The following is an excerpt from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food From Yard to Table by Margo True and the staff of Sunset magazine (Ten Speed Press, 2011). This inspiring book details the magazine staff’s adventure in creating meals made from ingredients grown, processed and prepared right in the lot of their editorial offices. Complete with seasonal recipes and basic instructions on how they made it happen, each season ends with a multi-course dinner menu using all home-grown ingredients. This excerpt is from “The Story of Our Summer Feast.”
It all started with the menu. In the Sunset kitchen in mid-May, we cooks dreamed about the end-of-summer dishes we wanted to make: Peppery arugula salads with a rainbow of ripe tomatoes in oranges and yellows, greens and purples, reds and pinks. A platter of avocados and oranges with paper-thin red onions. Sweet corn on the cob, definitely. Ripe figs, because we had spotted a vine growing out back.
With a tentative menu drawn up, we sat down with the garden department and got a reality check. Arugula, a cool-season crop, would wilt in our summer heat. Our fig vine had been pruned so severely the year before that it probably wouldn’t bear much fruit—not enough to plan on, anyway. We had no avocado trees, and even if we bought some young ones, they would take several years to produce.
There were consolations, however. We could grow good tomatoes, though they would be on the small side in our cool climate. Corn would not have the savory depth that it does in the Midwest, but it would be sweet and juicy. ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes would be no problem. “How about zucchini?” suggested Lauren Swezey, our garden projects editor. “Zucchini does really well here.” Privately, I was crushed—zucchini is just about the most boring summer vegetable I can think of. But then Lauren described a wondrous variety called ‘Trombetta di Albenga’. She took out a seed packet with a picture on it. “It curves like a trombone,” she said. “And it’s sweet and a little crunchy. Completely delicious.” We were sold.
Over the next few days, we settled on a cooking fat (not peanut oil, because peanuts need a southern climate, or corn oil, because three cups would require about sixty pounds of corn, and we wanted to eat our corn). What Sunset did have were twenty-one olive trees, planted all around the property as landscaping back in the 1950s. They were loaded with fruit, and surely it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out how to press it.
For seasoning, we would plant chiles, lemons, and potent summer herbs. And, because we lived close to the Pacific, it seemed worth trying to make some salt from seawater.
What would we do for protein? Our menu sounded good, but gossamery. We asked ourselves what we were collectively capable of, and it did not include raising meat animals. Eggs and cheese seemed more doable. We could keep chickens right in the garden, and as for the milk for cheese, the closest dairy would do. We didn’t dream (then) that we might someday have a cow.
For dessert, we’d need a sweetener, and honey seemed like the natural solution. Why not try keeping some bees? Plus, all those pollinators would help our crops produce.
Within a couple of weeks, we’d finalized our menu. I wandered out into the garden to imagine how it might all look. A pair of grapevines caught my eye. What if we made wine? Our little vines wouldn’t supply enough grapes, but maybe we could find a vineyard nearby. Wine editor Sara Schneider loved the idea and agreed to launch Team Wine. In the meantime, Rick LaFrentz, our head gardener, volunteered to lead Team Beer. He had brewed at home using kits, and wanted to try planting barley, wheat, and hops to make beer from the ground up. It was intriguingly medieval of him.
Our made-from-scratch project had not even started, and here we were, “importing” wine grapes and milk and ocean water. But we would transform the imports into foods that would be wholly our own: grapes into wine, milk into cheese, water into salt.
Italians have a lovely word for the locally grown produce in their farmers’ markets: nostrani — “ours.” It usually sells out first because it’s often the best. That’s exactly what this summer dinner would be, from start to finish. Ours.
1 large cucumber, about 7 inches long
21/2 cups lightly packed purslane or watercress sprigs
2 tsp finely chopped fresh peppermint
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
2 tbsp Crème Fraîche (recipe follows)
1/2 tsp crushed dried red serrano chile or red chile flakes
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Peel the cucumber, halve lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes and put in a serving bowl. Add the purslane and peppermint.
2. Mince the garlic, sprinkle it with the salt, and mash to a paste with the flat side of a big chef’s knife. In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic paste, crème fraîche, chile, oil, and lemon juice to make a dressing.
3. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat evenly. Serves 4 to 6.
4 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 to 21/2 tsp minced green serrano chile
2 tsp finely chopped fresh chives
2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
6 cups cubed watermelon (1-inch cubes)
1/3 cup loosely packed small flat-leaf parsley leaves (chop coarsely if large)
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, salt, chile, chives, and oil to make a dressing.
2. Add the watermelon and parsley to the dressing and toss gently to coat evenly. Serves 4 to 6.
Reprinted with permission from The One Block Feast: An Adventure in Food From Yard to Table, published by Ten Speed Press, 2011.