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A new year's garden supper

(article, Deborah Madison)

Given the trials of the past 12 months and, for that matter, the entire decade, I wanted to welcome the new year in a kind and hospitable way, in hopes that it would behave likewise toward the world. 

But I didn’t want to do a lot of cooking and cleaning, nor was staying up late part of the program. I thought we’d eat early, and I’d make the kind of dish I seldom make but that always satisfies: manicotti. 

Those store-bought hollow tubes in the blue box would serve as the pasta — no making them by hand this time — but I'd fill them with delicate ricotta cheese and fresh mozzarella and bake them in a sauce of last summer’s garden tomatoes. This vegetarian dish would be just gooey enough to be fun and luxurious, but still remain pretty light. 

Friends, who were also beyond entertaining after a week of family, joined us. After all, isn’t it better to celebrate, however modestly, with others? We thought so.
[%image turnips float=right width=300 caption="Deborah's garden turnips."] 

As I started to cook, I made a decision: There would be no going to the store for anything. I’d make do with what was here and forget what wasn’t. I was set for the manicotti, but not for salad, or a soup, or a leafy green vegetable. 

But wasn’t there still something growing in those raised beds covered in Reemay and plastic?  Although my intention was to grow food, even in winter, I sometimes forget that those beds are there when they’re covered with snow. 

I bundled up, went out and lifted the covers, and then harvested the rest of our dinner: sweet little turnips and their greens, arugula, chard, broccoli leaves, and lettuce.  

Frankly, it all looked a bit ratty, and took some combing through. The onions I had harvested a few months ago were seemingly OK, so I made a soup with them and the turnips, adding the cooked turnip greens at the end. The cream I had planned to use to make the soup a little richer and more special had turned, so that was out. We did without, and it really was fine and certainly not lacking in flavor.

I sautéed the broccoli leaves and chard and served them with the manicotti, which made a festive-looking plate. The arugula, its edges reddened by the cold, got tossed with a walnut-oil dressing, along with the lettuce and some fresh cracked walnuts. 

When it came to dessert, I still had some of those wonderful Satsuma mandarins from the box I get every November from Placer County, California. I juiced them and made pudding. For the life of me, I couldn’t find my orange-flower water, homemade kirsch, or any other possible additions, so the pudding remained plain, except for a modest enrichment of butter added at the end. 

But those mandarins were so sweet and sparkly that, like the soup, there was no need for drops of extra flavor. Besides, there were lots of goodies left from the holidays to have on the side: chocolate truffles and figs stuffed with roasted almonds. 

What a simple dinner, and what a relief to have made it so.  

Of course it always feels good to cook from the garden, the farmers' market, and the CSA. But it felt especially good to begin the new year with the remains of the fall beds. I might easily have overlooked this produce had I seen it in a store with its yellow leaves, rough textures, mouse nibbles, and wilted stems, but when it's yours, you’re far more accepting and appreciative. True, it looked funky, but the flavor of this motley collection was sweet and generous. 

What better way to start the year than to be reminded of the riches of the garden? And what better way to spend New Year's Day than ordering seeds for the next garden? Personally, I’m thinking of exploring Asian greens this summer. And you?

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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