Sukkot is my favorite holiday. As a chef, it might seem that some of the more special “culinary” holidays, like Pesach or Hanukah or Purim, with really traditional foods that I can expand on and make even more delicious (or just delicious at all, to some, like gefilte fish) might be closer to my heart. But this week I had occasion to reflect on why Sukkot, and the bringing of the harvest into the sukkah, brings me the greatest joy.
I had the privilege last weekend of serving some harvest foods to people visiting the land at 21 Acres in Woodinville, a sustainable agriculture farm and not-for-profit educational outreach site where I plan to open a farm camp for kids next summer. Earlier in the week, I contacted the farmer who manages the farm at 21 Acres to find out what he was harvesting that might be available to serve to the visitors, and met him in a field of carrots on a grey drizzly day.
A few days earlier, he had discovered that a pest had invaded the carrots, rendering them still nearly perfect but harmed enough to not be saleable to the public. As we chatted in a steady drizzle in the field, we worked at harvesting and examining the carrots, plunging a pitchfork into the black earth next to the rows and pulling out bunch after gorgeous bunch of these brilliant, deep orange fruits of the earth, some long, some improbably wide or double- or triple-legged, others small and perfect or endowed with a cute little extra appendage. And I was taken back to the time, years ago, when I first understood the spiritual relationship of people to the harvest, and how taking the time to surround ourselves with the progeny of the earth before winter sets in is as important and fulfilling as the soul-searching of the High Holidays or the re-establishing of our Jewish roots during the Passover holiday.
I was living in the farm country in Idaho, attempting to grow a huge garden as a relatively inexperienced gardener in a new garden site. Unbeknownst to me, a predominant element in the rich land of northern Idaho is its clay, a particle perfectly suited to holding moisture in the soil of a non-irrigated area that is one of the country’s greatest producers of wheat, lentils and peas, but one that cast a decided wrench into my plans to grow a garden full of vegetables with tiny, tender first leaves.
You see, if little seeds are planted in clay soil and the rows are patted down firmly and watered, as soon as the water on the surface of the soil evaporates a hard, nearly impermeable crust forms in that nicely compressed row, locking the newly sprouting seeds under the surface. That spring, after planting my carrots, radishes and lettuces, I dutifully watered the rows and waited for my seeds to send little dicotyledon leaves up through the surface. And waited, and waited.
What could be wrong? The corn and squashes and beans had already sent up big sturdy first double leaves, but where were the little tender vegetables? Finally, one sunny morning I decided to dig into the rows and find out where my vegetables were. I took a kitchen fork and cracked the crust above the lettuce seeds—and found that the seeds had indeed sprouted but, lacking the strength to break through the crust that imprisoned them in the dark, warm soil, the sprouts were growing round and round in place, not yet dying, but using all the strength of their new lives to break through to the light. I sat down in the row, dumbfounded. Never before had I seen new life and the struggle for existence that was clearly being undertaken by my little lettuce, carrot and radish plants. I instantly became their champion and vowed to reward their remarkable effort by helping them find the sunlight.
I watered the rows each night and went out to the garden every morning before the sun hit the rows and carefully broke up the crust above the little seedlings. After a couple of days, the tender little sprouts were above the surface of the soil and I felt elated: I had achieved my purpose and my little charges were going to live! But the next morning I let the rows dry out in the sun and when I visited the garden more woe was awaiting me. The drying soil was contracting around the tiny stems and choking them off! Some of them were already dead, others dying. What to do? I decided I would continue my daily early morning care, breaking up the soil around the stems until they had grown sturdy enough to stand and grow alone.
Harvesting was a little difficult for me that year, as the tender vegetables grew. I couldn’t pick any of the plants to eat them and had to send my husband out to the garden to get carrots or lettuce or radishes. And as I washed and prepared them, I felt sad, as if friends were dying for my nourishment. I did eat them and enjoy their bright, fresh flavors but I felt quiet, sort of reverent and odd. These living things that I had painstakingly nurtured had to die in order that I could live and be nourished.
The next year, far from eschewing vegetable eating, I radically altered my gardening habits, digging lots of compost and plant material into the soil to decrease the high clay content, and when I planted, I carefully spread sand over the seeds so the sprouts would rise easily into the sunlight. For the carrots, I filled trenches dug two feet deep and a foot wide with compost and fertilizer mixed with the native soil, and planted the carrot seeds in sand on the top. My vegetables flourished from sprouting to maturity, and although I still couldn’t pick the leafy greens and tender produce, I enjoyed the vegetables and was delighted that summer that their lives were easy and “happy” (if vegetables can be characterized as having feelings about the state of their existence).
Fall harvest was a different story, however. I planned to keep the carrots in the root cellar we had in the pantry of our farmhouse since I had planted enough to last at least into December. I ignored my trepidation as I went into the garden on a grey, blustery afternoon. Everything else in the garden was gone—the corn had been devoured from the grill on sunny afternoons. The lettuces and even the late cabbages were just a collection of delicious memories. Digging into the ground at the front of the rows of carrots, I suddenly found myself sitting down, shovel in hand, tears on my face. In front of me were a colony of the most gloriously beautiful beings I had ever seen, sitting snugly in the dark earth, their long, full shapes shining with brilliant orange life. As I sat feeling unable to prematurely pull them from their dens in the soil and sentence them to months of half-life in the root cellar, I was as acutely aware as I can imagine becoming of my spiritual connection with all life and my responsibility to maintaining a careful and loving relationship with living things, respecting all in their seasons.
As I dug this year’s carrots from their beds in the rainy field at 21 Acres and put them in boxes to be culled and made into a smooth, deep golden soup laced with my partner Mark’s buttermilk, rosemary and lavender from my garden, and Cascade mountain alpine honey, I looked forward with joy as I do every year to the sukkah and bringing into it the fruits and vegetables of the harvest with their reminder of our deep connection with all of life.
Rich carrot soup with rosemary and lavender
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, divided
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced into 1/2’’ half-moons
10 medium carrots, grated
2 1/2 cups water
2 small sprigs fresh rosemary
1 1/2 tsp. dried lavender flowers
1 1/2 to 2 cups Bulgarian-style buttermilk
1/4 cups distinctively flavored flower honey (clover is a little too light)
2 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
Melt 2 Tbs. of the butter in a heavy-bottomed 3 quart saucepot. Add the onions and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until golden and very limp. Add the grated carrots and the remaining 2 Tbs. butter and continue to cook, stirring often until the carrots are tender and are beginning to give off a golden liquid. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, uncovered for 10 min., stirring often and adding water to keep the liquid level steady. Add the rosemary, lavender and 1 tsp. salt and cook 15 more minutes.
Remove from the heat and let cool 10 minutes. Remove the rosemary stems. Blend the soup in a blender in three or four batches, making sure that the hot soup never fills the blender jar more than halfway before blending. Add about 1/2 to 3/4 cups of the buttermilk to each batch before blending, along with 1 Tbs. of honey. Cover the blender jar with the blender cover, its central plug removed and a folded towel placed over the hole. Start blending on low, then increase the speed to highest speed and blend until each batch is completely, silky smooth.
Pour into a pot or other container as each batch is finished and thin with more buttermilk to make a pourable consistency. Season with more salt and honey as desired or add just a touch of lemon or lime juice if a bit more tartness is desired. Store in the refrigerator for one week or freeze for up to three months. Makes about 2 quarts.