Photo by Judith Hausman
Around here, book club is the inner circle, the first network to consult for advice on nearly anything: electricians, school board candidates, pie crust. Ours (The Salem Witches) is fluid but committed; there’s always a quorum of very smart women with a list of wonderful reading suggestions. So that’s whom I first turned to when I missed my dear 8- by 16-foot vegetable garden—the one I had had to give up when I moved to my current neighborhood.
The book club was the place to start looking for an ambitious gardener that bit off more than she could chew: an older neighbor, who could no longer bend and manage the weeds, or local empty nesters, who had moved onto other hobbies. I could make a win-win situation from their under-used garden plot.
I had several offers. Hell, yes. Come right over, Karen said. Plant a hill or 2 of squash, a teepee of beans and a few tomatoes. That’s how I became a sharecropper (or a yard sharer), wandering into her backyard quietly to tie up my few plants. If I’m away, she and her husband water for me and are free to eat the beans or trim the zinnias when they are ready. We share the cilantro and any excess basil. Lucky me. This year Karen and Bob even took a few trees down and re-did the deer fence so all our crops are shaking their little plant shoulders and sending out bright green thank you leaves now.
It’s pretty hard to decide which vegetables taste the most different when they come straight from my share-cropped strip of garden. Tomatoes, duh, but zucchini too; thin-walled peppers are way better and certainly string beans taste like a different animal (so to speak). These really surprised me after growing up strictly with frozen ones.
My favorite thing to make with those home-grown (well, Karen’s home anyway) beans is a salade nicoise, the signature “composed” salad in the style of Nice, France. It’s a dog-days-meal-in-a-bowl salad and the best part is that you can make the components separately and then “compose” the salad when you’re ready to eat.
So, before it gets really sweltering in your kitchen, slice (they cook faster that way) and boil a couple of good-sized potatoes and an egg per eater in the same pot. Shock them both in cold water, peel the eggs and put both in the fridge. Same thing with the green beans—mabye cut them in two if they are long. You can even put a steamer basket above the eggs and potatoes to be a really efficient cook.
Now, at mealtime, layer some good lettuce in a big bowl. Arrange the cold potatoes, sliced hard-boiled eggs, the string beans, cherry tomatoes and some canned, drained chickpeas on top. If you were smart enough to grill an extra piece of any thick fish the night before, flake it up and put it on the lettuce, too, but a can or two of oil-packed tuna is also true to the recipe. Now strew it all with some chopped herbs (basil, tarragon, parsley), some capers and black olives, a few anchovies. The best dressing for a salade nicoise is a simple vinaigrette of salt, pepper, mustard, olive oil and wine vinegar. Don’t stint on the dressing.
Ta-dah! Chow down.