Sister Time and Little Green Caterpillars in the Broccoli

I bet you’re wondering where I’m going with this.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about perfection/imperfection, in the context of this blog and local food.

Fairly often during the summer, my sister and I spend part of the weekend cooking most of our meals for the coming week. Nothing fancy, just egg/meat/grain or egg/potato bowls for breakfasts, meat/veg bowls for lunches, and sometimes we add some favorite childhood recipes to put away in the deep freezer for winter. It can seem like a lot of work while we’re doing it, but it saves a lot of time and energy during the coming weeks and provides quality grownup sister time. We share many fond memories of food from our childhood, and time spent in the kitchens of our mom and grandmothers. Now that we’re both in our 40s, and living as geographically near each other as we have since our 20s, it’s fun to see what we remember and enjoy making.

One of the things that came to mind as we were prepping broccoli last year (and drowning a bunch of those ubiquitous green caterpillars!): prioritizing local food has meant broadening or changing our expectations about the food we buy.

Produce in the grocery store tends to be brightly-colored, shiny, uniform, unblemished. They’re visually appealing, right? I’m sure marketing agencies have done studies about what most appeals to consumers, and what they’re likely to buy — even what sizes and packaging are most attractive. And as consumers, I think maybe we’ve come to prize so many surface qualities without necessarily thinking about whether they’re the qualities that matter most to us.

On the flip side, I think we’ve been conditioned to expect the lack of anything else living in our food.

I’ve been dealing with these little green caterpillars in the garden for so long, it doesn’t bother me at all to find them in our locally-grown market broccoli. I bring it home from the market with an awareness that it was cut only yesterday, cut from a plant still growing in the ground just down the road. It’s just from a bigger garden, and whatever I expect from garden produce pretty much translates to farmers’ market produce. At worst, it’s an extra step to dunk the broccoli and dispatch the green guys when they float up. At best, it’s a fun sort of game to find them all. Regardless, the rewards of the richer, fresher, sweeter broccoli are so worth it.

If I brought home a head of broccoli from the grocery store and found caterpillars, it would probably be quite a shock. As much as I love to garden and cook and eat vegetables, I don’t think about the living plant in the ground when I shop at the grocery store. And that’s bad for farmers because it means that as a grocery store consumer, I’m probably a pretty typical consumer, with typical “it’s so shiny!” expectations.

After a year of ruminating on the little green caterpillars, I’d hoped to organize my thoughts into something more profound, but this is all I’ve got: buy the less-shiny, less-perfect produce, and don’t be afraid of the little green caterpillars!

Saving Seeds, or What? How? What? Three Excellent Questions

Let’s say you just had the most delicious little cherry tomato you’ve ever eaten, and you want to preserve that exact flavor for ever and ever and ever, but you’re not sure you’ll ever find that same variety again. Well… I’m here to tell you that you CAN.

If you have a garden (or you are interested in starting one), why not save the seeds from that little tomato, and plant it in the spring? And yes, you can do that!

Tomatoes are annuals, and that means that the plant reproduces (via seeds) and dies off in the same season. The seeds of the tomato are particularly easy to save, because they’re mature when the tomatoes are ripe (clever, eh?) Smash that tomato, and grab those seeds!!

Well, not quite that fast. There’s a sort of jelly around the seed, and I can tell you from experience, that if you don’t get it off those seeds, there’s a good chance that the seeds won’t germinate when you plant them in the spring. The generally-recommended method is a little gross, but easy: smoosh the pulp into a cup, and leave it out on the counter to ferment the goo, so that it separates from the seeds. See, I told you it was a little gross. But effective.

Once the seeds sink to the bottom of the cup, just pour off the goo and rinse (well) and dry (really well) the seeds. I generally lay out a sheet of paper towel and spread the seeds on it. If they end up sticking to the paper towel, I don’t bother trying to pry them off; just tear up the paper towel and store the seed as it is, stuck on the paper. Wax paper envelopes are good for keeping over winter; plain paper envelopes are fine, too. Plastic can lead to condensation, which isn’t ideal. Seed Savers’ Exchange has a great video on the process.

An even easier seed that you can save? Cilantro. I’ve been saving and replanting the same cilantro for many years (except for that year when someone pulled all the cilantro plants from the garden just as they were going to seed!)

If you’ve ever grown cilantro, you’ve probably noticed that at some point in its development, just as you’re starting to get used to having a cilantro plant in your garden, it gets all feathery and makes white flowers. You can curse the heat, or the plant’s short life, or you can just plant some more. Eventually, flowers turn to little green balls (shown at left), which dry into mature seeds!

Once they’re light brown and dry, snip off the whole flower head, and put them somewhere dry for about a week. Once you’re sure they’re really dry, you can gently separate seeds from stems, and store the seeds in a paper or wax paper envelope.

Saving seeds from a dill plant is exactly the same. Let the flowers die off and dry; you’ll see the seeds appear at the end of the flower head — one of the most gorgeous flowers you can grow like a weed around here, imho. Snip off the whole head, put them someplace dry for several days, then gently separate from stems.

These three plants tend to have seeds that are so hearty, my garden often saves them for me. Every year, we get tomato “volunteers” that I can’t bear to kill off, so I find a place to plant them and hope they’re a variety we really like. This year, all the volunteers have been either the super sweet orange cherry tomatoes, or the large and sweet red cherry, but regardless, it’s a win!

So right now, as we’re entering the final part of tomato season, think about saving some of those precious seeds! We’ll have a post in midwinter about starting them indoors, and how to transplant (and WHEN) into your garden or an outdoor container.