I think all good gardens come with a few little surprises.
The aquaponic garden, tendered by members of the First United Presbyterian Church of DuBois, is no different. My daughter and I were invited over to pick some herbs and kale ready to be harvested from one of the church property basements. What a surprise we were in for to find luscious herbs growing from ... rocks... in early May and nourished organically from fresh water fertilized by... live tilapia fish!
I do not know how this garden got started (perhaps a blog post for another time), but I sure am excited to be able to help with the harvest! So was my 4-year-old. Gardeners John and Stefanie DuRussell were there tending to other plants in the nursery, soon bound for transfer to the church garden, and we arrived just in time to feed the fish. Stefanie, who is one of the cafe's core team members, kept my daughter busy watching the fish while I filled my harvest basket full of fresh kale, basil, thyme and sage. We looked in one of the stone beds, and there was another surprise: hundreds of sprouts coming up from scattered broccoli seeds. The microgreens could be ready in about a week!
We took our harvest home to work on preserving. These greens will be used in future recipes to prepare food for feeding customers at The Soul Platter Café.
Kale was de-stemmed, chopped, blanched and frozen. This lush dark green kale will make a great addition to some soup.
Sage was tied in a bundle and hung above one of my radiators for drying. I don't often use sage in cooking, but it is commonly used in making pork sausage and for seasoning poultry and gravy. The sage will be better off dried and saved for trade with local farmers or butchers as they prepare their meats this Autumn.
The basil really had my attention. The aroma was amazingly sweet, and the leaves did not bear a single mark, brown spot or bug nibble. The stems were trimmed, and I rough chopped the leaves. I worked in two batches, but the leaves were first coated with olive oil, and then more oil was added to a ratio of 4:1 leaves to oil. I placed the mixture with a tablespoon into ice cube trays, topped them off with water, and froze them; the next day I popped them out of the cube trays and moved them to a plastic freezer bag. Our harvest made 3 dozen cubes. A cube or two can be added to sauce, salad dressing, or used for pesto when we're ready to open the café.
The thyme was another story. I don't know what type of patience it would take to remove the tiny thyme leaves from their tangled stems. I do not have this level of patience. I thought for a day and observed the tiny leaves begin to wilt to an even tinier size. I did not want them to go to waste; they smelled so good.
Then I heard a voice in my head. It was not the voice of Divinity, nor nostalgic lessons of the past from Mom or Gram. It was that of Ina Garten saying in her buttery voice, "herbs de provence." I could see her in my mind's eye from one of the many episodes of The Barefoot Gardener that I have watched (confession: I used to DVR the show) Ina placing a tied bundle of herbs in a stock pot with a parboiling whole chicken. I quickly rinsed the thyme and made 3 bundles, tying them each with jute twine. These were frozen as well.
I later googled herbs de provence. We'll have to procure quite a collection of twined herb
bundles to go with in order to make the real deal: rosemary, savory, more basil, marjoram, lavender, parsley, oregano, tarragon. It's going to make a fine chicken dinner some day!