Gardening my way out of the doldrums

Insomnia and marital tension leave me feeling depressed. Harvesting kale and making crepes helps temper my malaise


Felisa Rogers
August 27, 2011 5:01PM (UTC)

The morning has not been good so far. Insomnia has left me ghostlike, my husband and I have stumbled into a minor cold war, I'm feeling utterly uninspired on every possible level, and when I attempt to dust the dining room, I knock over a potted cactus. Dirt coats the surfaces I just cleaned.

I spent my teenage years deeply unhappy, but when I was 20 my dad's sudden death snapped me out of it. I realized that wallowing in the doldrums was a narcissistic waste of my time. Most days it's easy for me to remember that lesson: I haven't felt this familiar weight on my chest in a long time. I think about calling my friend Becky, my go-to person in moments of duress, but my listlessness is too severe. As I stand by the phone, it rings. I wait for the answering machine to pick up.

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"Hey babylove, it's Michelle. I just wanted to call because I have my feet in a bucket of cherries and I'm stomping them, and I'm going to hold the phone down so you can hear the sound effects."

I laugh. The sound is exaggerated cartoonish squelching. She's making cherry wine. I pick up the receiver.

"I was trying to squash them with my hands but then I decided to go Italian on it," Michelle explains. "That's all. I just thought you would get a kick out of the sound." She says goodbye and I hang up, still laughing. The phone call doesn't magically erase my feeling of ennui, but I walk away feeling distinctly grateful for the comfort that comes unasked. You can spend years weaving a safety net only to have it disintegrate, but, conversely, salvation can materialize out of thin air: uncalled for relief, unexpected sustenance. In short, I am thankful for the windfalls and volunteers.

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My husband, Rich, spent the winter drawing detailed diagrams of his vegetable garden (that is his way), and leafing through seed catalogs. Despite his enthusiasm for the project and his natural talent with plants, snags rose up every which way. Our faltering income limited our purchase of seeds, starts and soil supplements. The rains lasted till midsummer, and Rich spent all of spring's rare sunny days doing yard work for neighbors. We were happy for the income, but the combination of limited time and bad weather killed our chances at serious food production. We do have a garden, it's just not what we were aiming for: Our tomatoes hang matte green, our cabbages are the size of baseballs, and our beets and lettuce never materialized, leaving a hunk of Rich's meticulously planned layout completely bare -- until a few weeks ago.

One morning Rich took me down to the garden to show me a magical bounty -- an army of volunteer kale had sprung up in the rows where our beets had failed. I couldn't have been more delighted, and I barely even paused to wonder what my old, more rock 'n' roll self might have made of anyone capable of getting so deliriously excited about kale, let alone my use of the word "magical." (I'm sure my commentary would have included the epithet "hippie.")

The kale has taken the place that nettles served this spring -- a free fallback option that ensures we eat something green with every meal. We've enjoyed baby kale salad, steamed kale, sautéed kale, chicken kale sandwiches, handmade kale pasta and summer squash, kale pesto and, lately, kale-filled crepes. I do not find all this kale monotonous because it's forcing me to push the envelope with my cooking: The versatile ingredient takes on new life every time I master a new skill, such as crepe making.

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My dad did a pretty mean Julia Child impression, but other than that I don't know much about French cuisine. As it turns out, making crepes is easier than I thought. In my vast collection of cast iron (an inheritance from said dad) I find the perfect pan: a light 6-inch cast iron with a long handle and slanted sides. A blender, a rubber spatula, a measuring cup and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" complete my arsenal. To my amazement, my first crepe is faultless.

To make the filling, I wander down to the garden and pick a few handfuls of ruffled kale leaves, veined in heliotrope and sparkling with water from last night's rain. Raw, the leaves have a nice crunch and an undertone of mustard. Sautéed in olive oil with onions, sea salt and garlic, the kale is a savory counterpoint to the decadence of crepes and sour cream. Homemade chipotle sauce (a gift from friends) is the perfect topping.

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For dessert we have more crepes, filled with honey yogurt and topped with salal honey syrup. Our house is surrounded by native salal bushes and somehow I never thought to eat the fruit until this year. The berries are like thick-skinned, slightly sour blueberries, but they make a startlingly good syrup.

A handful of kale and berries is not a cure for serious blues, but getting it together to go down to the garden, to go out into the sunlit woods to pick berries, to prepare a nice meal for myself and the ones I love: That's a start. As I finish dinner and linger in the evening shadows, I'm grateful for the volunteers -- the people and moments of grace and bounty that come to us unbidden and allow us to weather life's more tedious days.

Ingredients

Kale filling

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ red onion (chopped)
  • ⅔ cup stock
  • 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1 cup kale (chopped)
  • 1 cup turnip greens (chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley (chopped)
  • 2 petite summer squash (chopped)
  • Salt to taste
  • 8-10 nasturtium blossoms

Salal Raspberry Syrup

  • ½ cup wild black raspberries
  • ½ cup salal berries
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 tablespoons raw sugar

Crepes

  • 1 cup sifted white flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tablespoons butter (melted)
  • Bacon grease

Directions

Kale filling

  1. Heat olive oil in a large pan. Add onions. Sauté 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add a splash of stock and the garlic. Continue cooking until onions are translucent.
  3. Add kale, turnip greens, squash, parsley, salt and remainder of stock. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and add nasturtium blossoms.

Salal Raspberry Syrup

  1. Blend water and berries in blender.
  2. In a small sauce pan, melt butter over a low flame. Add berry mixture. Add sugar and stir.
  3. Simmer for 3-4 minutes. Stir regularly.

Crepes

  1. Put milk, water, salt and eggs into blender. Add flour and butter. Blend at high speed for about a minute.
  2. Put batter in freezer for 30 minutes, or refrigerate for an hour or two.
  3. Heat one teaspoon of bacon grease in a 6-inch cast-iron pan at medium until it begins to smoke, but just barely.
  4. Remove from heat. Pour ¼ cup of batter into pan. Roll your wrist until batter spreads across entire bottom surface of pan. Return pan to flame. Cook for 45-60 seconds.
  5. Loosen edges of crepe with rubber spatula. Shake crepe back and forth in pan. Use spatula to turn crepe. Cook for an additional 10-20 seconds.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Serve, filled with toppings and sour cream or yogurt.

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Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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