the summer garden.

So, every night I go out and cover my tomatoes with an old sheet and every morning I roll back the frosty sheet so the tomatoes can bask in the sun. Somewhere in between the sheets – preferably at dinnertime – I pluck off the ripest of the red tomatoes and eat them – preferably with the salad greens I planted in August which are now at their tender peak. (Lettuce and spinach can take a bit more frost than tomatoes, but I’m not taking any chances; I cover them at night, too.)

A few years ago, my husband and I spent the winter in a medieval mountain town in Italy where, right up to Christmas, gardeners were nurturing their tomatoes on the vine. These tomatoes were usually planted in front of a rock wall and staked to a tall pole, which maximized the warmth and exposure to the sun. It didn’t matter that the stems were spindly and the leaves were almost gone, those last few delicious tomatoes kept on ripening to the bitter end – which came with the first snow on New Year’s Eve.

I decided to try this principle in my own garden here in Saskatoon. I planted a few tomatoes up against the house (grey stucco, sort of like rocks) and attached them to tall stakes. And here it is, the latter half of October, and I am still enjoying fresh tomatoes from the garden. This may be hard-headed obstinacy, but there is method to my madness. Like an Italian grandmother, I prefer my vegetables to be fresh and in season. I want to eat what local gardens have to offer, rather than defy the seasons by buying imported vegetables from other parts of the planet. So, tomatoes and salad greens only when they’re fresh here in Saskatchewan (and, I hasten to add, you can still get both at the Saskatoon farmers’ market).

Here’s a great salad based on the French original called Salade Nicoise (nee-swaz), named for the city of Nice. I made it last week with tomatoes, salad greens and baby fingerling potatoes fresh out of my garden. The French version calls for tuna, but I use leftover Saskatchewan fish when I have it. It turned out so pretty and delicious, I called my version the Nice Salad. This recipe is a meal for two or a first course salad for four.

Nice Salad
3-4 cups of salad greens
Several thin slices of onion
(or 2 sliced green onions)
Two handfuls of baby potatoes, boiled
(or larger potatoes, cooked and quartered)
2-3 small ripe tomatoes, in wedges
3 hardboiled eggs, in wedges
1/2 green pepper, thinly sliced
(or steamed green beans/asparagus in season)
1/2 cup cooked fish

Juice of one-half lemon
2-3 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
Dash of salt and pepper

Whisk together the dressing ingredients. Toss half of the dressing with the salad greens and onion. Arrange the potatoes, tomatoes, eggs and other vegetables around a platter. Drizzle with the remainder of the dressing. Mound the salad greens in the centre. Top the greens with the cooked fish. Serve with a big spoon and two salad bowls.

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