Wednesday, August 10, 2011

a bit of earth

Everything I know about gardening, I learned from British children's literature.

My parents are not gardening enthusiasts. In the years when we lived in a house with a front lawn, they paid an enterprising neighborhood teenager to cut the grass, and espoused a policy of benign neglect for the gardenia bushes by the door. The backyard contained a lemon tree that produced no lemons (I only knew it was a lemon tree by dint of the faded label hanging from its trunk) and an oak tree that produced prolific showers of lawnmower-threatening acorns. A relocation to Hong Kong, with its apartment-dwelling lifestyle, proved a convenient excuse to abandon all efforts at horticulture. My mother chose artificial orchids for the sitting room, and set a cheery green plastic facsimile of a ficus on the kitchen windowsill. To say that my parents keep plants is accurate only if you expand the definition to include the contents of the refrigerator's crisper drawer.

My ability to have a conversation at the farmer's market without embarrassing myself owes a good deal to the works of Enid Blyton and other British writers. Their stories are full of plucky children who plant their own gardens and cantankerous gardeners who are secretly good-natured beneath their gruff exteriors, and in the course of exposition the characters dispense a surprising amount of gardening advice. Without Jack and Dinah and the other Adventurers, I might not have learned that strawberries propagate from runners rather than seeds, and that lettuce has to be picked regularly, or else it will bolt. Without Peter Rabbit, I would have been slower to recognize that string beans and radishes share a growing season. Without the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, I might have lived well into adulthood before discovering that marrow and pumpkins do not grow on trees.

My personal experience with gardening has been minimal, legacy of years of dorm and apartment living. The closest I've been to Mary Lennox's "bit of earth" were the sage and rosemary I grew in pots on the kitchen balcony of my student housing in Rome. The plants weren't much to look at, but they were surprisingly tolerant of both steady harvesting and the occasional overwatering. They spared me the frustration of buying bunches of herbs when I only needed a few leaves, serving as a quick way to add extra flavor to buttered pasta or plain omelettes.

The following herbed frittata is a more substantial take on an omelette, filled with zucchini and onion and enriched with cheese. While it's not the sort of dish that shows up in the canon of British children's literature (there would be courgettes and not zucchini, for starters), it's one of my favorite quick summer meals, and also a handy way to use up zucchini if you're growing your own.

Still, if you are growing your own zucchini plants, and their output is driving you to your wits' end, you could try another approach. I've read that the fruit of a courgette vine can be kept under control by regularly culling the blossoms - a bit of wisdom from one of those cantankerous British gardeners, if my memory serves me right.

Herbed Zucchini Frittata

You can use any mixture of fresh herbs that strikes your fancy. Leafy herbs like basil, mint, chives or even dill are best, but thyme and rosemary will also work if you chop them finely and keep the quantities small. You can also put this in a pastry crust to make quiche, or prepare the sauteed vegetables and egg separately to make an omelette.

(Makes three or four servings. Leftovers are good for breakfast.)

Finely chop two cloves of garlic and one small white onion. Cut two medium zucchini into small dice. Finely chop a small handful of fresh herbs.

Heat a little olive oil in a nine-inch ovenproof saute pan or skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic and onion start to smell fragrant. Add the zucchini and the herbs. Cook until the onion takes on color and the zucchini has softened.

In a small bowl, beat five eggs with half a cup of milk until smooth and pale. Grate two ounces of sharp cheddar.

Pour the beaten egg into the pan, and sprinkle with cheese. Use a spatula to lift up the edges as they cook, letting the uncooked mixture flow underneath. Cook until the frittata is mostly set, but still wobbly in the middle.

Transfer the pan to a broiler on low heat. Cook until the top is set and lightly browned. Remove from heat. Serve warm or cool, with a green salad on the side.


Cakelaw said...

This frittata looks fabulous! I kill plants so I don't even try.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I comment on your site, but I've been reading it for a while now. I admire the passion with which you tell your stories and hope someday I can do the same. Love

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

As a lover of literature, I take comfort in your reliance on it and its relation to gardening. I wish I had a green thumb. In truth, herbs (okay, they've also been called weeds) are the only things that have survived.

Tyler Self Storage said...

Great post. Thanks for an interesting read and tempting frittata!